The Final Showdown

  • Rav Yair Kahn

 

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In Memory of Sheine Hendele Bas Greiman z”l

 

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Return to Mitzrayim

 

Parashat Beshalach documents the dramatic events of keriat Yam Suf, the splitting of the Red Sea. An entire section of the Pesach Haggada is dedicated to comparing keriat Yam Suf with the ten plagues. The ten plagues are referred to as a divine “finger,” as it were (Shemot 8:15), while keriat Yam Suf is likened metaphorically to the hand of Hashem (14:31). The Haggada concludes that in using these metaphors, the Torah teaches us that there is a mathematical relationship of 1:5 between the two events. The divine finger and hand are metaphorical references to divine revelation; the Haggada is telling us that the children of Israel experienced a more profound revelation at the Yam Suf than during the entire period of the ten plagues. This conclusion fits with the statement of our Sages that a maidservant at the sea saw more than the prophets (see Mekhilta Beshalach). 

 

As a result of the revelation at the Yam Suf, the people reached a profound level of religious belief: 

 

And Israel saw Mitzrayim dead at the edge of the sea.  And Israel saw the great hand that Hashem used in Mitzrayim, and the nation saw Hashem, and they believed in Hashem and in Moshe His servant. (14:30-31)

 

Moreover, the song of praise that immediately followed keriat Yam Suf (“Az Yashir”) is not only a reaction to salvation, but to the divine revelation as well.  For instance, we find a similar reaction when the Mishkan was constructed; on the eighth day, Hashem revealed Himself to the people, “and all the people saw and they sang and they fell on their faces (Vayikra 9:24). 

 

This reaction was religious in nature - upon seeing the great hand of Hashem, Yisrael believe in Hashem and Moshe. However, it is noteworthy that the Torah also connects the faith of Yisrael to seeing the corpses of the Egyptian soldiers. What was the spiritual significance of this gruesome sight?

 

Furthermore, keriat Yam Suf seems to be considered a momentous event with respect to the Yisrael-Mitzrayim conflict, but the necessity of keriat Yam Suf is not at all clear. When Yisrael left Mitzrayim on the fifteenth day of Nisan, all the political goals that had been set were already attained. Pharaoh and Mitzrayim had been brought to their knees, and the children of Israel were free to worship Hashem. The original prophecy to Avraham – that his descendants would be enslaved in a foreign land and eventually leave laden with much property – had been fulfilled. The charge Moshe received at the burning bush, to go to Pharaoh and free Yisrael, had already been accomplished. In the earlier prophesies (to Avraham – Bereishit 15:13-16) and to Moshe – Shemot 3:18-22), there is no indication that the struggle with Pharaoh and Mitzrayim would continue after Israel was freed from bondage. In a surprising development, the children of Israel are told to turn around and return to Mitzrayim for one final showdown with Pharaoh and Mitzrayim. What was so significant about this final blow? What was it meant to accomplish that had not yet been achieved?

 

Freedom

 

In truth, a careful reading of the Torah reveals that Yisrael was not yet officially freed from slavery. It is noteworthy that Moshe never spoke to Pharaoh about freedom from bondage; he only asked that Yisrael should be given time off to worship Hashem. The entire dialogue between Moshe and Pharaoh revolves around this “vacation.” Can they worship Hashem in or around the vicinity of Mitzrayim, or must they travel for three whole days in the desert (8:21-24)? Should only the adults go, or should children join their parents as well (10:8-11)? Should they take their flocks with them or not (10:24-26)? The debate revolves around one issue: what security Pharaoh possesses so that Yisrael will return after leaving Mitzrayim to worship Hashem in the desert. Moshe never tells Pharaoh that Yisrael actually have no intention to return, emphasizing only that worshipping Hashem requires distance from Mitzrayim, full participation of the entire nation, and bringing along many animals, including the cattle of Mitzrayim. The impression is that Moshe agrees to bring the children of Israel back after worshipping Hashem in the desert. 

 

Even after the final plague, when Pharaoh comes to Moshe and Aharon in the middle of the night, he still does not free Yisrael from slavery. 

 

And he called for Moshe and Aharon at night and he said, “Get up and get out from amongst my people, both you as well as the children of Israel, and go and worship Hashem as you said. Take both your flock and your cattle as you said and go, and you should also bless me.” (12:31-32)

 

Pharaoh agrees to the demand to allow Yisrael to take their flock and cattle. But he never says, “Get out! I don’t want to ever see you again! You are free to go.”  In fact, according to Rashi (14:5), the reason Pharaoh decided to chase Yisrael was because the three day “vacation” had ended and there was no sign of any plan to return. 

 

However, Rashi’s comment does not fit well with peshuto shel mikra (a straightforward reading of the Torah). First of all, Yisrael did, in fact, turn around to return to Mitzrayim on the third day (see Rashi 14:2). Second, Moshe never asked for a three day vacation – he asked for a vacation in order to take a three day trip through the desert, after which Yisrael would worship Hashem.  Yisrael were commanded to turn around before even entering the desert in order to create the impression that they were wandering aimlessly: “And Pharaoh will say they are confused, the [road to the] desert has closed upon them” (verse 3). In any case, the three days they asked for were not yet over. 

 

When Pharaoh was informed that Yisrael had fled, the Torah tells us that Pharaoh and his servants had a change of heart: “What have we done that we sent Yisrael from serving us!?” (14:5). It is very difficult to interpret this as referring to the short vacation during which Yisrael was freed from slavery.  Rather, it seems to indicate that Pharaoh actually did free Yisrael from bondage.  However, this statement seems to contradict what we noted above – Pharaoh had never agreed to free Yisrael from bondage. 

 

It seems that the Torah introduced an intentional ambiguity in order to describe the unclear status that existed between Yetziat Mitzrayim and keriat Yam Suf. Officially, Pharaoh only granted the request for a vacation, but he was fully aware that Yisrael would not return. Similarly, the Egyptians agreed to “lend” their utensils to Yisrael, but they were aware that they would never get them back.    

 

Nevertheless, although everyone was aware of the unspoken fact that Yisrael were free, would it have been proper for a nation led by Hashem to simply sneak away under the pretense of religious worship? From this perspective, the return to Mitzrayim, which sets the stage for the final showdown, is a necessary component of the Yisrael-Mitzrayim conflict. In order to achieve official freedom, Pharaoh and Mitzrayim must treacherously renege on their agreement and attack Yisrael. Only in the aftermath of the total destruction of the Egyptian army was the process of freedom officially complete. 

 

Hashem Ish Milachama

 

There may be an additional reason for the final showdown. The Torah describes that Pharaoh chased Yisrael with horse-drawn chariots. The commentators questioned where the army attained these horses; after all, the animals were killed during the plague of hail (see Rashi, v. 7). The most straightforward solution is that up until this point, the army was totally removed from the conflict. The ten plagues had a terrible impact on Egyptian society – the economy was in shambles, all agriculture was destroyed, and the Egyptian cattle were killed – but the mighty Egyptian army nevertheless remained intact. 

 

Internal affairs with respect to the Hebrew slaves were the domain of the police and taskmasters. The army was reserved to deal with external threats and was therefore not involved institutionally with the slaves. Of course, Mitzrayim collectively, including the Egyptian soldiers, were affected by the plagues.  Nevertheless, the might of the army survived the plagues, perhaps because they were stationed on or close to the Egyptian borders and could avoid some of the plagues by crossing over the boundary. In any event, up until this point, they played no role regarding the enslavement of the Hebrews, nor with respect to the uprising. Only when Pharaoh decided to chase the Hebrew slaves after they had left the country did he enlist his army: “And Mitzrayim chased after them and caught up with them encamped along the sea, all the horses of Pharaoh and his horsemen and his army” (14:9). Once Yisrael left Mitzrayim, the role of dealing with the Hebrew slaves shifted to the Egyptian army.

 

The relative guilt or punishment of the Egyptian army is not as important as the fact that there had never been an official battle between Mitzrayim and Yisrael. The plagues succeeded in their goal because they made life unbearable for the Egyptians. Some of the plagues were merely nuisances, while others were life threatening, but in general, the plagues functioned as pressure, ultimately convincing Pharaoh and the Egyptians to allow the Hebrews to worship Hashem. They gave in to the pressure, but the Egyptians were never defeated.  A battle was never waged, and Hashem never emerged victorious. As an illustration, if economic sanctions are effective against Iran and they then decide to abandon their nuclear program, would that be considered a victory? Would Iran view itself as defeated?

 

At Yam Suf, everything changes. Yisrael have already left Mitzrayim and Pharaoh chases them with his brigade of horse drawn chariots, which symbolize the power of the army. The mighty Egyptian army is pitted against men, women, and children. The army traps Yisrael along the shores of Yam Suf, and at the sight of the Egyptian chariots and soldiers, Yisrael are stricken with terror: “And they were terrified, and the children of Israel cried out to Hashem” (v. 10). For the first time, the Torah refers to war: “Hashem will do battle for you, and you shall be silent” (14:13). 

 

Hashem sends a strong eastern wind and splits the sea, and Yisrael escape into the dry waterbed. But the army is hot on the trail: “And Mitzrayim chased them and entered after them, all the horses of Pharaoh his chariots and horsemen” (v. 23). As the morning approaches, the counterattack begins and the chariots are destroyed. Fear strikes the hearts of the Egyptian soldiers, and they begin to retreat: “Let us flee from Yisrael, for Hashem battles for them against the Egyptians” (v. 25). Again, we should note the use of military jargon, as the Egyptian army is now in full flight,

 

As they try to flee, the Egyptian soldiers are caught in an ambush when the sea returns to its original strength: “And the Egyptians fled toward it” (v. 27).  The waters rush over the chariots, the horsemen, and the entire army – and then there is silence. There is nothing left. In an instant, the mighty Egyptian army is destroyed.  All that is left are the corpses on the shores of the Yam Suf.    

 

Keriat Yam Suf was necessary because it was the actual battle, as it were, between Hashem and the Egyptians. Hashem tells Moshe to turn around and lead the people back towards Mitzrayim so that Pharaoh should chase them, “and I will be honored through Pharaoh and his entire army” (14:4). After Pharaoh enlists the chariots and horsemen to join the chase, Hashem adds, “And I will be honored through Pharaoh and his entire army, his chariots and horsemen” (v. 17).  In the famous song that follows keriat Yam Suf, this theme is emphasized. Moshe and Yisrael sing:

 

Hashem is a warrior; Hashem is His name. He threw the chariots of Pharaoh and his army into the sea, and his chosen captains were drowned in the Yam Suf. (15:3-4)

 

It is only at the Yam Suf that a battle is waged. It is only at Yam Suf that the Egyptians are defeated and Hashem emerges victorious. 

 

Hashem Will Reign for Eternity

 

We opened this shiur with the religious significance of keriat Yam Suf as expressed by the relationship between the metaphorical use of “hand,” as opposed to “finger.” We proposed that the one to five ratio suggested by our Sages is connected to different levels of divine revelation, and we connected the shira – the song of praise and thanks – that followed the splitting of the sea to the profound revelation unique to keriat Yam Suf, which raised Yisrael to a higher level of belief. 

 

On the other hand, the faith and belief achieved by Yisrael is connected to seeing the corpses of the Egyptian soldiers lying on the shore of the Yam Suf. In other words, the religious height attained by Yisrael at the Yam Suf is connected to the initial terror of being trapped by the Egyptian army and the great sense of relief at the final victory of Hashem. It is connected to the initial ambiguity of officially remaining in slavery and the absolute freedom gained with the destruction of the Egyptian army. Political, military, and religious components converge and culminate in a song of profound faith, praise, and thanks. The song ends with the collective acceptance of Hashem as king: “Hashem will reign for eternity” (v. 18).