How Did Pharaoh Do It?
By Rabbi Aron Tendler
(or, How could the Egyptians be so stupid!)
(14:5-8) "Pharaoh was told that the nation had fled? He said, 'What have we
done that we hhave sent away Israel?' The hearts of Pharaoh and the people
were transformed. He harnesssed his chariot, assembled his army, and
chased after the fleeing Jews..."
How did Pharaoh do it? In the aftermath of the ten plagues, how did Pharaoh
convince his nation to collectively commit suicide? Taking the Torah
literally, Pharaoh himself may have had no choice because G-d had hardened
his heart; but what about his nation? Hadn't they suffered enough? Hadn't
they all just returned from burying their dead? Didn't their empty
cupboards, hungry children, grumbling bellies, denuded fields, empty
stables, collapsed economy, remind them that they were defeated? They had
gambled against the might of the Creator and had lost! Were they all
idiots? Did they think that the past year of ever increasing punishment,
devastation and pain had been nothing more than a bad dream?
And what about their moments of lucidity, recognition, acceptance, and even
repentance? (8:15) "It is the finger of G-d?" (9:20) "Those among the
servants of Pharaoh who feared G-d?" (9:27) I have sinned, G-d is righteous
and I and my nation are evil." (10:7) "And the servants of Pharaoh said to
him? Do you not yett know that Egypt is lost?" (10:16-17) "I have sinned
against G-d? bear my sin just one more time?" (12:31-33) Rise up, go out
from among my people? go serve G-d? and bless me as well? Egypt hastened to
send them from the land? We are all dying!"
Is it possible that in just three days (See Rashi 14:2) the shock and
trauma of the past year and its culminating Death Of The First Born had
worn off? What possessed the Egyptians to rush heedlessly after their
leader into certain disaster?
Furthermore, what happened at the Yam Suf (Red Sea)? The Egyptians
descended upon the hapless nation and were stopped by a miraculous cloud
through which they could not see or penetrate. Plunged into total darkness
the Egyptians did not back down! According to the Mechilta (Rashi 14:20-21)
the Egyptians unsuccessfully attempted to fire missiles, arrows and spears
at the Jews but the cloud-wall could not be penetrated; yet, they did not
Furthermore, at some point the cloud cover lifted and the Egyptians saw the
astounding spectacle of Kriyas Yam Suf (Parting of the Sea). Instead of
turning heel and fleeing in abject terror of G-d's incomprehensible might
and power they entered between the walls of water! Why? What possible
rational could there have been to force them into the gaping jaws of
certain destruction and death? Only as their chariots got bogged down in
the mud did the dire certainty of their situation become clear to them.
(14:25) "I shall flee before Israel for G-d is waging war for them against
(14:30-31) "On that day G-d saved the Jews? They believed in G-d and His
After Moshe accepted the mission of representing G-d to Pharaoh, the Torah
testifies, (4:31) "And the people believed? and they bowed their heaads and
prostrated themselves." From that moment and on, except in the aftermath of
Moshe's first failed meeting with Pharaoh (5:20-21) neither the Jewish
people nor their leaders said a word. It is assumed that with the advent of
the Ten Plagues and the cessation of forced servitude their belief in
Moshe's mission was confirmed. Every subsequent plague deepened their
belief in G-d and strengthened their trust in Moshe.
In last week's Parsha (12:28), the Jews listened to Moshe's instructions
and took the god of Egypt and tied it to their bedposts. The moment (it was
Shabbos) revealed how far the nation had grown in their trust of G-d and
Moshe and is forever memorialized as "Shabbos Hagadol - The Great
After the last plague, the Bnai Yisroel followed Moshe into the desert with
minimal provisions and nothing more than a promise of a homeland. The
nation of men, women, and children trustingly walked into the harsh and
hostile wilderness of Sinai. It was a moment of such absolute and wondrous
trust in G-d and Moshe that Yirmiyah recorded G-d's love and appreciation.
(2:2) "So did G-d say, I remember the kindness of your youth? Your
following after Me in the wilderness, in a land not sown."
Pharaoh caught up to the "escaping" Jews camped at the edge of the Sea of
Reeds. The Jews heard the thundering approach of the world's most powerful
army and they were understandably frightened. The Torah records (14:10)
that they immediately "cried out to G-d." They then turned to Moshe and
expressed their fears to him. Note! First they turned to G-d and then they
turned to Moshe. Moshe told them, (14:13) "Do not fear! Stand fast and see
G-d's power? you are to remain silent!" They remained silent! They listened
to Moshe! They trusted G-d!
What an amazing transformation! After 210 years of supposed abandonment by
their G-d, the nation of slaves trusted G-d and Moshe enough to put their
lives and the lives of their families in life-threatening danger. Even more
so, following Nachshon Ben Aminadav's courageous jump into the sea (Shemos
Rabbah 21:9) they walked through the towering walls of water with the
Egyptians giving chase!
Toward morning Moshe stretched out his hand over the sea and the walls of
water came crashing down. In one awesomely frightening yet elating moment
the Egypt of old ceased to exist. What a year of miraculous revelations
could not accomplish the sea accomplished in moments. "And they believed in
G-d and in Moshe His servant."
Why? What happened in that moment that had not been confirmed over and over
again in the course of the preceding year? Why did it take Kriyas Yam Suf
to convince the Jews to trust in G-d and Moshe and why weren't the
Egyptians convinced of G-d's absolute mastery of the universe before their
headlong plunge into suicide?
Rashi (14:5) records the Mechilta that says that the Egyptians irrationally
ignored reality because they wanted their money back! For the sake of money
they ignored the evidence of inevitable and unavoidable destruction. In
Rabbi's Notebook B'shalach 2001 I elaborated on this theme and it is
important that we remember the irrational lengths some will go when it
comes to dollars and cents.
The year of plagues not only devastated the Egyptians and their economy, it
also revealed the absolute falsity and impotence of their many deities. The
gods to whom the Egyptians prayed were worthless in face of the Jewish G-
d's overwhelming onslaught. However, at the beginning of the Parsha the
Torah states (14:2) that the Jews camped "before Baal Tziphon". Rashi
referenced the Mechilta that explains the significance of this
landmark. "It alone remained of all the gods of Egypt so that the Egyptians
would say that G-d could not vanquish him and that is why the Jews were now
camped before it."
The Mechilta offered a rational for why the Egyptians ignored the evidence
of a year in favor of a momentary aberration. Being that all the other gods
had been destroyed it was a wonder why Baal Tziphon still stood. Therefore,
the Egyptians concluded that the entire year had been a devious but
masterful plan on the part of Baal Tziphon to bring the Jews and their G-d
to a spectacular and surprised ending. The year long suffering had been a
divine sting operation. The Jews would think that they had won; their false
confidence would entice them into the desert; they would find themselves
between a rock and a hard place; then Ball Tziphon would destroy them and
their G-d forever!
I would like to suggest a third approach. In last week's Darash Moshe my
Grandfather Zt'l explained that the month of Sivan (#3), the month of Matan
Torah, should have been the 1st month of the calendar. Matan Torah was the
single greatest moment in human history and it deserved to be remembered
always as the beginning; yet, it is the month of Nissan, the month of the
Exodus that was designated as month #1. My Grandfather explained that
Nissan is #1 because it was the preparation for Matan Torah. Without Nissan
and the miracles of the Exodus the Jews would have never been ready to
accept G-d's Torah; therefore, Nissan was chosen to be "Rosh Chadashim ?
the first of all months." (Folllowing that reasoning, can you imagine how G-
d considers the time and money we spend on giving our children a Torah
education?) In essence, my Grandfather explained that the importance of
Nissan is related to Matan Torah no different than the actual month in
which the Torah was given.
What was so unique about Matan Torah? All the commentaries note that the
uniqueness of Matan Torah in contrast to the origins of all other religions
is its setting. All other viable religions say that their religions began
with a single person having a divine revelation. The Torah states that
Judaism began when G-d revealed Himself to an entire nation. The national
quality of Matan Torah sets it apart from all other religions and cogently
argues its divine authenticity.
The same can be said about Kriyas Yam Suf. The year of plagues and miracles
emphasized G-d's mastery over nature. It proved to each and every
discerning person that G-d truly existed; however, each and every plague
was experienced as individuals, families, and groups. None of the plagues
involved a single spectacular showing of divine might and mastery in the
presence of an assembly of millions. When something happens to individuals
or smaller groups it allows for those who experienced it or those who heard
about it to offer rational explanations for the otherwise miraculous. It
allows for the miracle to be explained away along with the obvious proof of
G-d's existence. Not so with Kriyas Yam Suf.
The Parting of the Sea, like Matan Torah, was performed before a multitude
numbering close to 4.5 million. (3 million Jews, 1 million Eruv Rav -a
mixed multitude of non-Jews inspired by the year of events to join the
escaping Jews in their destiny- and the entire Egyptian Army.) It was the
international, public, setting of the miracle that made it indisputably an
act of G-d. Therefore, as the Pasuk in Uz Yashir states, (15:2) "This is my
G-d?" (see Rashi) The Jews ccould point their finger at the moment and
say, "Look, can you not see Him!"
Until Kriyas Yam Suf the Egyptians could rationalize away the inevitable
conclusion. However, once they all witnessed the revealed might of the
Creator, they had no choice but to proclaim, (14:25) "I shall flee before
Israel for G-d is waging war for them against Egypt!" But for them it was a
little to little a lot too late.
The Jews on the other hand collectively experienced a moment in history
that catapulted them beyond intellectual limitations and rationalizations.
They looked at each other, they looked at their children, their children
looked at them, and they proclaimed in unison, "We believe in G-d and in
Moshe His servant!"
Copyright © 2004 by Rabbi Aron Tendler
The author is Rabbi of Shaarey Zedek Congregation, Valley Village, CA.