In this week’s parshah, we read of the Israelites departure from Egypt. Pharaoh, the Torah tells us “had a change of heart” (Exodus 14:5), and decides to pursue the Israelites. The Or Hachayyim comments that an interesting way of looking at this is that when the news reached Pharaoh that the Israelites had “fled”, Pharaoh reconsidered his premise that the Israelite G-d was all-knowing and all-powerful. This G-d apparently had been forced to use deception because he was not omnipotent. This is why He kept His intention that the Israelites should depart permanently a secret up until now. The Torah advisedly speaks of the “levav”, a “dual heart” of Pharaoh undergoing a change. Pharaoh’s considerations were due to conflicting feelings (i.e. two hearts). Originally, Pharaoh had thought that G-d was unable to orchestrate the Israelites’ exodus. Otherwise, Moses and Aaron would not have had to beg him to let the Israelites go. Next, Pharaoh convinced himself that G-d’s love for the Jewish people might only be temporary. In the meantime, Pharaoh had come to realize that his estimate of G-d liking the Jewish people only temporarily had also been wrong. As a result of both considerations of telling him to let the Israelites go, he had done so in the firm belief that there was nothing he could do to stop this process. Now, in retrospect, he realized that he had been wrong after all about the fact that G-d had lacked the power to orchestrate the Exodus without help from Pharaoh himself. This is why he decided to mount the pursuit.
Pharaoh’s army began their pursuit after the Israelites. The Israelites, seeing the Egyptians close behind them, became frightened. They tell Moses in Exodus 14: 11-13 that they would have rather died in Egypt than in the desert, and that they would have preferred to remain slaves than be killed by the Egyptians. Moses tells the Israelites not to worry, and that “G-d will do battle for you” (Exodus 14:14). G-d responds to these events by asking Moses, “Why are you crying out to me?” (Exodus 14:15). The Alshekh asks a flurry of questions about this verse: 1) why did G-d tell Moses not to cry out, when it had been the people who had cried out, and not Moses? 2) Why did G-d not tell the people ‘do not be afraid?!’ instead of ‘keep moving!’ and afterwards that they should move? 3) The word ve-attah, and you, in v.15 and the word va-ani, and I, in verse 17 seem unnecessary, especially since G-d had already said hineni, I am here? The Alshekh explains that Moses had commenced praying, and had said “G-d will fight on your behalf.” G-d said why do you pray to Me? This implies that My (G-d’s) children are NOT entitled to be saved except by an act of mercy. Let them display faith by marching on, before the sea is split. The ve-attah, and you, means that in case the children of Israel think that you can perform miracles ONLY with the staff of G-d. He tells Moses that he should raise his hand over the sea and only then will it be split. Moses was to divest himself of the staff at the moment. There is a tradition, the Alsekh explains, that the reason the Egyptians chose to kill the Jewish babies by drowning was that they knew that the G-d of the Jews makes the punishment fit the crime. At the same time, they knew of G-d’s oath not to bring on another deluge. They reasoned that by drowning the Jewish baby boys, they could make themselves immune from retribution. G-d demonstrated that instead of His bringing on a deluge, the Egyptians themselves would walk into the equivalent of an existing deluge. They had also seen in their horoscope that the Jewish savior would meet his death through water. Therefore, they had decreed a watery death for babies born around the time indicated by the horoscope. Once that date had passed, the decree had been cancelled, since they had considered the potential Jewish savior as having met his death already. G-d was intent to demonstrate that, on the contrary, the Jewish savior would be the one who would orchestrate the watery death of the Egyptian army. Had Moses split the sea with the staff, no one would have known that it was Moses, the intended victim of the water, who had turned the tables and had victimized the Egyptians be water. The miracle would simply have been ascribed to G-d’s rod, to the intrinsic power of that instrument. In order for the Egyptians to commit the folly of pursuing Israel through the sea, several things had to occur. Surely, the Egyptians seeing the miracle could not have assumed that it was FOR THEIR benefit. So why did they out themselves at risk? Also, if they assumed that the splitting of the sea had NOT been a miracle, but a freak of nature, how could they take a chance that it would last long enough for them to catch the Israelites, defeat them and herd them back to Egypt? In addition to Moses’ hand and an act of faith by the Israelites who entered the water before it was split, an act of G-d was needed to cause the Egyptians to expose themselves to the crushing waters when the time came. THIS act by G-d is what He refers to in v.17, when it says as for me, i.e. va-ani, “here I will greatly strengthen the heart of Pharaoh.” G-d’s contribution is the greatest, in that He will cause Pharaoh’s desire for revenge and loot to overcome his common sense, and pursue Israel into the depth of the seabed. The rest of mankind will honor G-d, in turn, when they will reflect on how Pharaoh’s punishment corresponded to his crime. The Egyptians, who will know that I am the merciful G-d, will be those who had remained behind in Egypt, who had not been punished now, as they had not been as guilty as those who had
Prepared by Devorah Abenhaim