The Exodus from Egypt
Adapted by Ariel Braunstein
Translated by Kaeren Fish
"And it was, when Pharaoh had let the people go, that God led them not through the way of the land of the Pelishtim, although that was near, for God said, Lest the people change their minds when they see war, and return to Egypt." (Shemot 13:17)
This verse, which introduces the parasha, depicts the Exodus as possessing two aspects: it is an Exodus from Egypt, and an Exodus to the Land of Israel. Our parasha, and Sefer Shemot more generally, emphasizes mostly the Exodus from Egypt – the country to which Yaakov had come with a family of seventy souls, and which his descendants are now leaving as a nation. Egypt is referred to in Sefer Devarim as an "iron furnace,” a place where they were forged into a nation and a people. Thus, the focus in the above verse is likewise on the people: "Lest the people change their minds…."
In contrast, throughout Sefer Devarim, the emphasis is on preparations for entering the Land. The interval linking these two stages should have been brief: "It is eleven days from Chorev, via Mount Se'ir, to Kadesh Barne'a" (Devarim 1:2). In practice, however, as we know, the sin of the spies caused this eleven-day period to stretch over forty years. We must understand the significance of this astounding gap, which ended up involving not one but two generations in the process of the Exodus.
On the simplest level, the generation that left Egypt was itself supposed to enter the Land (eleven days later). The transitional period, the journey from Se'ir to Kadesh Barne'a, should have taken less than a fortnight. And what a fortnight it was to be! Bnei Yisrael left Egypt "with a high hand,” and they should have entered the Promised Land just days later, with the same high hand. Imagine for a moment those few days, that extraordinary experience, which would have made such a profound impact on Bnei Yisrael as well as the rest of the world.
However, in practice things turned out differently. The sin of the spies changed the picture, leaving the nation in the wilderness for forty years and causing the death of an entire generation. Chazal describe the period as one when a person would awaken in the morning and make inquiries as to who had died during the night.
Following the sin of the spies, and also after the sin of the golden calf, God sought to annihilate Bnei Yisrael completely and to start again with Moshe. Only Moshe's own fervent prayer prevented this terrible fate. What a fathomless gap separate those eleven days from God's intentions following these sins!
The prophet Yirmiyahu recalls the period that Bnei Yisrael spent in the wilderness:
"Go and cry in the ears of Yerushalayim, saying: So says God, I remember in your favor the devotion of your youth, your love as a bride, when you went after Me in the wilderness, in a land that was not sown." (Yirmiyahu 2:2)
Where do we find this devotion and love, in the midst of the many sins of Bnei Yisrael recorded during this period?
The roots of these sins may be identified already in the first verse of our parasha, with the Exodus from Egypt: "Lest the people change their minds…" This is the first mention of any inkling of a desire to return to Egypt. It is a foretaste of many such declarations that Moshe and God will hear repeatedly. And this verse describes God foreseeing all of this.
When we speak of the Exodus, we usually mean it in the sense of leaving Egypt. However, there is also another aspect to it, and that it being expelled from Egypt. The verses in Sefer Shemot record God's words to Moshe prior to the plague of the firstborn:
"God said to Moshe, One more plague shall I bring upon Pharaoh and upon Egypt; afterwards he will let you go from here; when he lets you go, he will surely expel (garesh yegaresh) you altogether from here." (Shemot 11:1)
The expression "garesh yegaresh" is another description of the Exodus: it is an expulsion. Indeed, it would seem that on a certain level Bnei Yisrael do in fact experience the Exodus in this way.
How is it that God expresses concern that Bnei Yisrael might think of returning to Egypt? Does the spirit of these verses depict a return with heads held high, as a nation whose God has vanquished Egypt? Not at all. The image is one of a return with drooping shoulders and their tail between their legs, to their land of subjugation. Bnei Yisrael are liable to “regret” having left Egypt. While there are various commentaries that attempt to soften this idea, the plain meaning of the text indicates a complete rejection and reversal of the Exodus.
A look at parashat Beshalach from the perspective of parashat Shelach and its account of the spies, indicates the same root and foundation for this sin. We find the same intention of returning to Egypt and thereby nullifying the Exodus.
When we consider this unfathomable gap between the ideal and the reality, two things stand out. First, despite the numerous, severe sins, Bnei Yisrael managed to reach the Land, following a long and difficult journey. Second, we see how the actions of one generation may have such a significant impact over the course of the generations that follow. Similarly, our own actions, whether good or bad, may have a very extensive impact.
(This sicha was delivered on leil Shabbat parashat Beshalach 5772 .)