Parashat Beshalach

“It happened when Pharaoh sent out the people that G-d did not lead them by way of the land of the Philistines”


Parashat Beshalach

“It happened when Pharaoh sent out the people that G-d did not lead them by way of the land of the Philistines”

clouds2The Jews were free!  What’s more, from the above phrase ‘sent out’, the commentary Mechilta tells us that Pharaoh actually escorted us out of Egypt with honour!  At this point, the verse tells us that G-d took us on a longer than normal route so as to avoid confrontation with the evil Philistines.


On the surface, the reason is clear: G-d didn’t want a war.  But Rabbi Zalman Sorotzkin zt”l gives us a different insight: when the Jews left, they were given gold and silver by the Egyptians, who seemed to befriend the departing Jews.  Even Pharaoh turned into “Mr Nice Guy”.  This is a common error that the Jewish people make.  Nations can harm us, subjugate us, even kill us, and all they have to do is favour us with the slightest smile, and we believe that they are our best friends.  With this in mind, it might have been possible that the Israelites (at least the weaker amongst them) might have wanted to return to the Egyptians, their ‘new-found friends’.  That’s why G-d took them on a circuitous path, “by way of the desert”.  When Moses brought the bones of Joseph with him, this served as a constant reminder of how Joseph was treated with honour, and yet his own children were enslaved. Joseph’s remains begged the question, “can such ingrates be trusted?”

Only after the Jews left did Pharaoh appreciate the full extent of his loss.  He cried, “Woe is me!  I should not have allowed them to leave!”  and set off in hot pursuit.  The verse puzzlingly tells us, “He harnessed his chariot and attracted people with him”.  This means that Pharaoh harnessed his own chariot, and performed other acts ‘below his dignity’ as a means of cajoling the people into going with him to battle.  He could easily have forced the people to fight; but that way, when the Egyptians drowned at the Red Sea, one could have said that they were innocent because Pharaoh forced them.  This way, they came of their own volition.  Verdict: guilty.

The Egyptians chase the Israelites as far as the Red Sea, which miraculously splits.  The Jews enter.  The Egyptians follow.  Doesn’t this sound odd?  I mean, the Egyptians have just spent a year getting ten plagues, of which the Jews had remained unaffected (except for those that died during the plague of darkness).  Seeing the sea split for the Jews, didn’t the Egyptians think “Oh boy, we’re walking into a trap”.

Indeed that was the case.  And that was why G-d had to “strengthen the heart of Egypt” to make the Egyptians follow the Israelites, to their own doom.  They acted as a people without a leader.  Although the sea had been split for Israel’s sake, the Egyptians believed it had been split so that they could murder their enemies and take their spoils.  Divinely ordained pandemonium resulted.  The Egyptians had participated in throwing Jewish children into the river of their own choice, without being forced by Pharaoh, therefore, measure-for-measure, they died as a result of their own actions.

The punishment was exact.  Years earlier, the Egyptians had opened their country’s gates to Joseph’s brothers, who had come to sojourn in the land only until the famine’s end.  Later, they regretted their previous generosity and closed the gates, preventing the Jews from leaving and condemning them to hard labour.  In the same way, the sea opened its ‘gates’ before those pursuing the Jews and granted them entrance.  Then when they wished to leave, it closed off their exit and destroyed them.  Furthermore, after they had let the Jews go, the Egyptians regretted it, and chased them to enslave them again.  Similarly, the sea let the Egyptians enter, then ‘went back on its decision’ and drowned them.

At this point, the Jews began to sing the “Shiras Hayam”, praising Hashem for the miracles that he had performed.  But why did they only choose to sing now?  Surely they should have sung praises as soon as they were saved from each of the plagues.  Or at least as they were being liberated.  But to wait until now?  Actually, other than the Hallel required of them with the Pesach offering, the Israelites did not sing after leaving Egypt, because their redemption was still incomplete.  Pharaoh and the Egyptians were still around.  The special prayer one recites after danger, `hagomel’, is not recited until the danger has completely passed.  Thus, only after they saw Egypt die in the sea did Moses and Israel sing.

The song is addressed to G-d Himself.  This is interesting: for even when a man believes that his salvation comes from heaven, he will feel gratitude to the intermediary through which the help arrived.  The gemara in Bava Kamma says, “The wine belongs to the king, yet man thanks the wine steward”.  Yet during the glorious moment when the sea split, when the Divine Presence rested upon all of Israel, (down to the humblest maidservants) they did not see the ‘intermediary’, Moses, who stretched out his hand over the sea.  Rather they saw only G-d, and sang praise to Him alone.

Wouldn’t it be good if we can have that level of distiction, to see the Hand of G-d in supernature, let alone nature?

Not only did G-d save us from our enemy, but He also performed miracles at the sea, making the ‘night’ that was spent there more pleasant.  The Mechilta lists ten such miracles, among them G-d’s providing fresh water, fine fragrances and a paved road of ice blocks on the sea floor.  Our Sages, therefore, instruct us to go beyond the most basic observance of G-d’s commandments, laws and statutes, and to strive to ‘beautify’ our performance in the best way.  We should have a lovely succah, and a fine lulav, shofar, tzitzit and so on.

After journeying through the Red Sea, the verse tells us, “They went for three days in the wilderness, but they did not find water.”  Mechilta interprets this verse to mean that because they went for three days without water, they rebelled by not learning Torah.  But what Torah was there for them to learn, when it hadn’t been given?

Rabbi Zalman Sorotzkin zt”l tells us that the trek throughout this terrifying desert had begun to become a burden for the Jews.  Influenced by the Splitting of the Sea, they believed in G-d and His servant Moses, and had followed Him into a barren land.  Little by little, however, the effect of all this began to disappear.  This occurs when faith is based on miracles.

After journeying for three days, they still had their own water with them.  Yet they were so confounded that new water had not been ‘miraculously’ provided, that they began to doubt whether G-d was still with them on their journey.  This was especially true since it was Moses and not G-d who had initiated the journey.  Therefore they rebelled, saying that if G-d was still with them, he would have provided water.  They longed for a miracle.  As for ‘without Torah’, that means ‘without preparation to receive the Torah.’

G-d provided them with water, and the miraculous manna from heaven.  This fell every day for them.  But why did it not fall once a week, or once a month, to save them collecting it every day?  And if they were worried about it going mouldy, surely G-d could have provided them with ‘longlife’ manna?  The simple answer is that it saved them from carrying huge amounts at once, but another reason for their ‘daily bread’ was that they realised in a substantial way that they were dependent on G-d.  The Jews (especially those with small children) would wonder what will happen if no manna fell the next day.  This led them to adhere to the Torah and ultimately subject their hearts to G-d.

While the Jews were camped in Rephidim, they were attacked by Amalek, who came hundreds of miles away especially to attack them.  They waged a double battle against Israel: they wished to annihilate the Jews not merely to inherit their property or land (which they did not have), but they also wanted to prevent them from receiving the Torah at Mount Sinai.  The Israelites, therefore, responded to Amalek on two fronts.  Moses raised his hands to warn the Jews that they must repent and wholeheartedly accept the Torah, and pray fervently that G-d give it to them.  In the meantime, Joshua and his men used their swords to weaken “Amalek and his people.”  This poses another question.  Why is the phrase “and his people” added here?  The answer is that Amalek is the Jewish people’s greatest enemy, but we have many other enemies as well.  Mechilta relates how Amalek turned to all the nations to join with them against Israel, and apparently the anti-Semites in every nation joined them.  These are the “people” – they were drafted in by Amalek.  G-d therefore says that He “maintains a war against Amalek”.  But surely G-d can just eliminate them with a single word?  To understand this we have to understand who Amalek really is.  By trying to prevent us from receiving the Torah, he represents the power to stop a Jew from learning Torah.  This explains why the numerical value of `Amalek’ is the same as `safek’ (doubt).  Amalek is still fighting against us to this day, when he brings doubts into our minds. “Do I have to learn Torah?  How do I know it’s the Word of G-d?”  Sound familiar?  That’s the battle we have with Amalek in every generation.  If we fight that, we can eliminate Amalek ourselves.  “G-d’s war against Amalek” is the power G-d gives man to defeat him, if he will but take up the struggle.



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