THE DRAMA BEFORE THE SEA
The prelude to the miracle of the splitting of the Reed Sea would seem to be straightforward. God wanted to finally and fully demonstrate to Egypt that He was God.1 Thus He hardened Pharaoh’s heart leading to the latter’s decision to pursue the Jewish People, eventually even into the parted sea which then engulfed the Egyptian army. A review of the verses leading up to this great miracle, however, would seem to indicate a much more elaborate causal sequence.2
It would seem that this whole episode began with God instructing Moshe to lead the nation back towards Egypt and eventually to camp between the sea and the temple of the idol Ba’al Tziphon¸ the only idol, remaining in Egypt, untouched by the devastation of the plagues.3 Pharaoh, hearing that the Jewish People were in the process of returning, believed them to be lost, unsure of their way. In that they also stopped and camped by this Temple of the Egyptian god of death and the barren waste of the desert,4 who was unaffected by the plagues, he further believed that this idol must have been involved in affecting the Jewish flight from Egypt. Building upon these two assumptions, Pharaoh concluded that these actions by the Jewish nation must indicate a limitation in the powers of ‘the Jewish God’ and, thus, decided to pursue the Jews. It would seem that it was not simply that God hardened Pharaoh’s heart. God, also, forged a complete scenario that would trick Pharaoh into chasing the Jewish nation. But why was this necessary if God was simply going to harden Pharaoh’s heart in any event?
When we think of God hardening Pharaoh’s heart, we generally understand this to mean that God removed Pharaoh’s free choice and caused Pharaoh to make the decisions that he made. If this was so, indeed the whole scenario of trickery that led Pharaoh to decide to chase the Jewish nation would seem to be superfluous. Malbim, Shemot 14:4 explains that the idea of hardening the heart is, actually, a response to Pharaoh’s original state. At first, Pharaoh’s heart was “soft;” he did not know what to do: should he chase after the Jews or not? In hardening his heart, God forced Pharaoh to make a decision in favour of the pursuit. It was not simply that God forced Pharaoh to chase the Jews. The doubt about what to do had to exist first. God could then tip the scales in favour of one position. Yet the question still remains: why is original doubt important in this scenario? Why was this trickery, culminating in the forcing of Pharaoh to chase the Jewish nation, so necessary?5
Another similar question may also be asked in regard to this Divine plan: why was it so necessary for the Jewish People not to know of this plan? While the nation showed great faith in following Moshe’s command to retreat backwards eventually they were truly challenged, crying out in fear of perishing in the desert.6 Why was this necessary? God told Moshe that He was going to show Egypt that once and for all He was God. So why not fully explain the plan as well? Why not inform Bnei Yisrael of the trap He was laying for the Egyptians and that, as such, there was no need to worry? The simple answer is that the nation should have had faith and, perhaps, this is legitimate. God simply did not tell the Jewish nation of his elaborate scheme because He wanted them to trust Him even as they did not know the specifics? But why was this lesson important at this time? We could hypothesize that there must have been some connection between the instruction He wished to convey to the Egyptians and the lesson He wished to impart on the Jewish nation – but what was this connection?
God stated right at the beginning of his instructions to Moshe that a significant part of His goal in regard to the Exodus was to teach Egypt that He was God.7 A similar goal seemed to also exist for Israel.8 What does this mean, though? From Shemot 6:2, it would seem to be that this goal was more than just to demonstrate the presence of the true God. Included in this goal was the revelation of an understanding of God that was unique. God had already revealed Himself, in the past, as Keil Shakkai but now He wished to reveal Himself as YKVK. Ramban, Shemot 6:2 explains that within the definition of the former, God will only act within the rules of nature. Miracles could occur but always within the parameters of these broad rules. Within the latter definition, God will reveal Himself as above nature, not limited by any such parameters. This is indeed what occurred with the plagues in Egypt. The rules of nature were shattered by God’s actions in Egypt. There was still one parameter, though, that had to be confronted for it can also limit our understanding of YKVK. This is the parameter of human understanding...
God clearly commands us to apply human reason in our lives and in our study and application of Torah. It is part of the Divine goal for human beings to think and to attempt to understand to the best of their ability. Yet even the best of human ability and reason is infinitely inferior to that of the Divine. Recognition of this qualitative distinction also had to be part of the instruction of the awareness of YKVK – and this lesson was the one that would be finalized at the sea. God’s actions in Egypt were understandable. He wanted the Jewish nation to be freed and took action in order to accomplish this goal. When Pharaoh finally succumbs to God’s Will, he still believes that he at least understood what was happening; God, whom Pharaoh now learned has powers beyond the laws of nature, simply forced him to let the Jewish nation go. But now, in the week that followed the Exodus, the behaviour of the Jewish People that he was witnessing made no sense. The nation was traveling in a chaotic manner – is this what you would expect from a nation led by God? What was occurring seemed to have no rhyme or reason. Must be that ‘the Jewish God” Himself is confused. And is there not some significance to the fact that the one idol left standing in Egypt is the idol that would cause trouble to a nation in the desert?
Pharaoh had doubts. Does he chase after this nation and bring them back to Egypt or not? On one hand, he experienced what this God could do but looking at the behaviour of this nation now he was confused. This was a correct human response; it can teach us to approach life and God with some hesitancy. We don’t know or understand everything. But God wanted to ensure that this lesson of human hesitancy be solidified so He hardened Pharaoh’s heart – caused Pharaoh to take a stand and force a concrete understanding – and decide to chase after the nation, When the sea drowned his army, he finally understood the complete message --.God is ultimately not understandable. We, as the recipients of Torah, have to further understand that while we are to strive to understand, the ultimate goal is actually not attainable.
Rabbi Benjamin Hecht
1 Shemot 14:4. For a fuller discussion regarding God’s reasons for this whole drama, see Rabbi Yehuda Nachshoni, Hagot B’Parshiot HaTorah, Beshalach I.
2 Shemot 14:1-18 with commentaries.
3 Rashi, Shemot 14:2. .
4 Rabbi S.R. Hirsch, Shemot 14:3.
5 See, also, Or HaChaim, Shemot 14:2.
6 Shemot 14:11. .
7 Shemot 7:5.
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