Beshalach - Sole Survivor
By Rabbi Aron Tendler
Following the Parting of the Red Sea, Moshe and Miriam led the Jewish
people in a song of exaltation and thanksgiving. The Shira - Song described
the miracle and the profoundly awesome effect it had upon the Jews and the
entire world. In a single moment G-d shifted the balance of world
power. Egypt, the most advanced civilization of the time, had been brought
to its knees in one blast of G-d's intent.
The evidence was beyond repudiation. The 600 elite captains of Egypt could
be seen strewn on the shores of the sea. Additionally, Rashi references the
Mechilta (14:25) that says, "Just as the Egyptians were smitten at the sea
so too were the Egyptians in Egypt subject to further destruction." The
Jews had not lifted a finger in their own defense. Instead, as Moshe had
said, "G-d will do battle. You shall remain silent."
Imagine the reaction of the surviving Egyptians. For an entire year they
had endured the plagues. The rationalization that had allowed them to
participate in the 116 years of forced Jewish enslavement and persecution
crumbled beneath the crushing evidence of G-d's power. They considered
Moshe a great man; yet, when Pharaoh "came to his senses," they supported
his irrational pursuit of the Jews into the desert. Somehow, Pharaoh
managed to ensnare his people in his suicidal charge against a power they
all recognized as beyond comprehension and negotiation.
Why did the Egyptians follow Pharaoh in pursuit of the escaping Jews, and
why were the Egyptians back home punished for Pharaoh's last-ditch folly?
Furthermore, the Medresh says that Pharaoh himself did not die at the Yam
Suf. Instead, he was saved from death so that he could wander the earth
proclaiming G-d's sovereignty and judiciousness. Why was Pharaoh saved and
his nation punished?
It had been a year of increasingly difficult and punishing displays of
divine power culminating in the death of the first-born. Egypt was a nation
broken and in mourning. They were a nation reeling from pain, guilt, and
regret. Yet, at the rallying cry of Pharaoh the nation mobilized in a
moment's notice to rush into the face of destruction.
Imagine the utter defeat, the spiritual wasteland that Egypt must have been
after the Parting of the Sea. Not only had they suffered a crushing
military defeat; they also had to endure the defeat of their culture and
belief system. Their kings were not gods and their gods were not kings!
Whatever superiority they had nurtured over centuries of world dominion had
been humbled by a nation of slaves. What darkness of spirit and depression
must have possessed the surviving Egyptians in the aftermath of Kriyas Yam
210 years after Yakov and his family of 70 entered Egypt the singing of the
Shira ended the era of slavery. Having first come as wards and guests of
Pharaoh, the Egyptians attempted to destroy them. However, after Kriyas Yam
Suf it was the children of Yakov, some 3 million strong, who witnessed
Pharaoh's utter defeat.
The story was really about a nation's choices. Should the Jews remain
honored guests of the state or should they attempt their destruction?
Should they follow Pharaoh's lead and allow for national genocide, or
should they remember their debt of gratitude to Yoseph who saved them and
With each plague the choice became more focused. Should they continue to
support Pharaoh's agenda and suffer more pain, or should they rise in
rebellion and force Pharaoh to let the Jews go?
The Torah recorded Egypt's dilemma. After the third plague of lice the
Egyptian advisors informed Pharaoh that he was dealing with a power beyond
their ability or comprehension. (8:15)
At the plague of Barad - hail the Torah recorded how there were Egyptians
that "feared G-d, and sheltered their cattle" from the inevitable plague.
Following the Barad, Pharaoh summoned Moshe and proclaimed G-d as righteous
and he and his nation as sinners. (9:27) Prior to the plague of locust the
advisors begged Pharaoh to let the Jews go. (10:7) After the plague Pharaoh
again admitted to his sinfulness and begged for a reprieve from the plague.
It appears that although Pharaoh was determined not to give in to G-d's
demands, his servants, and by extension the general Egyptian population,
would have done so after the third plague. We know that the first five
plagues were within Pharaoh's ability to acquiesce and give in. However,
starting with the plague of boils G-d removed Pharaoh's option of free
will. From then on he became a pawn of G-d's will.
The Egyptian population, on the other hand, retained their free will
throughout. At any point, they could have risen in rebellion against
Pharaoh and fought for Jewish freedom. One of the explanations for "Shabbos
Hagadol" - The Great Shabbos - the Shabbos before Pesach - is recorded in
the Medresh that details the rebellion between the first born of Egypt and
Pharaoh's forces. After Moshe's warning, the first-born believed that their
death was imminent while Pharaoh refused to give in. So the first-born went
to battle against Pharaoh and many Egyptians died in the short-lived
rebellion. Yet, in general, the Egyptian population did not rebel.
Having been informed that the Jews appeared lost and wandering Pharaoh did
exactly what G-d said he would be forced to do. (14:4) "And I will
strengthen Pharaoh and he will pursue them... then Egypt will know that I
am G-d!" Pharaoh rallied his nation and they gave chase.
What an amazing turn of events! This final episode of the story followed a
year of punishment, personal conflict, and the death of the first-born. The
Jews had finally gained their freedom and had left Egypt. We might have
thought that Pharaoh's defeat would have encouraged the Egyptian to finally
stand against Pharaoh's irrational agenda of genocide. Finally their
personal conflict was over. The Jews were gone and they could begin
rebuilding their country. Yet, it states, "and the heart of Pharaoh and his
servants became transformed!" (14:8) What happened?
Rashi referenced the Mechilta that states, "The Egyptians changed from what
they were... instead they decided to chase after the Jews because of their
money." Rashi informs us that the Egyptian population had not lost their
free will. They were not like their king who had become G-d's pawn. They
were independent of Pharaoh and willfully decided to follow his suicidal
charge because they wanted their money back.
430 years earlier, at the Bris Bain Habisarim - the Covenant Between the
Halves, G-d promised Avraham that his children would leave the land of
their enslavement and affliction with great wealth. At the Burning Bush G-d
reiterated His promise that the Jews would "empty Egypt of her wealth."
From the very start The Egyptians were going to be put to the final test.
Would they rise above their king's moral depravity and when given the
chance champion Jewish rights and freedom? Or, would they show their true
colors and when push came to shove ignore the evidence of their yearlong
experience and follow their crazed king into further disaster and destruction?
If ever we needed proof that the Egyptian population was fully behind
Pharaoh's genocidal intentions this week's Parsha provides the proof. They
were not as bad as Pharaoh was, they were worse! This was not a nation held
hostage to their king's grandiose illusions. This was a nation that
willfully decided to join their king and follow his lead. Only when it
became too painful and inconvenient did the people challenge Pharaoh.
However, once they realized that their precious wealth had been taken, all
other moral and personal considerations were abandoned.
In fact, throughout the story of the 10 Makos - plagues, the Egyptians
themselves never expressed any regret. Pharaoh is the only one who admitted
guilt and wrongdoing. Sure the Egyptian population recognized G-d's power,
and they respected Moshe's position; however, they were conveniently able
to blame Pharaoh for the unfortunate problem the Jews were suffering. "What
can we do? We are not in charge! It is Pharaoh who is to be blamed. We are
only servants (soldiers) listening to (orders) our master."
In the end, the Egyptian's were punished, both at the Yam Suf and in
Mitzrayim. G-d correctly judged the entire nation for their willful
complicity in the 116 years of forced slavery and affliction. However,
Pharaoh was different. Sure, he had shown his true colors during the first
five plagues; however, he had also expressed moments of regret and
recognition of G-d's judicious righteousness. Therefore, in the end,
following the spectacular destruction of his nation, Pharaoh remained as
the sole survivor. (The movie got it right.)
Copyright © 2002 by Rabbi Aron Tendler
and Project Genesis, Inc.
The author is Rabbi of Shaarey Zedek Congregation,
Valley Village, CA.