Skip to main content

The Exodus, Part II 

Rav David Silverberg
21.09.2014

 

I.      Parashat Beshalach and the Exodus

 

     We will begin our study of Parashat Beshalach by looking at the opening verse of the following parasha, Parashat Yitro: "Yitro, priest of Midian, Moshe's father-in-law, heard all that God had done for Moshe and for Yisrael, His people, how the Lord had brought Yisrael out from Egypt" (18:1). 

 

At first glance, it seems that Yitro heard of only the Exodus from Egypt.  Indeed, he later exclaims, "Blessed be the Lord who delivered you from the Egyptians and from Pharaoh, and who delivered the people from under the hand of the Egyptians" (18:10). 

 

It appears as though the Torah "passes over" Parashat Beshalach, proceeding straight from the final recorded incident in Parashat Bo - the smiting of the firstborn and Benei Yisrael's departure from Egypt - to the story of Yitro.  Did Yitro hear nothing of Parashat Beshalach - the pillars of cloud and fire (13:21), the splitting of the sea (chapter 14), the miraculous sweetening of the water at Mara (15:22-25), the manna's daily descent from the heavens (chapter 16), the water-producing rock (17:1-7), or the defeat over Amalek through Moshe's hand-raising (17:8-13)?  Did none of this make an impression on Yitro? 

 

     These questions likely prompted the Talmud in Masekhet Zevachim (116), cited by Rashi in his opening comments to Parashat Yitro, to claim, "What news did he [Yitro] hear and come?  The splitting of the Sea of Reeds and the battle with Amalek."  The question, of course, arises as to how the Sages derive this from the verse, which mentions no event other than the Exodus.  On what basis may we assume that Yitro was inspired by the events of Parashat Beshalach, as well?

 

     This passage in the Talmud perhaps reveals the inherent definition of Parashat Beshalach: it completes the story of the Exodus.  It does not report the events that followed "yetzi'at Mitzrayim" (the departure from Egypt), but rather narrates the second half of that event.  When Yitro hears "how the Lord brought Yisrael out from Egypt," he hears of our parasha, as well, the episodes that comprise the second half of the Exodus.

 

     How does Parashat Beshalach become part II of the Exodus?

 

     As Benei Yisrael depart from Egypt, two critical questions must be answered in order for the sorrow chapter of the Egyptian exile to be finally closed.  First and foremost, does their departure indeed mark a true "Exodus" from Egypt?  Pharaoh had already redefined the word "zigzag," reneging on promises and rescinding his decisions several times.  In fact, his flexibility appears to have progressed over the course of the plagues.  After the plague of frogs, he simply expresses preparedness to release the slaves (7:4).  After the fourth plague, of wild beasts, he initiated more detailed negotiations with Moshe, perhaps reflecting a more serious willingness to bend (8:21-24).  Pharaoh then seems to take a particularly significant step after the plague of hail, confessing his sin in holding the Hebrew slaves and acknowledging God as "righteous" (9:27).  Later, heeding his courtiers' counsel after Moshe's warning of the swarms of locusts, Pharaoh calls Moshe and Aharon to his palace - even before the plague begins.  Reading the story of the Exodus without prior knowledge of Parashat Beshalach gives rise to the question of what Pharaoh will do next.  Did he "really mean it" this time, or will God once again harden his heart and lure him to recapture his recently emancipated workforce?  The story of the Exodus thus cannot conclude before the narrative brings a sense of closure to Benei Yisrael's departure from Egypt - as it does in Parashat Beshalach.

 

     The second question requiring resolution as Benei Yisrael leave Egypt is, what do they do now?  True, God promised to bring them to the land He promised centuries ago to the forefathers (Shemot 6:8), but how will they get there?  How will they survive the harsh travel conditions and prepare for warfare upon their entry into the land?  These questions do not arise as a result of the Exodus, but rather relate to its very essence.  On two occasions in Chumash, Moshe, petitioning the Almighty on Benei Yisrael's behalf, invokes the threat of the nations' ridicule of the Almighty should He appear incapable of bringing His people into Canaan.  In his appeal in the aftermath of the incident of the golden calf, Moshe pleads, "Let not the Egyptians say, 'It was with evil intent that He delivered them, only to kill them off in the mountains and annihilate them from the face of the earth'" (Shemot 32:12).  Moshe expands on this theme in his petition after the debacle of the scouts:

 

"When the Egyptians, from whose midst You brought up this people in Your might, hear the news, they will tell it to the inhabitants of that land.  Now they have heard that You, O Lord, are in the midst of this people; that You, O Lord, appear in plain sight when Your cloud rests over them… If then You slay this people to a man, the nations who have heard Your fame will say, 'It must be because the Lord was powerless to bring that people into the land He had promised them on oath that He slaughtered them in the wilderness'" (Bemidbar 14:13-16).

 

     "The Egyptians shall know that I am God" (Shemot 7:5) constitutes a central purpose of the Exodus, beyond Benei Yisrael's freedom from bondage.  As we see from Moshe's appeals, Benei Yisrael's failure to reach Canaan would undermine this goal ("Let not the Egyptians say…"; "When the Egyptians hear the news…").  Thus, the issue of how the newly freed nation will survive the rest of their journey must be resolved before we can bring the story of the Exodus to a close.

 

     Moreover, the permanence of the Israelites' departure from Egypt is largely dependent on their successful march through the wilderness.  If they cannot adequately deal with the hardships of travel, where else would they go, if not back to the only life they knew - in Egypt?  Indeed, some among Benei Yisrael seriously considered this option on several occasions throughout their sojourn in the wilderness (most explicitly, in Bemidbar 14:4).  The Exodus thus cannot be finalized before the people's ability to traverse the wilderness is established.

 

     As we will see, Parashat Beshalach indeed resolves both these issues, the final defeat of the Egyptians and ensuring Benei Yisrael's ability to survive through the wilderness.

 

     Interestingly, the very first verse of the parasha appears to allude - however subtly - to these two themes.  The parasha opens, "When Pharaoh let the people go…"  Several commentators have noted the peculiarity of this clause.  Did the previous two parshiyot not sufficiently stress that God liberated Benei Yisrael "with a mighty hand and outstretched arm," and that they were not freed by Pharaoh's willful consent?  What more, the continuation of the verse tells of God's actions, not Pharaoh's: "God did not lead them by way of the land of the Philistines…."  Should not the verse have begun, "When God delivered the nation, He did not lead them…"?  Why does the Torah choose to attribute the slaves' freedom to Pharaoh, rather than the Almighty?

 

     On one level, the Torah undoubtedly wishes to emphasize Pharaoh's fulfillment, once and for all, of Moshe's oft-repeated chorus, "Shalach et ami" - "let my people go."  Whereas until now Pharaoh disobeyed this order, now he has finally agreed to "let the people go."  This explanation is suggested by two twentieth-century writers - Rav Zalman Sorotzkin ("Oznayim Le-Torah"), and Professor Nechama Leibowitz (Studies, Beshalach 1).

 

     Additionally, however, attributing the Exodus to Pharaoh perhaps points to its having yet to become final, thus foreshadowing the drama to come.  As mentioned, Pharaoh perfected the art of consistent inconsistency.  He let the people go, and may very likely order their return.  Just as he has reversed every order issued until now, his heart will soon undergo yet another change as this parasha unfolds.  Indeed, the Abarbanel claims that this reference to Pharaoh's having set the slaves free emphasizes that he granted them permission to leave for only a three-day journey into the wilderness and expects their return.  (This involves the very complex issue as to what precisely Moshe demanded from Pharaoh, a topic well beyond the scope of our discussion.)  One twentieth-century author, Rav Dov Rabinowitz ("Da'at Sofrim"), suggests that this verse reflects the mindset of Benei Yisrael, who saw themselves dependent on Pharaoh's decisions.  All this underscores the question-mark that remains as to the permanence of Benei Yisrael's exit from Egypt.

 

     Perhaps more overtly, the second half of this introductory verse foreshadows the second issue this parasha must resolve: "God did not lead them by way of the land of the Philistines, because it was nearer; for God said, 'The people may have a change of heart when they see war, and return to Egypt.'"  Though considerable controversy exists as to how to interpret this verse, it clearly reflects the concern regarding Benei Yisrael's future, whether they would realize the dream of living in the Promised Land or return to Egypt.  As Benei Yisrael leave Egypt, it remained to be seen whether they would perhaps come running back upon confronting the perils looming along their journey.

 

II.   "Then Did Moshe and Benei Yisrael Sing"

 

     That the first half of Parashat Beshalach directly addresses the first issue, as to whether or not Benei Yisrael indeed leave Egypt once and for all, requires no elaboration.  This section tells one of the most dramatic stories in the Bible, the Egyptian chariots' pursuit of the former slaves, the miraculous splitting of the sea and the waters' eventual collapse on the pursuers.  It is worth noting, however, the emphasis on closure, the permanence of the salvation depicted.  Most explicitly, Moshe responds to the people's fright with the bold guarantee, "Have no fear!  Stand by, and witness the deliverance which the Lord will work for you today; for the Egyptians whom you see today you will never see again" (14:13).

 

     Moreover, the general style of presentation in this segment underscores the particular effect of this, final stage of salvation.  In last week's reading, Benei Yisrael act with an almost cold, robotic obedience.  As God smites the Egyptian firstborn and the Israelites realize their freedom from bondage, Benei Yisrael exhibit no emotion.  The most descriptive verses in that narrative embody the machine-like nature of their response to the supernatural events around them: "The people then bowed low in homage.  And the Israelites went and did so… " (12:27-28).  Parashat Beshalach, by contrast, vividly captures the fear, dread, tension, and, ultimately, jubilation experienced by the people over the course of the narrative.  This contrast may reflect the emotional, rather than physical, freedom experienced by Benei Yisrael as permanent redemption has been realized.  The Torah makes explicit reference to the spiritual aspect of this emotional experience: "Israel saw the Egyptians dead on the shore of the sea.  Israel saw the wondrous power which the Lord had wielded in Egypt, the people feared the Lord; they believed in the Lord and His servant, Moshe" (14:30-31).  The Midrash (Shemot Rabba 23:6) already notes that it is inconceivable that Benei Yisrael believe in God only now, whereas throughout the ten plagues they did not.  Undoubtedly, then, this "belief" refers to a deeper, spiritual insight or experience.  Indeed, elsewhere the Midrash writes, "In the merit of the faith that they had they earned the privilege of singing 'shira' [the song] and the Shekhina [God's "presence"] rested upon them" (Shemot Rabba 22:3).  A week after having achieved their physical freedom as they were driven from Egypt, Benei Yisrael now realize emotional and spiritual liberty, which enables them to experience the Shekhina.

 

     The "Shirat Ha-yam," the famous song of praise sung after the splitting of the sea, most clearly expresses this newfound emotional freedom.  The opening verse reads, "Then did Moshe and Benei Yisrael sing… "  Only now, when the Egyptian bondage has finally and irreversibly become a distant memory, Benei Yisrael can express fervent and impassioned words of praise for the Almighty.  Whereas until now they merely obeyed, they now feel and experience.

 

     This distinction between the two phases of redemption perhaps becomes clearer in light of a passage in the Midrash (Shir Hashirim Rabba 4) concerning King Chizkiyahu.  As the book of Melakhim II (chapter 19) relates, during Chizkiyahu's time Jerusalem was besieged by the Assyrian army, led by Sancheriv.  God saved the city by killing the entire army in a single night.  The Midrash tells that after the miracle, the prophet Yeshayahu ordered the king to sing "shira" - song of praise.  The king and his attendants asked why this was necessary.  The prophet responded, "For He has done mightily," to which the king replied, "This is well known in all the land."  The Midrash then records a different version, by which Chizkiyahu argued that his Torah study took the place of the shira.

 

     This Midrash highlights the distinction between cognitive recognition and emotional response.  As they first left Egypt, Benei Yisrael could relate only cognitively to their redemption.  They understood, believed and obeyed, but the anxiety of "When Pharaoh let the people go," their uneasiness about what Pharaoh may decide the next day, restrained their emotions from responding accordingly.  They acknowledged God's Hand just as Chizkiyahu acknowledged the miracle in his day.  Only when the chapter of the bondage has been finally closed do they erupt in spontaneous song, as they "see" with their own eyes "the wondrous power which the Lord had wielded in Egypt" and as they "believe in the Lord and His servant Moshe."

 

III.            "There He Made for Them a Fixed Rule"

 

     From the elation and euphoria of the Sea of Reeds we proceed straight to the uncertain future awaiting Benei Yisrael in the Wilderness of Shur.  The very first words after the song at the sea, which mark the sudden transition from the first to second section of our parasha, reads, "Moshe caused Yisrael to set out from the Sea of Reeds… " (15:22).  With these words we set out from the triumph of the first half to the anxiety and frustration of the second.  But why does the verse tell of Moshe "causing Yisrael to set out" rather than of all of them "setting out together"?  Rashi, citing the Midrash, provides an answer that beautifully captures the contrast between the two segments of this parasha, which meet right before this verse.  According to the Midrash, Benei Yisrael were reluctant to leave the sea, as they were busy collecting the booty that washed up ashore.  Moshe therefore "dragged" Benei Yisrael against their will into the foreboding wilderness.  Indeed, this transition from the first to second half of Parashat Beshalach was difficult for Benei Yisrael to accept.

 

     After three days without any sign of a water source, the wayfarers come upon a full supply of water at Mara.  Alas, "they could not drink the water of Mara because it was bitter" (15:23).  In response to the people's complaints, Moshe petitions the Almighty who "showed him a piece of wood; he threw it into the water and the water became sweet."  In describing God's revelation of the tree to Moshe, the text employs the contextually peculiar word, "va-yoreihu," which generally means, "he taught."  (See Devarim 33:10, as cited by the Rashbam on our verse.)  Rather than using the standard word for "he showed" - "va-yar'ehu," the verse instead chooses a term with an educational connotation.  This would perhaps suggest that the tree of Mara served more of a didactic function than a pragmatic one.  Sure enough, the verse concludes, "There He made for them a statute and law, and there He put them to the test."  What was this "statute and law"?  We will follow the interpretation of the Rashbam: "There in Mara, through the act of the test that He conducted, to have them thirst for water and then cure the [bitter] waters for them, He began admonishing them to accept upon themselves the statutes and laws that He will teach them and He will provide their needs." 

 

This explains as well the relevance of Moshe's admonition to the people that immediately follows: "If you will heed the Lord your God diligently, doing what is upright in His sight… then I will not bring upon you any of the diseases that I brought upon the Egyptians…."

 

     Three days into their journey, then, Benei Yisrael learn the answer to the vexing question that undoubtedly weighed heavily on their minds earlier but they articulated only then: "What shall we drink?" (15:24).  The answer, reduced to its simplest form, is: "Do as God tells you."  Whereas the Ramban here claims that the tree contained natural sweetening agents, and God merely informed Moshe of its ability to clear the water, Chazal understand this incident as entirely supernatural by nature.  The lesson taught here is thus one of absolute faith and obedience.  Elaborating on this theme is the early nineteenth-century sage, Rabbi Moshe Sofer of Pressburg (the "Chatam Sofer").  As the tree sweetened the water, so do many natural phenomena defy human reasoning.  Science cannot always explain why a given set of conditions yields the given result.  Likewise, a human being cannot fully understand why observance of God's laws renders one worthy of reward and protection.  This is the "chok u-mishpat" (statute and law) taught to Benei Yisrael right at the outset of their excursion into the wilderness.  If they do as they are told, then the Almighty "will not bring upon you any of the diseases" suffered by the Egyptians.  Pharaoh was punished for his obstinate refusal to heed God's word.  Should Benei Yisrael obey, they will be spared Egypt's fate and earn supernatural sustenance, rather than supernatural destruction.

 

     Clearly, this same theme runs throughout the rest of the parasha, as well.  In last year's series, Rabbi Hattin eloquently explained how the manna, the subject of virtually all of chapter 16, was specifically designed to impress upon the people God's exclusive power over physical sustenance.  Maimonidies, in his Moreh Nevukhim (Guide to the Perplexed - 3:24), writes that the manna served to demonstrate that serving the Almighty benefits the individual, that obedience brings sustenance.  In the final verses of the parasha (17:8-15), the Israelite army led by Yehoshua overpowers the Amalekites.  The victory, however, depended solely on Moshe's lifting his hands (17:11).  As the mishna in Masekhet Rosh Hashanah (29a) explains, Benei Yisrael's success required the "subjugation of their heart towards their Father in heaven."  Significantly, the mishna does not speak here of prayer.  It was not the nation's prayers that brought them victory, but rather the reinforcement of their sense of loyalty and commitment to God.  This willingness to obey and observe ensures His assistance and protection.

 

IV.            Translating the Word, "Beshalach" in Peshat and Derash

 

     Earlier we noted that the opening verse of our parasha attributes the Exodus to Pharaoh: it speaks of Pharaoh "letting the people go" rather than the Almighty's having freed His nation.  As we explained, this reflects the uncertainty that still looms as to whether or not Benei Yisrael have indeed left Egypt once and for all.

 

     It is interesting to note, however, the different translations of the word "Beshalach" (translated here as, "when he let… go") in the two traditional Aramaic translations of the Bible.  Targum Onkelos, who follows the straightforward, "peshat" interpretation, indeed translates the word to mean "setting free" ("shalach").  A much different translation appears in the Midrash-oriented Targum Yonatan Ben Uziel: "kad petar," the Aramaic term for divorce (see Targum Onkelos to Devarim 24:1).  According to the Midrashic reading, the parasha's opening verse actually emphasizes the permanence of Benei Yisrael's departure, the final termination of their painful relationship with Pharaoh.

 

     On the level of peshat, which generally takes every verse in its limited, local context, Parashat Beshalach opens with uncertainty, with the unanswered questions of Pharaoh's next move and the people's ability to survive desert travel.  The Midrash, by contrast, takes into account the larger picture in its reading of the text.  Applying hindsight to the word "Beshalach" yields Targum Yonatan's translation, by which Benei Yisrael's departure from Egypt would never be reversed.  In this parasha, the process of Exodus is finalized, and Benei Yisrael now march to the next critical junction in their historical route: God's revelation and transmission of His law at Sinai.

This website is constantly being improved. We would appreciate hearing from you. Questions and comments on the classes are welcome, as is help in tagging, categorizing, and creating brief summaries of the classes. Thank you for being part of the Torat Har Etzion community!