“Please Release Me” Parashat Beshalach 5779

People have a nasty habit of getting words wrong. We regularly misquote songs, politicians, and even the Bible. For instance, most people are familiar with the verse “The lion will lie down with the lamb”. Or so they believe. The actual quote is [Isaiah 11:6] “The wolf will lie down with the lamb”. While as far as the lamb is concerned, lying down with a wolf or with a lion incurs essentially equal amounts of risk, a wolf and a lion are two different animals.

A less well known biblical misquote comes from the Book of Shemot. We all know that Moses came to Pharaoh, way down in Egypt land, and told him, “Let my people go!” Some people at this point will jump up and say that Moses actually told Pharaoh, “Let my people go so that they shall serve me”. There is indeed truth to this and we will come back to this soon, but I am more interested in the first part of the verse. Whenever G-d commands Moses to speak to Pharaoh, He commands Moses to tell him “Send out my nation”. There is a seminal difference between “sending out” (shalach) and “letting go” (shachrer). From the point of view of a physicist, “sending something out” means imparting force upon a stationary object. An example would be picking up a ball that is lying on the ground and throwing it. “Letting something go” means removing an impediment so that an object upon which a force is already acting can move freely. An example would be a ball on an incline that is being blocked by a person’s foot. If the person moves his foot, then the ball will be released and it will roll down the hill on its own, courtesy of the force of gravity.

The “letting go – sending” misquote stands out like a sore pinkie in the first verse of Parashat Beshalach [Shemot 13:17]: “It came to pass when Pharaoh sent the people 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.’” Both the online Chabad and Sefaria translations of the Torah translate the Hebrew “beshalach” as “let [the people] go”. Further, the use of the word “sent” seems out of place because only one verse earlier, G-d tells Moses [Shemot 13:16] “It shall be for a sign upon your hand and for ornaments between your eyes, for with a mighty hand did G-d take us out (hotzi) of Egypt”. It would have been natural for the Torah to continue by saying, “It came to pass when G-d took the people out of Egypt…” For some reason, the Torah wants to emphasize that Pharaoh literally threw out the Jewish people from his country.

An earlier verse makes this point even more clearly. Before G-d commands Moses to inform Pharaoh that the tenth and final plague is coming, G-d tells Moses that this plague is going to be a knock-out punch [Shemot 11:1]: “I will bring one more plague upon Pharaoh and upon Egypt; afterwards he will send you[1] (shalach) from here. When he sends you (shalach), he will completely drive you out (garesh yegarash) of here”. The Hebrew word “garesh” – drive out – is an extreme form of the word “shalach” – send – and the double usage “garesh yegaresh” – completely drive out – is an extreme usage of the word “garesh”. It was in G-d’s master plan that Pharaoh hurl the Jewish People out of Egypt with all of his strength. The reason should be clear: G-d wanted to show His absolute might by bringing the world’s only superpower to its knees. Pharaoh had to tell the Jews that they should be serving not him, but G-d. The game would end only when Pharaoh had returned the Jewish People to their original Owner.

Let’s take a closer look at the first verse in Parashat Beshalach. The shortest route from Egypt to the Land of Israel goes through the northern Sinai Desert and the Gaza Strip, entering Israel at Ashqelon. G-d did not choose this route. After entering the Sinai Peninsula, He took a hard right, leading the people south, away from the Mediterranean Sea. This route took them through the Reed Sea[2] into the heart of the Sinai desert, extending the time they would spend traveling through the desert to reach their goal. Why does G-d choose the more convoluted route? The Torah answers this question: “…for it was near, because G-d said, ‘Lest the people reconsider when they see war and return to Egypt.’” The medieval commentators are perplexed by the word “for” – “ki”. Our Sages teach that the Hebrew word “ki” has four possible translations. Two of these translations are pertinent to our verse: “Ki” can mean “because” or it can mean “even though”. The verse can be saying that G-d did not take the Philistine route because it was close or even though it was close. The former explanation is the one that is most accepted[3]. That is to say, G-d did not take the Jewish People via the shortest way because it was the shortest way. The close proximity of the Philistine route to Egypt might have encouraged the Jewish People to turn around and return to Egypt at the first sign of war.

Rabbi Chaim Ben Atar, known as the Or HaChaim HaKadosh, who lived in 18th century Morocco, notes that the first word of the first verse in Parashat Beshalach is “vayehi” – “it came to pass”. The Talmud in Tractate Megilla [10b] teaches that whenever the word “vayehi” appears in the Bible, it is an indicator that something sad or unfortunate has transpired[4]. In our case, this seems counterintuitive. The Jewish People are leaving more than two centuries of slavery and are finally returning to their homeland. What could be better than that? The Or HaChaim HaKadosh answers that the pain is caused by the fact that Pharaoh had to send the people and that they did not leave on their own volition. While the Or HaChaim HaKadosh fleshes this out further, we will turn our attention to an answer proposed by Rabbi Moshe Alsheikh, known as the “Alesheikh HaKadosh”, who lived in 16th century Safed. Imagine an erstwhile Jewish slave who is running away from Egypt. He enters the Sinai Desert and suddenly and unexpectedly turns south, away from his goal. This is akin to having Waze route me from Moreshet to Jerusalem not via Road 6, a six-lane superhighway, but via Road 90, a tortuous single-lane road that winds its way through the Jordan Valley. Why in the world are we going this way?!  Maybe it’s because G-d wants to pass by the Reed Sea so that He can drown the Egyptians there in retribution for their drowning of Jewish babies in the Nile. Well, if that’s the reason, then I’ll willingly forgo revenge. I’ll forgo taking the Egyptians’ money. I’ll forgo everything, just get me out of Egypt, the sooner the better. Unfortunately, the Jewish People had completely misunderstood G-d’s strategy. He knew that the Jewish People had watched as He had battered the Egyptians into dust. The problem was that watching the crushing defeat of the Egyptians had instilled the Jewish People with a certain feeling of superiority. G-d was afraid that were they to meet resistance along the way, they might run back to Egypt, not as slaves, but as the new masters. Only by taking them via a circuitous route, only by making a return to Egypt a daunting task, could G-d pre-empt this kind of response. Rabbi Jonathan Eybeschutz, a Talmudist and Kabbalist who lived in 18th century Germany, delivers a pièce de résistance. He notes that the Midrash asserts that our forefather Isaac’s close encounter with G-d at the Akeida endowed him with the status of a burnt offering (“olah temima”) and as a result, he was forbidden from leaving the Land of Israel. When a famine forces Isaac out of his home, G-d tells him not to flee to Egypt, like his father Abraham had done, but to flee to the Land of the Philistines, meaning that the Land of the Philistines is part of the Land of the Israel. Think about it: This means that G-d dragged the Jewish People into the heart of the Sinai Desert because He was concerned that they would turn and run back to Egypt where they could lord over the broken Egyptians, even after they had already entered the Land of Israel.

The sword cuts two ways. The show of raw force that was necessary to transform the Jewish People from “slaves of Pharaoh” into “slaves of G-d” also gave them the mistaken confidence that it was their sword that had defeated the Egyptians. Three thousand years later, I’m not sure that we’ve learned our lesson…

Shabbat Shalom,

Ari Sacher, Moreshet, 5779

Please daven for a Refu’a Shelema for Yechiel ben Shprintza, and Tzvi ben Shoshana.

[1] Once again, the online translations use the words “let you go”.

[2] Another popular mistranslation: the Hebrew “Yam Suf” is commonly translated as the “Red Sea”. This is incorrect. The word “Suf” or “Kanei Suf” means “reed”.

[3] Rashi, Ramban, and the Ibn Ezra.

[4] The word “v’haya” indicates that something good has transpired.

About the Author
Ari Sacher is a Rocket Scientist, and has worked in the design and development of missiles for over thirty years. He has briefed hundreds of US Congressmen on Israeli Missile Defense, including three briefings on Capitol Hill at the invitation of House Majority Leader. Ari is a highly requested speaker, enabling even the layman to understand the "rocket science". Ari has also been a scholar in residence in numerous synagogues in the USA, Canada, UK, South Africa, and Australia. He is a riveting speaker, using his experience in the defense industry to explain the Torah in a way that is simultaneously enlightening and entertaining. Ari came on aliya from the USA in 1982. He studied at Yeshivat Kerem B’Yavneh, and then spent seven years studying at the Technion. Since 2001 he has published a weekly parasha shiur that is read around the world. Ari lives in Moreshet in the Western Galil along with his wife and eight children.
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