When looking at the opening verse of Parashat Beshalach, we encounter some questions. It begins, “When Pharaoh sent the people away, God did not lead them by way of the land of the Philistines, although it was nearer; for God said, ‘The people may have a change of heart when they see war, and return to Egypt.’” (Shemot 13:17)
This is a very different description of God than we read one verse earlier, at the end of Parashat Bo:
“And so it shall be as a sign upon your hand and as a symbol on your forehead that with a mighty hand the LORD brought us out of Egypt.” (Shemot 13:16)
In the verse from Bo, God took us out of Egypt, and did so forcefully, with His mighty hand. But just one verse later, it is Pharaoh that sent the people out, and God is concerned about how they will react if they face armed conflict. Where is the mighty hand we saw in the previous verse?
I think an answer can be found by looking at a question about when Israel left Egypt, as described in Parashat Bo. If we divide up the verses into distinct sections, we will find two different themes or aspects.
In Shemot 12:1-20, God gives the commandments for the Korban Pesach. They will need to eat it in a rush, as mentioned in Shemot 12:11: “This is how you shall eat it: your loins girded, your sandals on your feet, and your staff in your hand; and you shall eat it hurriedly: it is a passover offering to the LORD.” Matzah is mentioned in Shemot 12:8 and Shemot 12:15.
In Shemot 12:21-28, Moshe repeats the laws to the people. Here, however, there is no mention of matzah. And unlike the rush mentioned in the earlier section, the people are told to wait: “…none of you shall go outside the door of his house until morning” (Shemot 12:22).
The next section (Shemot 12:29-42), is similar to the first section. After the killing of the firstborns, Pharaoh calls to Moshe in the middle of the night, and tells them to leave (Shemot 12:31-32) and the people send them away in Shemot 12:33. Because of this rush, the dough of Bnei Yisrael did not have time to rise (Shemot 12:34,39). The section ends with the Torah pointing out that it was a leil shimurim – “a night of vigil.”
Then from Shemot 12:43-13:16, we again read the laws of the Korban Pesach (along with others, like tefillin) and some additional narrative, notably mentioning that, “On that very day, God took the Israelites out of Egypt in organized groups.” (Shemot 12:51). As the commentary Lekach Tov explains, “on that very day” indicates that they left in the middle of the day, so the Egyptians couldn’t say they left like thieves [at night].
So which was it? Did they leave at night, rushing to eat their meal, with no time for their bread to rise? Or did they stay in their homes until morning, leaving proudly from Egypt in the light of day?
Later verses in the Torah don’t allow us to come to a definite conclusion. Devarim 16:1 says they left at night, but Bamidbar 33:3 says they left proudly when all Egyptians could see – i.e. during the day.
The commentaries have a number of methods to resolve this issue (see for example Ramban on Shemot 12:33), but even with those resolutions, the Torah certainly is trying to show us that we need to experience both aspects – the exodus (only) at night and also the exodus during the day.
As Lekach Tov indicated, leaving during the day shows that Israel left proudly, with God taking them out, regardless of when the Egyptians wanted them to leave.
Leaving at night, however, was much less dignified – “like thieves.” They left because they were kicked out by the Egyptians, and they didn’t even have time to let their bread rise.
It appears to me that the “day” aspect shows that Israel left on their merits, gaining freedom, whereas the “night” aspect has them leaving because of God’s mercy for their suffering, and they remained slaves – this time to God.
We feel both of these aspects on the Seder night, when on the one hand we eat the matza and maror, and feel like slaves, and on the other hand, celebrate our freedom and act like kings. (See the Abarbanel on the Haggadah for an expansion of this idea).
When we begin Parashat Beshalach, we return to the “night” narrative. Here, it is Pharaoh who has sent Israel out, and God is concerned about how they will face war. The tension between the two aspects continues in the story of the Splitting of the Sea as well. (I can’t go into it here for lack of space, but read this essay by Rabbi Yehuda Rock for a detailed analysis.) Both aspects have important lessons for us to learn about our relationship to God, and so both must be included in the Torah.