The parsha of Beshalach sees the most awesome example of Hashem’s justice in the whole Torah; the Egyptian armies, having pursued their fleeing slaves halfway across the now-parted Sea of Reeds, are cast into the waves and unceremoniously drowned before the eyes of the entire Israelite nation. But Or HaChaim raises an interesting point: at the time when the Egyptian army sat, happily encamped behind the Israelites, neither nation was actually more worthy of G-d’s mercy than the other. This is proved, he says, by Rashi’s explanation that the angel who separates the two camps prior to the parting of the sea, directing the pillars of fire and smoke, is referred to as the ‘Angel of Elokim’ (14/19), a name for G-d which traditionally represents His attribute of judgement as opposed to that of mercy. So if both nations were equally lacking in the degrees of merit required to be worthy of G-d’s divine justice, what then caused Him to pick Israel?

Pharaoh was a great organiser, skilled in mobilising his people in three ways. Firstly, through promises: for example, that all loot gained from the recapturing of the slaves would be distributed equally amongst the participants of the endeavour; secondly, says Sforno, through the appointment of officers over every chariot to ensure that even the lowliest echelons within his forces had immediate and reliable leadership, and thirdly in terms of logistics: Pharaoh first selected six hundred elite chariots to depart with him immediately - even setting the example by harnessing his own chariot to hasten their departure - and then left the rest of the chariots of Egypt to mobilise as quickly as possible and follow on to assist (14/6-7). Such was the success of the Pharaoh’s tactics, that when the Children of Israel looked back, Rashi says what scared them the most was seeing that the Egyptians chased them ‘with one heart, as one man.’

The Israelites, on the other hand, were far from united; when they saw the approaching army, Ramban says that there were many different factions within the nation: those referred to specifically as ‘the Children of Israel’ were the righteous ones, and they responded by praying to G-d for deliverance. The rest, referred to as ‘the people’ were either for turning themselves over to the Egyptians, standing and fighting the oncoming army, or casting themselves into the sea to drown. Many complained to Moses, asking if there weren’t enough graves in Egypt that they had to be brought out to the wilderness to die (14/11). As a nation, they were then to complain directly against Moses a further four times before the end of the sedra. And what of the righteous amongst the Egyptians? Were there those who feared G-d in Egypt? Rashi says yes: there can be no other explanation for where all the horses used to draw the Egyptian chariots came from. The Egyptian horses were killed in the plagues, and the Israelite horses were taken with them. Thus, the only ones left in Egypt belonged to those Egyptians who had feared G-d, and had brought their animals inside before the plagues started; in the plague of hail, only those that were left in the field died (Shemos 9/25). So there are righteous Egyptians and dissenting Israelites: which nation, then, should G-d choose?

I’m sure there are many answers, I put to you one which explains the inclusion in this sedra of a verse which otherwise seems unrelated: ‘Moses took the bones of Joseph with him, for he had made the Children of Israel swear’ (13/19). It is said that the greatest mitzvah is that done for the deceased, who are unable to thank you for your service, and in honouring a promise made by his ancestors to Joseph all those centuries earlier, Moses carries out this mitzvah. And did not G-d also make a promise many centuries earlier even than that? Abraham Aveinu was promised that his descendants would be as numerous as the stars in the heavens and the grains of sand on the beaches. Maybe G-d just couldn’t bring Himself to judge against the Israelites: He was doing an old friend the greatest of honours.

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