Weare on the eve of the Yom Tov Acharon of Pesach. This seventh day of Pesach is the time when the Jews experienced the Kriyas Yam Suf – The Splitting of the Sea. One of the most striking elements of this national salvation was the fact that the Jews had to face Paroah once again in a very strange setting. The Torah frames this climactic meeting in the following way.
“And G-d spoke to Moshe saying. Speak to the children of Israel and tell them they should turn around and trace over their steps back to Pi Hachiros between Migdal and the Sea in front of the Ba’al Tzafon Temple, aligned directly in front of it [the Temple] they shall rest on the banks of the sea. And when Paroah will hear about this he will say about the children of Israel they are confused in their way and the desert has closed upon them. And I [G-d] will harden the heart of Paroah and he will take up pursuit after them and I [G-d] will be glorified through Paroah and all of his army and Egypt will know that I am G-d, and the Jewish people did what Moshe told them.
And so it was told to the king of Egypt that the Jewish people had fled and the heart of Paroah and his servants shifted against the Jews and they said what is this that we have done by sending the Jewish people from our servitude. And Paroah [himself] tied his chariot and his nation he took with him. And he took 600 of his choicest chariots at the head and behind them any available chariots in Egypt and they were all driven by warriors. And G-d hardened the heart of Paroah the king of Egypt and he pursued the Jewish people, but the Jewish people were really going out with great strength. And Egypt chased after the Jews and all of the chariots of Paroah, his horsemen, and his soldiers reached them in their encampment on the banks of the sea Al Pi Hachiros in front of the Ba’al Tzafon Temple.
And Paroah advanced himself and the Jewish people raised their eyes and behold Egypt was following after them and the Jewish people were in great fear and they cried out to Hashem. And they said to Moshe was there a shortage of graves in Egypt that prompted you taking us out into the desert to die, what is this that you have done to us by taking us out of Egypt. Is this not what we said to you in Egypt leave us alone and we will just serve Egypt for it is better to serve them than to die in the desert. And Moshe said to the nation don’t fear, stand firm and see the salvation of G-d that He will do for you today, for as you see Egypt today you will never see them again. G-d will fight for you and you can stand silently and watch.” (Exodus 14:1-14)
There are numerous difficulties in reading this passage. Firstly, G-d came to Moshe and told him to arrange with the Jewish people to “act” as if they were confused and confounded in the desert in order that He may draw Paroah out in pursuit against them and be glorified in front of all of Egypt. The Jews agreed to this “bait and switch” and followed through with the plan. Then as Egypt reaches them in pursuit the Jews become afraid and complain to Moshe. What strange behavior. The Almighty comes to them with a plan to wipe out Egypt once and for all and they agree to play along, only to wimp out as the very plan they agreed to was being fulfilled. What did they think it was going to look like? What were they expecting?
Additionally, what is the need for this whole ceremony? Did G-d not already demonstrate His complete sovereignty and dominion over every aspect of creation in front of the eyes of Egypt? Why does G-d feel the need all of a sudden to harden Paroah’s heart and mislead him into thinking he made a mistake, only to draw him out to his final downfall at the sea? Isn’t this overkill? After all the Jewish people are free, they have been redeemed, what is to gain from killing the remnants of Egypt? Also, G-d says “I will be honored through Paroah and his army”. Is G-d some bloodthirsty war mongering tyrant?
Another strange thing about this passage is that the Jews were told to align themselves in front of the Ba’al Tzafon Temple. Our sages teach that this was the only Egyptian Temple left standing after the upheaval in Egypt during the plagues. The point was to give the mistaken impression to the Egyptians that their gods still had some power and sway in the world. Why was this necessary? Surely the fact that the news would reach Paroah that the Jews were lost and wandering aimlessly would have been enough to facilitate his change of heart about having let the Jewish people go.
Furthermore, the verse says that it was told to Paroah that the Jews had fled and then the Egyptians said “what have we done by sending them out of our servitude”. Certainly the Egyptians were intelligent rationale people. They have to remember why just a few days ago they happily sent the Jews on their way to freedom after one full year of clear bombardment of plagues and upheaval by the hand of the Almighty and no other. They certainly couldn’t now think all of a sudden that this G-d of the Jews just got lucky, and the Jews are just runaway slaves on the pretense of gaining illusory freedom.
Finally, from the Jewish people’s point of view what is the need to face Paroah again? Were the Jews just being used for setting up G-d’s vendetta against Egypt in this passage? Is there nothing for them to learn or gain from this event leading up to the splitting of the sea?
Let us explore this passage on a slightly deeper level and try to clarify these difficulties. Our sages teach us that when the Jewish people reached the banks of the sea the ministering angels said to G-d why will You redeem them, these are idol worshippers and these are idol worshippers! The Jews may have been redeemed from Egypt but they were as of yet very far from the ideal state of being that they were meant to be living on. They have been taken out of Egypt but the influence of Egypt has not been taken out of them. This is a very fundamental point to recognize in the story.
We are free now. We have left Egypt. And yet we are still slaves to Egypt in our mentality and in our thinking, their influence has embedded itself in our character. What is missing? What needs to happen? The answer is that the Jews need to eradicate the influence of Paroah from within themselves. How can this be done? The very first step is that they have to realize that this influence is still there within them. This “bait and switch” that the Jews are asked to play along with is for their benefit. It is exactly the prescription they need to be made aware of the fact that they are still sympathetic to the Egyptian culture and mentality. G-d has no personal vendetta or bone to pick with Egypt. He is not a bloodthirsty tyrant or a war monger. This process is about the Jewish people reaching the true level of liberation and redemption that they need to achieve to receive the Torah. We can’t receive the Torah until this process is complete.
Initially the Jews agree to play along with this ploy without realizing the full ramifications of it. Ultimately when they are faced with the challenge of having to see Paroah and Egypt geared up for war against them and plan to take them back into servitude they sink into fear and trepidation? Why is this their reaction? After all the Torah says the Jews were really going out of Egypt with great strength, even though Paroah was made to think otherwise. Certainly the Jews knew the truth! Here is where the subtle message of the Almighty begins to seep into their heads. Whose strength is it that took you out of Egypt? What part did you have in this? What makes you any different than that Egyptian over there? They came to the scary realization that they have not changed. They did not merit this. They didn’t have any real part in this whole process and thus it is not sustainable within their hearts and souls as a new reality. This is what they are scared of. The fear the Jewish people are feeling at this moment is not that of their impending doom at the hands of Egypt because they certainly knew the truth of the matter was that G-d would be with them and protect them as He had promised. They were petrified in fear by facing the fact that they were living on pure grace and didn’t have any merit to deserve it. They were in fear of the fact that this is an unsustainable reality and that ultimately it would all therefore be for naught!
Perhaps this is why G-d had them stand in front of the Ba’al Tzafon Temple. As far as Paroah was concerned it would be enough to know that the Jews are confounded in the desert and wandering aimlessly. This would motivate him to recapture the Jews. However, the Jews were receiving a subtle hint from the Almighty that this Temple is where you align yourselves. Is this where you want to be? Is this belief system and mentality where you want to remain spiritually? Certainly as Jews after seeing everything that G-d has done for us we would realize that we have graduated from the Egyptian culture and belief system. This was supposed to cause a catharsis in them and bring them to shedding the things they no longer needed or wanted in their spiritual composition.
As for the Egyptians we can only say that they were certainly rationale and intelligent. However, they were also bound to pursue the Jews even to the point of their own destruction. This is already evidenced by the entire period of the plagues. The only reason they let their grip free of the Jews for one minute was because they literally had no way of maintaining it. G-d came to Egypt in full force at Makas Bechoros and yanked the Jews out. The forces of evil in the world reigned in Egypt and pervaded Egyptian society. This is the irony of the force of evil in general. It constantly plays itself out to the point of its own undoing. As the force of evil grows and becomes more apparent for what it is, as it shows its nasty claws and spreads its wings over our lives and throughout our world, people begin to see it for what it is and these forces lose their appeal and ultimately just implode upon themselves. Egyptian culture and the power fueling it did just that in this passage. This process of self-destruction works on a different system of rationale and reason. It only makes sense to those who are fully entrenched within its grip. For those who are entrenched in the pursuit of evil and fully in its grips the only rationale thing to do is ride this horse and chariot straight into the sea blindly waving the flag until the very last second.
This is the point of the story. It is at the sea where the Jews are truly born as a nation. It is here where we face not the Paroah in the newspapers and on television, but rather the “Paroah” within ourselves. This is where we have to come to grips with the fact that we are ultimately doomed to the same fate if we don’t free ourselves internally from the grips and pull-strings of the forces of evil in the world. It is a petrifying thought to realize that we are the chosen people who were taken out of Egypt but ultimately that was not our doing, it was a freebee and if we don’t build upon that opportunity we will ultimately be lost forever.
Perhaps this helps to understand Moshe’s response to their complaint. He says “Don’t be afraid, stand firm and you will see the salvation of G-d, He will fight your battles and you will stand by watching in silence”. What does it mean, “stand firm”? This means take responsibility for your own growth. Don’t remain a mere passive recipient of G-d’s goodness, live up to the standards of being Jewish instead of riding on the wave of kindness endlessly. Then you will realize that you don’t need to fight wars in order to survive. G-d will fight your wars for you. You can be silent and watch G-d guide you and protect you in this world with confidence because you are doing your part. You have a portion in the process. We can grow and intensify our participation in our relationship with G-d and become true servants of G-d and not servants of Paroah. We can become the Jewish nation whom G-d gets pride from. We have to gain a firm stand. We have to grow up and mature as Jews and take on the responsibility of being Jewish in its full sense. We don’t have to do everything – “lo alecha hamelacha ligmor”, but we can’t ignore our responsibility to be active in the process of true personal growth and development in our service of Hashem – “v’ih atah ben chorin libatel mimenah”. With this approach we will sea breakthroughs. We will experience salvation and be comfortable with it instead of being afraid of the impending doom looming ahead for not having lived up to our potential. We can split the sea with this firmness and conviction, if only we accept the responsibility to grow and change as well.