This Week's Torah Portion: The Exodus Has Begun (Part 16)

These essays follow the annual cycle of Torah readings in synagogues the world over, and provide a taste of rabbinical exposition of each such reading in the week it occurs. For a fuller appreciation of the background and underlying premises, please click here.

Dëvar Torah – Parashath Bëshallach (Exodus XIII,17-XVII,16)

The Exodus had begun; the bënei Yisra’él were being escorted out of Egyptian territory by Pharaoh’s army. As they entered the Sinai, our parasha tells us, there was a fateful change in direction: “…And G-d did not conduct them on the route of the Philistine country [derech eretz Pëlishtim], for it was close; for G-d said, Lest the people change their minds when they see warfare and return to Egypt. And G-d turned the people [to] the desert route [to] Yam Suf” (XIII,17-18).

A moment’s consideration raises a question about this passage. We noted in parashath Va-Éra (VI,6-8) that G-d had laid out the course of Israel’s liberation to Moshe in advance of the operation. There were to be five stages: 1.) They would be exempted from hard labor. 2.) They would be redeemed from slavery. 3.) They would be freed from Egyptian rule. 4.) They would be made a sovereign nation, which would be established in the Promised Land. 5.) Ve’hevethi, “and I will bring you” to Erez Yisrael. At this point, only the first three stages had been realized; the Torah had not yet been accepted at Mt. Sinai – marking the birth of the Israelite nation – and therefore Israel was not yet established in the Holy Land. Derech eretz Pëlishtim, as Rabbi Shëmu’él ben Mé’ir (Rashi’s grandson) points out, was the shortest possible route from Egypt to the land of Canaan. Since Israel’s nationhood required their keeping the appointment at Mt. Sinai – manifestly not on the Philistine route – taking the direct route would seem to short-circuit the process. Surely that was the reason why Israel was not led along this route.

To ask the question in terms of Talmudic logic, what is the hava amina – the presumed reason – underlying the Torah’s own explanation of why Israel was turned about? What is the meaning of “lest people change their minds when they see warfare”? What warfare?

Rabbi ‘Ovadya Sforno was bothered by this question, and provides us with one answer. He suggests that while the ultimate purpose of the Exodus was surely the granting of the Torah to Israel and establishment of the new nation in the Holy Land, nonetheless an appointment had been made at Yam Suf – the Red Sea – for the Egyptians’ final comeuppance, and Yam Suf was on the way neither to Sinai nor Canaan. However, the shortest route from Egypt to Yam Suf was along the derech eretz Pëlishtim, which was a well-traveled highway. Passers-by heading to Egypt would note the huge multitude of ex-slaves and would be able to provide the Egyptians with intelligence on which the Egyptians could act with great speed, rushing along the highway in their chariots to exact their revenge. The newly freed slaves would despair on realizing this and elect to return to Egypt by this very route, hoping to forestall the wrath of their former masters. For this reason, concludes the Sforno, they were brought to the site by way of the unfrequented desert so that these fears would not be awakened.

The only problem with this scenario, of course, is that in the event the panic was not prevented. As soon as the fleeing slaves realized that the Egyptians were in hot pursuit of them, they railed against Moshe: “…Is it that there are no graves in Egypt that you took us out to die in the desert? What is this you have done to us, taking us out of Egypt? Is this not the thing that we said to you in Egypt: Leave us alone and let us serve Egypt, for serving Egypt is better for us than our death in the desert” (XIV,11-12). The Talmud (Yërushalmi Ta‘anith II,5) tells us that even as the sea was splitting, Israel was divided into four groups according to their opinions, one of which was still “let us return to Egypt.”

Rashi suggests that the reason they were led on a circuitous route was so that when faced by the challenge of ‘Amaléq, they would be unable to return to Egypt quickly. However, as the Ramban points out, there was a crucial difference between the conflict with ‘Amaléq and most of the others in which Israel became engaged. ‘Amaléq was not defending its territory against a real or imagined threat of invasion; instead, motivated by blind unreasoning and implacable hatred, ‘Amaléq had come out to the “No Man’s Land,” the howling wilderness, specifically to do battle with Israel. Thus, even if Israel had tried to return to Egypt, they would have found it extremely difficult to disengage; ‘Amaléq would have harried them the entire way.

Therefore, most of the commentators (e.g. Rashbam, Ramban, and EvenEzra) connect the dreaded “warfare” with the Philistines themselves. Indeed, as summarized in parashath Mas‘ei (Numbers XXXIII,1-49), Israel made an “end run” around Canaan through the Negev and invaded from the east, crossing the Jordan, thus avoiding the Philistines.

Certainly the Pëlishtim were mighty warriors and in the latter part of the period of the Judges came to dominate Israel even after the conquest, until their power was finally broken by King David. But they were hardly alone; in this week’s haftara (Judges IV,4-V,21), we read of Israel’s desperate battle against Yavin, king of Chatzor, and his chief of staff Sisëra — certainly also powerful foes. Why did Ha-Shem anticipate an especial fear of the Philistines?

The midrash (Shëmoth Rabba XX,11; cf. also Targum Yonathan on the first verse of our parasha) informs us that there was a precedent. Thirty years before this Exodus, the tribe of Efrayim (“Ephraim”) had rebelled against the Egyptians, broke out into the Sinai, and attempted to storm the Holy Land derech eretz Pëlishtim; they failed, and were wiped out. The sources differ as to precisely how many of the Efraimites were killed, but by all accounts it was an unmitigated military disaster, and the midrash concludes that their bones still littered the ground thirty years later. (By the way, the Talmud tells us [Sanhedrin 92b] that these were the “dry bones” which Yechezqél revived [Ezekiel XXXVII,1ff.]). This was the “warfare” whose very sight would have demoralized Israel.

Rabbi Ya‘aqov Kaminetsky, in his Emeth lëYa‘aqov, offers in explanation of Efrayim’s disastrous impatience that the Egyptian bondage weighed especially heavily on them. Efrayim, after all, had been Yoséf’s son and therefore by definition an Egyptian aristocrat. If anyone in Egypt could expect to be treated with deference and respect, surely it was Yoséf’s descendants; and yet, here they were, reduced to menial servitude and hard labor with the rest. It was this extra burden which caused Efrayim, as the midrash tells us, to make a mistake in his calculations and count 400 years from the Bërith bein Habëtharim instead of 430 (cf last week’s parasha). Their rash and precipitous action was surely understandable. But this simple explanation begs another question: Mënashe was no less a son of Yoséf and Osnath than Efrayim, so his descendants must have felt the injustice of the Egyptian yoke no less keenly than did those of his brother. How were they able to restrain themselves and avoid this pitfall?

Elsewhere Rabbi Kaminetsky provides a brilliant psychological insight, deduced from the brothers’ names. Yoséf named his first-born Mënashe “for G-d has made me forget [nashani] all my travail and all [that had happened in] my father’s house” (Genesis XLII, 51). Mënashe’s birth followed rather closely on the heels of Yoséf’s elevation to high office; the contrast between that office and the dungeon he had just vacated naturally found expression in Yoséf’s gratitude for his deliverance.

But Efrayim was born later, and his name reflects a subtle shift in emphasis. He was so named “…because G-d has made me prosperous [hifrani] in the land of my poverty” (ibid., 52). Thus, Efrayim was a little more acclimated to the Egyptian milieu than his older brother.

Please note the choice of words. We are not speaking here of gross assimilation; Efrayim, after all, was a tzaddiq, righteous in his own right, fit in the eyes of his grandfather Ya‘aqov — the man of truth (cf. Micha VII,20) — to found a tribe in Israel. Nonetheless, by virtue of his having been born a little later, during the flowering of his father’s influence and power, Efrayim felt a little more comfortable in Egypt, and felt the sense of exile a little less acutely than did Mënashe. And that made the difference.

There is a lesson for us in this, whether we live in the golden exile of America or in Israel: We must never forget that we are in exile, to the extent of cultivating a sense of our guesthood here. We must not become too comfortable, imagine that we are “as good as anyone,” or forget our sense of gratitude, lest we become impatient, and provoke disaster.