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Parshah Beshalach: Knowing and Believing

Updated: Feb 3, 2023

By Rabbi Tani Burton


And the name of the place was called Massah, and Meribah, because of the striving of the children of Israel, and because they tried the L-rd, saying: 'Is the L-rd among us, or not?' Then came Amalek, and fought with Israel in Rephidim.

(Exodus 17:7-8)

In this section of our parsha, we have a very deep concept: the tension between knowledge and belief.

The Coming of Amalek

Soon after Israel's exodus from Egypt, the nation of Amalek, comprised of the descendants of Esau, ambushed Israel in a fierce and sudden onslaught. It was a brazen move; Israel, with G-d’s protection, had become a seemingly unstoppable force. No other nation in the region would have dared to attack the people who had miraculously emerged from one of the most powerful empires of the ancient world, while the empire was left in ruins. What made the Amalekites immune to fear?

The Sages liken Amalek to a fool who, having been told about a scorching, hot bath into which no one would dare go, leaps into the bath—killing himself in the process, but cooling down the bath enough for others to enter. The nation of Israel was “hot”— emancipated from 210 years of slavery, witness to G-d’s Power, to His fulfilment of His promise to Abraham, to the splitting of the Red Sea, to the wholesale destruction of the Egyptian army, and then, to the sustenance that was rained down upon them from Heaven. With their hearts completely attuned to G-d’s Providence, they were unbeatable.

The verse states (Deuteronomy 25:17-18),

“Remember what Amalek did to you on our way out of Egypt, how he surprised you on the way, etc.”

In Hebrew, the phrase, “how he surprised you on the way”, is אשר קרך בדררך, asher kar’cha ba’derech. The word קרך, “happened upon you” or “surprised you” can be read, “cooled you off”. Amalek's invasion was unsuccessful, but their "cooling effect" was devastating in a mysterious way.

The "Amalek Effect"

Notice that, immediately before the arrival of Amalek, the verse states (Exodus 17:7),

“they [Israel] tried the L-rd, saying, “is the L-rd among us, or not?”

Right after that, “and Amalek came, etc.” There is a familiar Chassidic idea that the numerical value of the word “Amalek” is 70+40+30+100=240, which is the same as the word ספק, safek (doubt) 60+80+100=240.

The Israelites’ question was a rhetorical statement made out of frustration at having to make do with a limited water supply--before Moses brought water in abundance from the rock. “Is the L-rd with us, or not?” This question should raise eyebrows; having been witnesses to all of those unbelievable miracles that led up to this very incident, how could they have asked such a question? Obviously, G-d was with them! Who else could have brought those things about?

Knowledge Vs. Belief

Rebbe Nachman of Bratzlav explained the relationship between knowledge and belief in the following way: when you know something, i.e. you have concrete, material facts, you do not have to believe in it. For example, there are certain things that are objectively true, such as the height of Mount Fuji, or the distance between Paris and Berlin. Empirically measurable things do not require our belief; they simply are. Belief, emunah, on the other hand, is required when you have no ability to physically observe, and thereby confirm, something. G-d’s existence, for example, cannot be proven scientifically, because He has no corporeality, and scientific instrumentation can only measure physical phenomena. Knowledge and belief are like two different types of antennae, each one receiving a different frequency of signal, one frequency that comes from this world, and the other frequency that comes from beyond this world.

Since the Israelites were physically able to perceive G-d’s actions during the exodus, no belief was required; they knew He was there and providing for their needs. While open miracles were happening, they did not have the opportunity to strengthen their capacity for belief. When they were met with the challenge of thirst, not seeing any ready source of water, they began to doubt whether or not G-d would help them, even whether or not He was with them.

Rashi (Exodus 17:8) quotes the Sages, who give an analogy. A man carries his son on his shoulders while walking on a path. His son asks, “please pick that up for me”, not once, not twice, but three times; each time, the father fulfills his son’s wishes. By the time the son, still on his father’s shoulders, encounters a passerby, he has become completely oblivious to his father’s presence. He asks the passerby, “have you seen my father?” The father, a bit resentful, says to him, “you don’t know where I am?!” The father then puts him down, at which point a dog comes and bites the son.

In the same way, G-d carried the Israelites on His Shoulders, as it were, providing for their every need. When they forgot about His Divine Providence and began to view the world as a confluence of random events, He tossed them down and allowed the “dog” to bite them, to give them a taste of what life without faith is like.

"And it was, whenever Moses held up his hand, Israel prevailed. But when he lowered his hand, Amalek prevailed…and [Moses’s] hands were steady until the sun set.” (Exodus 17:11-12). A question is asked in the mishna (Rosh HaShanah 3:8), “did Moses’s hands make or break the war? Rather, this verse teaches you that whenever Israel turned their eyes upward and subjugated themselves to their Father in Heaven, they prevailed. If not, they fell.” What enabled the Israelites to push Amalek back? When describing Moses’s hands, the verse calls them “steady”. But in the original Hebrew, it says, ויהי ידיו אמונה, “his hands were emunah (faith)”.

The Answer is Emunah!

As the saying goes, “there are no atheists in a foxhole”, and taking their cue from Moses’s steady hands, the Israelites strengthened their faith in G-d, and under Joshua’s command, they defeated Amalek (verse 13).

We all have to take our cue from this episode to remember that G-d is there, with us all the time, sometimes obscured by nature, but nonetheless there. May we be blessed to remain strong in our faith in G-d, recognizing that all we have comes from Him, like the manna that fell from the sky.

By Rabbi Tani Burton


Tani Burton is a life coach, psychotherapist, author and educator living in Jerusalem, Israel. A special interest of his is the Torah's universal message for humanity, its prescription for right living, a close and personal relationship with G-d, and the opportunities we all have to make the world a better place.

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