Parashat Beshalach – 5782
Rabbi Shmuel Rabinowitz, Rabbi of the Western Wall and Holy Sites
In this week’s parasha, we read about the children of Israel leaving Egypt “with a high hand” (Exodus 14, 8) after centuries of slavery under the yoke of the Egyptian Empire. The ten plagues we read about in the previous parashot were not enough to teach Pharoah a lesson and he chased the children of Israel with his frightening army. The chase ended with the wonder of the splitting of the Red Sea for the children of Israel to pass through while the Egyptian army and Pharaoh drowned.
Parashat Beshalach opens with a rare verse in that it offers a detailed explanation for a decision of G-d’s.
It came to pass when Pharaoh let the people go, that G-d did not lead them [by] way of the land of the Philistines for it was near, because G-d said, Lest the people reconsider when they see war and return to Egypt.
(Exodus 13, 17)
This verse lays out G-d’s considerations in His decision to lead the Jewish people to the desert after their exodus from Egypt. Geographically, logic would dictate they make the journey from Egypt to Canaan, later the Land of Israel, through the land of the Philistines on the southern shores of Canaan. But G-d decided to lead His nation on the longer route through the desert and the Red Sea. The explanation offered by the Torah is that G-d was concerned that if the Children of Israel would face war so shortly after their exodus from Egypt, they might escape back to Egypt.
When we continue reading the parasha, we read that the Children of Israel walk toward the Red Sea while Pharaoh leads his army toward them to return them to slavery. The Children of Israel are filled with fear and under siege. The sea was on one side and the Egyptian army was quickly closing in on them from the other. Moses then asked of them:
Don’t be afraid! Stand firm and see the Lord’s salvation that He will wreak for you today, for the way you have seen the Egyptians is [only] today… The Lord will fight for you, but you shall remain silent.
(Ibid 14, 13-14)
Moses calls upon the Jewish nation to do nothing, with the belief that G-d will defeat the Egyptians for them. And indeed, the incredible happens. The Red Sea splits and they cross it safely. The Egyptians also stepped into the split sea and while crossing it, G-d returned it to its natural state and the entire Egyptian army drowned.
A question arises when examining this story. If indeed G-d was concerned that the Children of Israel would return to Egypt out of fear, why was He not concerned that the pursuing Egyptian army would evoke the same reaction? Undoubtedly, the Egyptian army was no less a threatening power than the Philistine army. There is also no doubt that if G-d drowned the Egyptian army in the Red Sea, He could also have destroyed the Philistine army as well. What difference did it make, then, if the Jewish nation would encounter the Egyptian or the Philistine army?
The answer is that there is an essential difference between being liberated from exile and redemption. Liberation from Egyptian exile was performed by G-d Himself, with no human intervention. The ten plagues that subdued the Egyptians were all divine miracles, like the splitting of the Red Sea. But for the Children of Israel to enter the Land of Israel, conquer it, and establish in it a society founded on values of justice and morality, for them to reach redemption – they had to do it themselves; with divine assistance, of course, but with human strength and courage. And for this, they were still unprepared.
The Children of Israel had lived for centuries as slaves in a foreign land. G-d did not want them to enter the Promised Land as a nation of slaves. G-d wanted them to undergo a process of empowerment in the desert, to become physically and spiritually mature and united. This process would prepare them to be a nation in its land, a nation that takes responsibility for its own fate, a nation of strength and of lofty values, a nation led, assisted, and supported by G-d but one that does not rely on Him to do things for it.
Following many years in the desert, when the Children of Israel stood at the gates of the Promised Land, G-d turned to Joshua Bin Nun, the nation’s leader, and repeatedly entreated:
Be strong and have courage… Just be strong and very courageous… Did I not command you, be strong and have courage!
(Joshua 1, 6-9)
Let those words reverberate and guide us in all our actions – both the personal and the public.