By Rabbi Jeff Kirshblum
QUESTIONS TO PONDER
"And it was (va'yehi) when Pharaoh sent out the people that G-d did not lead
them the way of the land of the Philistines, though it was close, because He
said that the people will have regrets when they see war and they will
return to Egypt" (13:17).
There are several questions that should be asked concerning this verse. The
Medrash (Shmos Rabbah 20:7) says that every portion of the Torah that begins
with the word va'yehi, "and it was," is a cry of woe (Va'yehi can also mean
Oh,Woe!). If so, then the verse is stating that Pharaoh was emitting a cry
of "Woe" and bemoaning the fact that he sent forth the Children of Israel
from Egypt. Why would he regret sending them out? Their presence in Egypt
caused many plagues to befall the Egyptians. Pharaoh, just a few days
earlier, was so anxious to rid himself of the Jews that he did not even
allow them time to bake bread. Why would he suddenly change his mind?
In addition, why are the Children of Israel simply referred to in the verse
as "the people" and not by their proper name, the Children of Israel, as
they usually are?
Another question to be raised is why the verse attributes the Exodus of the
Jews to Pharaoh, "And it was when Pharaoh sent out the people." Was it not
the hand of G-d that brought forth the Israelites?
Another question is that the verse seems to connect two unrelated thoughts.
The first is that Pharaoh it seems regretted freeing the Israelites. The
second thought is that G-d did not lead the Israelites to Canaan through the
land of Canaan, though it was the shorter and more direct route, because
surely the Philistines would come out to wage war and the frightened
Israelites would flee back to Egypt. Why does the verse connect these two
distinctly different ideas?
Why would the Israelites fear going into battle? The very next verse says
that "the Children of Israel went up (from Egypt) armed." It seems that they
were prepared to wage war if necessary.
Rashi, quoting the Medrash, says that the Hebrew word for "armed,"
chamushim, can also mean "one-fifth." Only one-fifth of the Jews departed
from Egypt; four-fifths had died during the plague of Darkness. Why does the
Medrash choose to tell us that at this particular point, after the Jews had
left Egypt? Why did it not tell it to us earlier, during the plague of
Earlier, the Torah said that a great multitude of Egyptians accompanied the
Israelites when they left Egypt (12:38). The Targum Yonassan says that
2,400,000 Egyptians went out with the Children of Israel. We know that only
one-fifth of the Jews left Egypt and that was 600,000 men. If one-fifth of
the Jewish people totaled 6000,000, then 2,400,000 had died during the
plague of Darkness. Now, we find a most remarkable "coincidence." The number
of Egyptians that accompanied the Israelites exactly equaled the number of
Israelites who died during the plague of Darkness. The implication is that
these Egyptians took the place, in some respect, of those Jews who perished.
Who were those Egyptians who accompanied the Israelites? The Medrash
describes these Egyptians as the elite of their society. They were the wise
men, the wealthy and the craftsmen. Pharaoh allowed them to depart with the
Israelites. Later, Pharaoh did not regret sending out the Israelites; it was
these elite Egyptians that he regretted allowing to leave. It was those
Egyptians, who the verse calls "the people," that would have feared war from
the Philistines. It would be those people who would want to return to Egypt.
So, instead of taking the most direct route to the Promised Land, through
Philistine territory, G-d led the people around through the desert. (Shmos
G-d promised Abraham that his children would leave Egypt with "a great
treasure" (Bereishis 15:14). The Ari explains that the great treasure was
not just the gold and silver vessels the Jews took with them out of Egypt;
the great treasure was the eruv rav. The elite of Egyptian society had
within themselves some redeeming social and spiritual value. Moshe wanted
them to become assimilated into the Jewish people, bringing with them their
unique talents and qualities. When the verse says that "(the Israelites)
emptied out Egypt" (12:37), it does just not refer to the gold and silver;
the Israelites emptied out Egypt of every person who had some redeeming
spiritual value. Egypt was left empty and bare. Although the eruv rav may
have had some redeeming qualities, nevertheless, they were a destructive
force amongst Klal Yisrael. It was the eruv rav who insisted on building the
Golden Calf. It was the eruv rav who complained time after time to Moshe.
The influence of these Egyptian aristocrats was very powerful. (See Va'yoel
Moshe, Parshas Beshalach)
THE LONGER ROUTE MAY BE THE SHORTER PATH
There were two routes that led to the Promised Land. One was a direct course
along the major trade route through the land of the Philistines. The other
way was to detour to the south through the harsh Sinai Desert in order to
circumvent the Philistine territory. The direct route would afford many
opportunities to purchase food and water. The road was more frequented and
therefore smoother and easier to travel. However, the Israelites would be
exposed to the Philistine environment. We tend to think of the ancient
Philistine nation as a barbaric and almost subhuman species devoid of any
culture. Nothing could be further from the truth. The Philistines were
perhaps the most culturally advanced nation of the world at that time, more
so than the Egyptians. The Philistines made great advances in the arts.
Their pottery was desired everywhere. Their skills in the crafts were
envied. They were culturally advanced but spiritually and morally barbaric.
One merely has to think of the Nazis who played Wagner's symphonies as the
Jews were marched into the ovens. (See People of the sea: The Search for the
Philistines by Trude and Moshe Dothan, the eminent authorities on the
Philistines and their culture.)
The route through the barren desert was sparsely inhabited. There would be
little opportunity to acquire food or water. The terrain was rocky and most
inhospitable. Travel would be difficult. There were venomous snakes,
scorpions, and other dangerous creatures. But, the Israelites would not have
to confront the polluting effects of the Philistine society. There would be
no threat to the Jewish soul, only to the Jewish body.
G-d chose the desert route for His children; he would provide all the
physical necessities. Had they taken the Philistine route, He would not have
provided for all their spiritual needs. Our Sages tell us that "G-d can do
anything for us except matters of faith. That, He leaves in our hands"
(Berochos 33b). The concept taught here is as follows: as long as we follow
in the path of G-d and have faith in Him, G-d will take care of our other
We are often confronted with two paths in life. The more direct route will
be more financially rewarding but will expose us to an environment that is
spiritually and morally challenging. The other path may be a harsh and
struggling route to financial freedom but our exposure to negative
influences will be minimal. We see from this parshah that if we take the
route that is best for our souls, G-d will take care of our physical needs.
A SONG UNTO G-D
The parting of the Red Sea was a miraculous manifestation of Divine
intervention. Not only did G-d save the Jewish nation from ultimate
destruction, but He also dealt their oppressors a befitting punishment as
well. Pharaoh sought to cast the Israelite children into the waters of
Egypt. In the end, it was Pharaoh and his army who were cast into the water.
The sea, which had split for the Jews, returned to its previous state in
time to send the Egyptian army to their demise. The Israelites, after
experiencing this remarkable salvation, wanted to express their joy. The
Torah records the song of praise and appreciation that Moshe and the Jewish
people sang to Hashem upon their salvation known as "Az Yashir" (15:1-19)
What is the significance of song that expresses feelings towards G-d?
In the secular society, song is regarded as a form of entertainment, an
amusement. In Judaism, song is placed on the loftiest level of spirituality,
for song can inspire joy and joy causes the Divine spirit to manifest itself
(Shabbos 30b). Song can also communicate the sorrow of the heart that mere
words are unable to. Traditionally, somber music was played at Jewish
funerals (Kesubos 46b). Song was such an integral part of the Temple
service that only the Levites could participate in the choral service. In
the Temple, the Levite choir sang and the Levite orchestra played. The
inspiration was so vital that the Temple service was deemed invalid without
the Levite music (Erachin 11a). The Sages even permitted the musical
accompaniment to be performed on Shabbos (Sukah 50b).
Words communicate ideas. Music communicates emotion. If someone simply says,
"I love chocolate," in a monotone voice, he is conveying an idea. If the
same person says, "I looove cho-co-late," in a sing-song manner, he is
communicating the emotion he feels when it comes to chocolate. Just try to
say "I love you," and really mean it, in a monotone voice. It is impossible.
Emotion is always accompanied with melody.
Since antiquity, people have found that there were times when they needed to
express themselves in a deeper fashion than mere words could convey. The
artist would express the feelings of his heart through landscapes, portrait,
and other sketches of life. Poets conveyed their emotions through verse. The
Jewish people choose song to express their feelings of joy and thankfulness.
The seven notes of the musical scale are given mystical meaning. They
correspond to the seven Kabbalistic sephirot: Chesed (kindness), Gevurah
(strength), Tiferes (Splendor), Netzach (eminence), Hod (beauty), Yesod
(foundation), Malchus (majesty). The Vilna Gaon told his students that
without the study of music theory, one cannot fully grasp the wisdom of the
There is an interesting difference between words and song. Words can
sometimes be inspirational. But when one is depressed and he thinks of those
words, it fails to inspire. The sadness of the depression is stronger than
the message of the words. Words are powerless to shake off the oppressive
mood of sadness and depression. An inspiring melody is different. It has the
power to transcend the sadness and shake off the depression. It can elevate
the spirit. King David said, "In the (darkness of) night, His song shall be
with me" (Tehillim 42:8). King David would sing to bring himself up from the
depths of despair (Pesachim 117a).
Every emotional event is an occasion for song. After the Israelites crossed
through the Red Sea, their joy was unbounded. Words alone could not contain
their great emotion. The words had to be sung. And so, "Then sang Moshe and
the Children of Israel this song unto G-d" (15:1).
That moment was truly mystical and magical. There were no rehearsals. There
was no handing out lyrics or musical score. Yet, Moshe and all the
Israelites simultaneously uttered the same lyrics and sang the same melody.
That instant in time was a manifestation of one of the greatest miracles,
the miracle of joyous music.
There is a well known story that is told of a great Rosh Yeshiva. He was
asked why his son was not a devoted Jew, yet the yeshiva's caretaker had a
son who was a rabbinical scholar. The Rosh Yeshiva answered that at his own
Shabbos meal all he could think of was finishing the meal so he could go
back to his learning. However, at the caretaker's Shabbos meal, the family
would sing Shabbos melodies for hours on end to celebrate the joy of
Shabbos. The Rosh Yeshiva himself mournfully told this story several times
to emphasize the great significance and power of song to the Jewish people.
The story is told of a mute who came to the synagogue and in the midst of a
glorious chanting rendered by the cantor, the mute stood up and screamed as
loud as his vocal chords would allow. The congregants were appalled and
rushed toward him in an effort to remove him from the shul. The rabbi called
out for them to stop. He explained that the mute was expressing his emotion
the only way he knew how. The mute's scream was a true expression of prayer
and reached the very doors of heaven.
The clarion call to repent that is sounded on Rosh Hashanah, the blast of
the shofar, is not a call that can be contained in words. The piercing cry
of repentance transcends the language barrier. It is the same cry as the cry
of the mute.
The song was not only an expression of joy and thankfulness for the present
salvation of the Jews, it was also an expression of hope and faith for the
future of Israel.
Have a great Shabbos!
Copyright © 2004 by Rabbi Jeff Kirshblum
These Divrei Torah are excerpts from Yochanan "Jeff" Kirshblum's new book,
Thinking Outside the Box, which can be purchased at any local Judaica book store or online at www.israelbookshop.com.