LEAVING EGYPT TWICE

  • Rav Yaakov Beasley

INTRODUCTION TO PARASHAT HASHAVUA

 

PARASHAT BESHALACH

 

**************************************************************

In memory of Yakov Yehuda ben Pinchas Wallach
and Miriam Wallach bat Tzvi Donner

**************************************************************

 

LEAVING EGYPT TWICE

 

By Rabbi Yaakov Beasley

 

 

A.        INTRODUCTION

 

Our parasha begins with the continuation of the dramatic exit of the Jewish people from Egypt, which began in last week's parasha after the plague of the killing of the firstborn.  From their first station at Sukkot, Bnei Yisrael travel to Etam, at the desert's edge:

 

17 And it came to pass, when Pharaoh had let the people go, that God led them not by the way of the land of the Philistines, although that was near; for God said: "Lest peradventure the people repent when they see war, and they return to Egypt."

18 But God led the people about, by the way of the wilderness by the Red Sea; and the children of Israel went up armed out of the land of Egypt.

19 And Moshe took the bones of Yosef with him; for he had straightly sworn the children of Israel, saying: "God will surely remember you; and ye shall carry up my bones away hence with you."

20 And they took their journey from Sukkot and encamped in Etam, in the edge of the wilderness.

21 And Hashem went before them by day in a pillar of cloud, to lead them the way, and by night in a pillar of fire, to give them light, that they might go by day and by night.

22 The pillar of cloud by day and the pillar of fire by night departed not from before the people.

 

A cursory overview of the journey as described in here leads to a simple question.  The first sentence emphasizes which road the people are not to take.  Traveling by the "Way of the land of the Philistines" would apparently arouse such a fearful reaction on the people's part upon seeing war so quickly after leaving bondage that they would immediately scurry back to Egypt.  But the next verse rushes to assure the reader that the people are, in fact, armed.   More importantly, the people appear to be completely protected.  Hashem's presence surrounds them day and night, in cloud and in fire.   Finally, the people will see warfare within the week when Pharaoh's legions and chariots descend upon the trapped nation at the Red Sea; why is so important to avoid it now? Given these questions, what message is the Torah trying to convey in this opening section?

 

B.        UNDERSTANDING THE AVOIDANCE

 

The commentators venture several suggestions to explain the apparent contradictions noted above.  Rashi, for example, suggests that taking the shorter route would have been even more damaging to the Jewish people because of its proximity to Egypt.  Since it would have been easy to return, Bnei Yisrael would have bailed out at the first sign of difficulty and would have attempted to return to Egypt.  Rashi's grandson, the Rashbam, interpreted the words "for it was close" as referring to Canaan, not Egypt.  However, his conclusion is conceptually similar to that of Rashi, suggesting that had the Jewish people arrived at the Promised Land prematurely, they would have panicked upon encountering the challenges of warfare and would have tried to returned to Egypt. 

 

For both Rashi and Rashbam, the purpose of the longer, circuitous route is primarily psychological.  By placing distance between Bnei Yisrael and Egypt, the people's likelihood of flight at any difficulty was lessened. 

 

In the Moreh Nevuchim, the Rambam makes the following observation on human nature:

 

It is contrary to human nature that a person be raised in slavery, doing the most menial of tasks, and promptly wash the filth off his hands and go wage war with the gigantic sons of the Anakim … [therefore], God's wisdom led them in a circuitous manner, through the desert, until they learned to be brave.  It is well-known that traveling in the desert without such luxuries such as washing and the like gives rise to bravery, while the opposite gives rise to cowardice.  Furthermore, men not habituated to subservience and slavery were born in the desert (Moreh Nevuchim III:24).

 

Echoes of the Rambam's approach can be found earlier, in the Ibn Ezra's explanation of the panic that grips the nation when the Egyptian armies approach:

 

We should wonder – how could such a large camp, consisting of 600,000 men, be fearful of their pursuers?  Second, why didn't they try to fight back and defends themselves?  The answer is that the Egyptians had been the Israelites' masters, and this generation had been acclimated to suffer quietly at the hands of the Egyptians… (Commentary to 14:13)

 

Common to all the commentaries mentioned above is the belief that the Jewish people, for one reason or another, are not yet ready to leave Egypt. Although further events validate this understanding, can this conception be said to be accurate at this point in the narrative?  Let us look again at the beginning of our parasha, but this time from a different vantage point. 

 

C.        REPETITION

 

To fully appreciate the purpose of our parasha's beginning, let us look at one of the Abrabanel's opening questions on this section:

 

"And the Children of Israel left armed" – This information was not (apparently) written in the proper location.  Instead, this should have appeared earlier, in chapter 12, when they first left Egypt.

 

Using the Abrabanel's question as a starting point, let us look carefully at the first description of the Jewish people's leaving in Chapter 12:

 

29 And it came to pass at midnight, that Hashem smote all the firstborn in the land of Egypt, from the first-born of Pharaoh that sat on his throne unto the first-born of the captive that was in the dungeon, and all the first-born of cattle.

30 And Pharaoh rose up in the night, he, and all his servants, and all the Egyptians; and there was a great cry in Egypt, for there was not a house where there was not one dead.

31 And he called for Moshe and Aaron by night and said: "Rise up, get you forth from among my people, both you and the children of Israel, and go, serve the Lord, as you have said.

32 Take both your flocks and your herds, as you have said, and be gone; and bless me also."

33 And the Egyptians were urgent upon the people to send them out of the land in haste; for they said: "We are all dead men."

34 And the people took their dough before it was leavened, their kneading-troughs were bound up in their clothes upon their shoulders.

35 And the children of Israel did according to the word of Moshe; and they asked of the Egyptians jewels of silver, and jewels of gold, and raiment.

36 And Hashem gave the people favor in the sight of the Egyptians, so that they let them have what they asked. And they despoiled the Egyptians. {P}

37 And the children of Israel journeyed from Rameses to Succoth, about six hundred thousand men on foot, beside children.

38 And a mixed multitude went up also with them; and flocks, and herds, even very much cattle.

39 And they baked unleavened cakes of the dough which they brought forth out of Egypt, for it was not leavened; because they were thrust out of Egypt, and could not tarry, neither had they prepared for themselves any victual.

40 Now the time that the children of Israel dwelt in Egypt was four hundred and thirty years.

41 And it came to pass at the end of four hundred and thirty years, even the selfsame day it came to pass, that all the host of Hashem went out from the land of Egypt.

 

This description of the leaving from Egypt occurs in Chapter 12.  No time elapses between the end of this description and the beginning of our parasha.  In fact, we could have continued from the end of this last section without any difficulties. Instead, a series of halakhot, all emphasizing the centrality of the Exodus for the Jewish people, separate the two descriptions. When the narrative resumes, we notice that the continued description of the people is almost completely opposite to the description of what occurred before.  In the first section, the people leave haphazardly, expelled from the country.  They pack quickly and hurriedly, with unbaked dough on their backs.  They leave most of their possessions behind.  Along the way, members of the Egyptian lower classes and weaker strata of society join along.  A ragtag group of individuals escapes from Egypt. 

 

The beginning of our parasha tells a different story, however.  Bnei Yisrael leave and are prevented from using the main highway not by their own desire, but only because of Hashem's wishes.  They travel armed, apparently ready to take on any future attacks.  Most importantly, they are a camp that invites the presence of the Divine, who leads them day and night. 

 

Through the retelling of the story, the Torah reframes the Exodus from being a pathetic escape from slavery into a triumphal march to freedom.  What creates this transformation?  The laws that are found in the middle.  By legislating the requirement to retell the Exodus constantly, the Torah created a new reality, modifying the previous slavish description of the people into their new existence as a proud, free people. 

 

This is the experience that we try to convey every Seder night – once we were slaves, but now, free men.  Similarly, this year we are in exile, but next year may we be in the rebuilt Yerushalayim, IY"H.