"And the People of Israel Went Up Armed"
And it came to pass that when Pharaoh sent the people forth, the Lord did not lead them by way of the land of the Pelishtim, although it was near. This was because the Lord said: lest the people have a change of heart when they see warfare, and return to
Parashat Beshalach, opening with a dramatic image of the Israelite slaves surging forth from
THE PEOPLE JOURNEY
The broad streets and sprawling squares of that colossal monument to hubris and greed, raised up by their muck-encrusted hands to immortalize the god king, constructed hurriedly under the cruel eyes of the impatient taskmasters, now were empty and eerily silent. Just a short while ago, the still desert air of this ever-expanding Delta city, Pharaoh's own capital and the seat of his imperial rule, was filled with the sound of activity and commotion, as weary work gangs scurried to and fro with their heavy burdens of brick and mortar, the cruel crack of a whip occasionally punctuating the monotonous and undifferentiated din. But now there was otherworldly calm, the unnatural tranquility occasionally interrupted by muffled cries as shovels struck dirt and another Egyptian body was mournfully lowered into the warm, black earth's embrace.
In the distance, the sounds of rejoicing and song could be faintly still heard, as the writhing mass of liberated Israelites, their numerous flocks and their newly-acquired possessions, receded towards the shimmering horizon and then disappeared. The Egyptians were left to their own solitude, to ponder the implications of the Hebrew God's mighty acts, the One who had proclaimed for the first time in the history of the world that slavery was unjust and imposed servitude a crime.
At Sukkot the people of
FRAGILITY OF FAITH
Swept up by the excitement of the narrative, we often tend to overlook the fragility of
There are many telling indications in the text that
[The text states that the people of
ONLY A FIFTH WENT UP
Seforno understands the technical aspects of the text somewhat differently, positing that God directs the people towards the wilderness in order to preclude not conflict with the sea peoples but rather breathless reports reaching the Israelites of Pharaoh's pursuit – for then they would surely have turned around and returned to
The realization that the faith of the people at that time – their concomitant trust in God's care – was superficial and shallow, should in no way be misconstrued as a harsh indictment of them. Quite the contrary. We should be very surprised indeed that oppressed slaves, shorn over the interminable eons of any vestige of self-confidence and dignity, were able to muster the necessary strength of spirit to leave
Only one-fifth of the people of
The pivotal term "armed" was thus midrashically rendered "one-fifth," not only as an alternative fantastical reading but as a profound and ironic commentary on the nature of the moment: how fragile was that resolve, how frail that bearing of arms when the people of Israel proudly journeyed forth from Egypt. This understanding of the matter is not only useful insofar as constructing a spiritual profile of the people at the time of the Exodus, but may also shed light on a number of difficult exegetical matters.
A THREE-DAY FESTIVAL
Recall that from the very first time that God spoke to Moshe at the burning bush, and throughout the course of his unfruitful confrontations with Pharaoh, the demands for freedom were invariably couched in the same formula. God told Moshe that he and the elders should come before Pharaoh and press their petition: "...and now let us journey a distance of three days into the wilderness and offer sacrifice to God our Lord" (3:18). And indeed, Moshe and Aharon said just that: "Thus says God the Lord of Israel: send forth My nation, that they might celebrate to Me in the wilderness...let us go a distance of three days in the wilderness and sacrifice to God our Lord..." (5:1-3). As the plagues painfully unfolded, Moshe neither added nor took away from this fundamental request, for always he would introduce his warning to the recalcitrant monarch with the same refrain: "Thus says God the Lord of the Hebrews: send forth My people so that they might serve Me!" (7:16; 7:26; 8:16; 9:1; 9:13; 10:3).
Pharaoh, of course, began to suspect that a demand for a three-day furlough was nothing but emancipation in disguise, for did Moshe really expect him to believe that they would in fact return? Was it really necessary for all of them, young and old alike, to journey into the wilderness when the service could be just as easily accomplished, as it was in the Egyptian cult, by the adult males (see 10:8-11)? And what of their numerous flocks that could otherwise serve as a guarantee for their return? Why was Moshe insistent that the flocks should also go with, if not because he really never intended to return at all (see 10:24-29)? Moshe, of course, calmly and confidently representing the God of Israel, left matters intentionally vague, for never did he exclaim forthwith that
THE COMMENTARY OF RABBEINU CHANANEL
In the end, of course, Pharaoh would not yield,
God forbid that this thing [the three day proviso] was a deceit in order that they might flee! Rather, it was for the sake of receiving [upon themselves] the commandments, for the Holy One blessed be He wanted to initiate them into the commandments very slowly. After all, they were commanded concerning the Shabbat at Mara (in the immediate aftermath of the splitting of the sea). It is similar to what we find concerning Avraham [at the Akeida] for He did not say to him at the outset "take now Yitzchak," but rather "take your son, your only one, the one whom you love, take Yitzchak..." (commentary to 3:18).
In other words, the population most in need of hearing that the journey from
Sometimes, when we are asked to confront decisions of destiny, we prefer to avert our gaze and turn the other way. Even an oppressive routine can be comforting, especially when its suspension necessitates asking difficult questions that may require of us to initiate self-transformation. The events of the Exodus indicate that God well understands this dynamic, for it is eminently human and reasonable. But destiny cannot be held at bay indefinitely, unless we are to betray our true selves and remain forever in bondage to the Pharaoh. How then to confront it without being consumed by self-doubt and apprehension? The answer, it would seem, is eminently reasonable as well: if necessary (and every journey as does every traveler has its unique needs), embark on the journey in incremental steps. Set your sights for the horizon but do not anticipate arriving there in a single bound.
FOR FURTHER STUDY: Rabbeinu Chananel's approach also explains the otherwise equally curious Divine refrain that the people on the eve of their exodus are to "borrow" vessels of silver and gold from their overlords. "Borrowing" of course implies "returning" the said objects, another expression not of Egyptian foolishness but rather of Israelite hesitation to leave. "Borrow" because we will "return"! Curiously though, Rabbeinu Chananel fails to adopt this approach in this instance (see his commentary to 3:22).