Parashas Beshalach

This week’s sedra is Beshalach which sees us leaving Egypt, at last! The sedra begins with the Torah telling us that… ‘G-d did not lead them by way of the Philistines, because it was near [to Egypt], for G-d said: “Perhaps the people will reconsider when they see a war, and they will return to Egypt.” So G-d turned the people towards the way of the Wilderness to the Sea of Reeds’. As a Geography genius I can personally confirm that the quickest way to Israel from Egypt would have been up the M1 and turn left… or to go northeast along the coast of the Mediterranean Sea, a course which would have passed through the Philistines and then through modern day Gaza. Problem was, this route was full of war hungry Philistines who would view the Jews as invaders or trespassers (nothing has changed there then, except maybe the use of rockets instead of arrows) and with this in mind Hashem was said to have turned the people towards another route. The route selected was through ‘מדבר/wilderness’… so why was this route so necessary for the Jewish people to take?

Through taking the Jews on a roundabout path through the Sinai desert (going East and then North so they would eventually enter the land from the eastern bank of the Jordan River), Hashem took the Jews so far from Egypt that it would be very difficult, albeit not impossible, for them to consider returning. We do see times in the desert when the Jews complained and wanted to return to Egypt and if this would have been an easy undertaking then surely they would have attempted it. According to Sforno, G-d led the Jews towards the Wilderness so that they would not meet travelers who would tell them that Pharaoh was preparing to give chase, for if so, this might have lead them to have been frightened and therefore return to Egypt. One of the other mefarshim brings down a more fundamental reason as to why they had to go through the desert… Ultimately we see that the nation’s experiences in the desert were in preparation for the eventual receipt of the Torah, these forty years would be their ‘schooling in faith’ with their constant exposure to miracles and full reliance on Hashem for food, water and constant protection from the elements etc. Through this incredible, direct relationship with Hashem they would see that G-d is omnipresent and all-powerful. As a result of this we can look back and realise that everything is in G-d’s hands, a lesson that is clearest in a desert environment where human survival would have been impossible without divine intervention for one let alone millions!

So an important question to ask is… if Hashem was so concerned about the Jews turning back from war then why don’t we see such action during the Amalek attack (at the end of this weeks parasha)? Answers Rambam, although the Jews were confronted and attacked by the Amalek, this did not cause the Jews to return to Egypt due to the Amalekites not fighting to protect their homeland from invasion (like the Philistines would) but merely due to their relentless hatred of Yaakov and therefore his descendants. This nasty bunch would have therefore continued to attack regardless of retreat to Egypt due to their different goal compared to the Philistines who would just try and keep them out the land. Rashi also notes that the Jews were too far into the wilderness to turn back at the time of Amalek’s attack anyway, which was also handy!

Before we left Egypt ‘Moshe took the bones of Yoseph with him’ [13:19]. Although Yoseph wanted to be buried in Eretz Yisrael, he could not ask his children and brothers to do so at the time of his death as Pharaoh would not have permitted it. Yaakov was of course buried immediately after his death by Yoseph (see Parashas Vayechi) but this was because Yoseph held power as viceroy of Egypt and was therefore was granted permission by Pharaoh. The Jewish nation were therefore asked to take Yoseph’s bones out with them at the time of redemption, which Moshe carried out due to the rest of the nation being occupied with ‘requesting’ the valuables of Egypt, a temptation which Moshe of course ignored (Sotah 13a). The importance of taking Yoseph’s bones with us is brought down by a number of commentators who connect it to the fact that we needed to be completely removed from Egypt, with no reason to ever go back… if Yoseph remained buried in Egypt people would have a reason to return, to visit the grave. This action of taking Yoseph’s bones with us was also yet another tactic to prevent the Jews from wanting to return to Egypt… with Yoseph having been a viceroy of Egypt for eighty years and having lived a royal life, he still did not want even his bones left in Egypt… how much more so then should the Jewish nation have wanted to leave when they had been slaves for so long? Having the company of Yoseph’s bones along the way with them was a stark statement of this.

According to the Midrash, Yoseph’s bones played a crucial part in the splitting of the Red Sea… in Hallel we recite tehilim קיד (114, ישראל בצאת) which includes the line, ‘וינס ראה הים’ which translates as ‘the sea saw and fled’ so what exactly did the sea see which made it flee (sounds like a kids rhyme)?... It is brought down that the sea split in the merit of Yoseph and therefore what the sea saw when it fled was actually his bones. When we look back to Yoseph’s biggest test, the incident involving Potiphar’s wife, we see that his reaction to flee was ‘unnatural’, the ability in those circumstances to resist the seduction of the most attractive woman in Egypt was beyond the laws of nature… the Midrash says that in this merit the Red Sea ‘fled’ from the Jews, beyond the laws of nature and split at the sight of Yoseph’s bones.

In last week’s sedra we see that Pharaoh demanded Moshe and the Jews to leave the country as soon as possible, thinking that they were going for a three day trip, a ‘festival to Hashem’. Even if they had no intention of returning, surely Pharaoh should have been terrified by the memory of the plagues and wishing their return would be pure insanity? But in possuk 14:5 we see Pharaoh and his servants say… “What is this that we have done that we have sent away Israel from serving us?” and with this Pharaoh once again has a change of heart. This gives us incredible insight into human nature with regards to decision making; in life one can make the most obvious and sensible decision but then ‘realise’ when you are out of that situation or those circumstances that you should change it. How many times do we hear of people finally quitting the job which is making their life miserable or cutting ties with someone they shouldn’t be associated with only to turn back on that decision with time and put themselves back into the same predicament again. Pharaoh went through ten plagues and when he sent out the Jewish people this was an incredibly logical and indisputably good decision yet we see him change his mind once things settle down again. This mind change was however required for Hashem wanted to demonstrate conclusively, both to the Jews and the world at large, that he was Master of all, for this requirement the events of the Splitting of the Sea were necessary. For this to take place three things had to happen; • Pharaoh had to realise that the Jews were not returning after three days, • he had to regret his decision to let them leave, • and he had to overcome any fears and remaining terror from standing in their way during the plagues…

The Torah reveals this occurring and the process by which Hashem made it all happen. [14:5-8].

It is brought down in a Midrash that we were outnumbered at the Sea by three hundred to one! Although I doubt this is meant literally (as that would mean over six hundred million Egyptians) I think the general point is that we would have been pretty stuffed with Egypt’s finest warriors up against ex-slaves, women and children. So what are we asked to do when thousands of horses, chariots and angry Egyptians come running at us?... “Do not fear! Stand fast and see…” [14:13]. The general opinion on this would be that we should see the miracle G-d was about to perform but the Ibn Ezra brings down a more rational approach questioning why the Jews were not asked to fight as they had to do with the Amalek. He contends that G-d could not have ordered the Jews to stand and fight because they had been conditioned by more than a century of servitude to fear and obey their Egyptian masters, and were therefore vastly incapable of battle. As a result of this observation we see why only Moshe’s prayers enabled them to overcome the greatly outnumbered Amalekites who ambushed them in the wilderness. We also see in the longer run why it was necessary for this generation to die in the wilderness over the next forty years because only then, their children who had been raised in a different spirit, would be ready to wage war with the Canaanite nations and settle the land of Israel.

According to Rabbi Kaplan the sight of all the Egyptians coming towards the Jewish nation brought them to teshuvah due to their crying out which is observed in possuk 14:10… ‘the Children of Israel cried out to Hashem’. Hashem heeded these prayers and only then did he allow the sea to be split. Hashem sometimes withholds things so that we can prayer for them, he wants to hear us crying out to him to show our faith. We see another example of this when Rivkah is barren and as soon as she and Yitzhak pray they are given a son. The power of prayer is therefore evident here and the biggest miracle seen is sparked off by the joint effort of the nation’s prayers. We prayer, Hashem listens… not too much to ask?!

Moshe raised his staff and the sea split. In a historic demonstration of how human beings can refuse to see the truth, the Egyptians (who you must remember were the survivors of ten treacherous plagues) refused to realise that a sea that had never before split had been manipulated by Hashem to save his people. The pillars of fire and cloud made no impression on the Egyptians and they were basically blinded by their own ignorance. They saw what they wanted to see and believed what they wanted to believe, so they saw a vulnerable nation of slaves, their slaves, and they pursued them into the newly vacated sea bed. What happens next?... when the entire Egyptian force was in the sea, the walls of congealed water collapsed upon them, and Egypt disappeared as a world power in one swift blow. If only they could accept what was happening around them was an act of G-d then they wouldn’t have had to meet such an end but human nature, especially as we see in today’s world, is a society which lives on denial and ignorance as it is far more comfortable that way.

What follows is the Jewish nation singing ‘The Song of the Sea’ which we of course recite at the end of Pesukei D’Zimrah every morning. This does not take place however until… ‘Israel saw the Egyptians dead on the seashore’ [14:30] which confirmed to the nation that the Egyptians had actually been drowned and had not simply escaped on the other side of the Sea. Once they saw this, everything made sense, from slavery to why they had to be pursued and with that we sang.

I hope that all our struggles make sense to us too one day and we are able to sing thanks to Hashem in reaction to this understanding. Have a fantastic Shabbat and Tu B’Shvat!!

Daniel Sandground, (student at Ohr Somayach Yeshiva, Jerusalem)

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