Ari Sacher

‘Return of the Jedi’ Parashat Beshalach 5781

After 10 plagues, through which G-d has reduced Egypt from superpower to rubble, Pharaoh has finally had enough. He cannot get rid of his Jewish slaves quickly enough. They leave Egypt like a bat out of hell and set out to return home to the Land of Israel. While their destination is clear, they do not take the shortest route [Shemot 13:17-18]: “It was when Pharaoh let the people go, G-d did not lead them by way of the land of the Philistines, although it was nearer; for G-d said, ‘The people may have a change of heart when they see war, and return to Egypt.’ So G-d led the people roundabout, by way of the wilderness at the Sea of Reeds (Yam Suf)”.

Before we continue, we must first nail down the geography. The Jewish People were living in Goshen, which according to most scholars was about fifty kilometres northeast of modern Cairo. The Land of Israel lay about three hundred kilometres to the northeast of Goshen, via the northern Sinai Peninsula, on modern day Route 40[1]. This route traversed the Philistines, who lived on the Mediterranean coast between modern day Gaza and Tel Aviv. The Torah’s concern was that if the Jews would encounter the Philistines, who were belligerent by nature, than an ensuing war would entice the Jews to return to the relative safety of Egypt.

Rabbi Ovadiah Seforno, who lived in Italy in the sixteenth century, notes that G-d inserted a number of waypoints along the route to the Land of Israel. One of these waypoints, unsurprisingly, was Mount Sinai. After all, Moshe was told at the burning bush [Shemot 3:12] “When you have freed the people from Egypt, you shall worship G-d on this mountain”. The Divine Revelation at Sinai was the climax of the exodus. A second waypoint inserted into the journey was the Sea of Reeds, which the Jewish People needed to traverse in order to drown the Egyptians. The problem, according to the Seforno, was that the shortest path from Egypt to the Sea of Reeds traversed the Land of the Philistines[2], a land which, as we have seen, that G-d wanted to avoid.

The Torah’s concern seems overblown. When the Jewish People find themselves trapped, with Pharaoh’s army bearing down on them on one side and the raging Sea of Reeds on the other side, never do they suggest returning to Egypt or even surrendering to the Egyptians. They vent, accusing Moshe of taking them into the desert to die [Shemot 14:12]: “Is this not the very thing we told you in Egypt, saying, ‘Let us be, and we will serve the Egyptians, for it is better for us to serve the Egyptians than to die in the wilderness’?” But they do not mutiny. Rather, they wait for Moshe to save them. Why was G-d afraid that they would return en masse to Egypt were they to encounter the Philistines?

While G-d did not want the Jewish People to return to Egypt on their own volition, He commands them to do something very similar [Shemot 14:2-4]: “Tell the Israelites to turn back and encamp before Pi-hahiroth, between Migdol and the sea… Pharaoh will say of the Israelites, ‘They are lost…’ Then I will stiffen Pharaoh’s heart and he will pursue them…” Once Pharaoh has left the relative safety of Egypt to chase after the Jewish People, whom he is convinced have lost their way, it would be trivial to entice him into entering the sea with his army, a sea that they would never exit. These verses seem to strengthen the hypothesis of the Seforno that the Sea of Reeds had always been a predefined waypoint on the way home.

Rabbi Chaim ibn Atar, known as the Or HaChaim HaKadosh, who lived in Morocco in the eighteenth century, is disturbed by G-d’s strategy of drowning the Egyptians in the Sea of Reeds. The Or HaChaim writes, “Anyone who reads this verse cannot help wondering why G-d would give an order designed to trick Pharaoh into pursuit of the Israelites, when He has many other means at His disposal to bring about the same result?” Further, by enticing Pharaoh to run after the Jewish People, G-d was forcing them into a life-threatening situation in which they could have feasibly turned around and returned to Egypt. Why did G-d need to insert that extra waypoint? Why couldn’t G-d just bring an eleventh plague that would kill all of the Egyptian soldiers the same way that the tenth plague killed all of the Egyptian first-born? The Or HaChaim answers that the Jewish People needed closure and for this they needed evidence. Had the Egyptians died in Egypt, had the Jewish People not seen the bloated bodies of the drowned Egyptian soldiers, they would never have stopped looking over their shoulders. Only after [Shemot 14:30] “Israel saw the Egyptians dead on the shore of the sea”, only after [Shemot 14:31] “Israel saw the wondrous power which G-d had wielded against the Egyptians”, only then are we told [Shemot 14:31] “The people feared G-d; they had faith in G-d and His servant Moshe”.

The explanation of the Or HaChaim provides insight on G-d’s decision not to take the Jewish People via the Land of the Philistines. G-d was not at all concerned that should the Philistines open fire on the Jews then the Jews would turn and run. The havoc that G-d had wreaked in Egypt was still fresh enough in their minds that they would stand tall, as shown by their refusal to return to Egypt when they stood trapped at the Reed Sea. G-d’s concern was that were they to encounter the Philistines at some later date, after the Egyptian euphoria had worn off, that they might then consider returning to Egypt[3].

This explanation can also illuminate the first word of the portion: “Va’yehi” – “It was”. The Talmud in Tractate Megilla [10b] teaches that the word “va’yehi” portends distress[4]. What was so distressful about the Jewish People finally being redeemed from Egypt and returning to their land? Most answers I have seen connect the word “va’yehi” to “when Pharaoh let the people go”. They attribute the distress to the Jewish People giving credit to Pharaoh for letting them go rather than giving credit to G-d for taking them out. Leveraging the explanation of the Or HaChaim, I suggest that the distress concerned the route they took, “by way of the wilderness at the Sea of Reeds”. The fact that G-d was forced to add that waypoint, the fact that we forced G-d to drown the Egyptian army in the sea, the fact that we would not believe what we could not see, is a low point in our history as a nation. It would be nice to say that we have matured but it is not clear that we have. Israelis trumpet the success of Iron Dome – they recklessly leave the safety of bomb shelters to film the intercepts – and yet they are indifferent to “reports from the international media” about weapon factories magically exploding in Iran and in Syria. What we do not see does not impress us.

The most miracle-infused portion in the entire Torah is, without a doubt, the portion of Beshalach. Not only does it contain the splitting of the Sea of Reeds, but it also includes miracles such as drawing water from a stone, manna falling from heaven, and victory over the nation of Amalek via Moshe raising his hands skywards. The portion of Beshalach is always read immediately before or after Tu B’shevat, the 15th day of the month of Shevat, essentially a Jewish Arbour Day. I suggest that the proximity of the mundane Tu B’shevat with the portion of Beshalach highlights the fact that G-d’s handiwork is no less evident in the apple you just picked from that tree than it is in the splitting of the sea or even in an Iron Dome intercept. All we have to do is open our eyes.

Shabbat Shalom and stay healthy.

Ari Sacher, Moreshet, 5781

Please daven for a Refu’a Shelema for Yechiel ben Shprintza, Eli bat Ilana, and Iris bat Chana.

[1] If one inputs the starting point at Zagazig (Goshen) and the destination at Ashqelon, the Israeli town nearest to Egypt, Google Maps calculates a much more circuitous route, one that cuts through the centre of the Sinai Peninsula, much closer to Jebel Musa, one possible location of Mount Sinai. This route seems to mimic the route that the Jewish People took at the exodus from Egypt. The reason for this is that the borders between Gaza and both Egypt and Israel are closed: the only way into Israel from Egypt is via Eilat, at Israel’s southern tip.

[2] It is clear that the Seforno’s maps were very different than ours.

[3] Even with all the shock and awe at the Sea of Reeds, their “faith in G-d and His servant Moshe” did not last long. One year later, when the spies Moshe sends to reconnoiter the Land of Israel return with a bleak intelligence report, the Jewish People scheme to replace Moshe and return to Egypt.

[4] The Talmud eventually modifies this statement, teaching that while the word “va’yehioften portends distress, the words “va’yehi bi’mei” – “it was in the days of…” always portend distress.

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 2000 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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