This Week's Torah Portion: Fleeing Egypt, Avoiding the Philistines

Dëvar Torah – Parashath Bëshallach (Exodus XIII, 17-XVI, 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 parsha tells us, there was a fateful change in direction:

Vëlo’ nacham Elo-him derech eretz Pëlishtim, ki qarov hu’; ki amar Elo-him, Pen yyinnachém ha‘am bir’otham milchama vëshavu Mitzrayma. Vayassév Elo-him eth ha‘am derech hamidbar Yam Suf. 

“And G-d did not conduct them on the route of the Philistine country, for it was close; for G-d said, Lest the people change their minds when they see war and return to Egypt. And G-d turned the people [to] the desert route, 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 Hashem had laid out the course of Israel’s liberation to Moshe in advance of the operation; there were to be five stages: Vëhotzé’thi — first they would be exempted from hard labor; vëhitzalti — then they would be rescued from slavery; vëga’alti — then they would be freed from Egyptian rule; vëlaqachti — then they would create a sovereign nation; vëhévé’thi — which would be established in the Promised Land.

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 the Rashban 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 as to why Israel was turned about? What is the meaning of “lest the people change their minds when they see war”?

What war?

The Sforno is 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 for the Egyptians’ final comeuppance. Yam Suf was on the way to neither Mt Sinai nor Eretz Yisra’él.

However, the shortest route from Egypt to Yam Suf was along the derrech erretz Pëlishtim, which was a well-traveled highway. Passersby 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 in the event the panic was still not prevented. As soon as the fleeing ex-slaves realized that the Egyptians were in hot pursuit of them, they railed against Moshe:

Hamibëli éyn qëvarim bëMizrayim lëqachtanu lamuth bamisbar? Ma zoth ‘asitha lanu lëhotzi’anu miMitzrayim? Halo’ ze hadavar asher dibbarnu élecha bëMizrayim lémor, ki tov lanu ‘avod eth Mitzrayim mimuthénu bamidbar.

“Is it that there were no graves in Egypt that you took us to die in the desert? What is this you have done to us to bring us out of Egypt? Is this not the thing which we said to you in Egypt, that it was better for us to serve Egypt than to die 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 nachazor lëMizrayim (“Let us return to Egypt”).

Rashi suggests that the reason they were led on a circuitous route was that, when faced by the challenge of ‘Amaléq, they would be unable to return to Egypt quickly. However, as the Ramban points out, there is 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, 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 disenagage; ‘Amaléq would have harried them the entire way.

Therefore, most of the commentators (e.g. Rashbam, Ramban, Even ‘Ezra) connect the dread milchama with the Pëlishtim themselves. Indeed, as summarized in parashath Mas‘ei (Numbers XXXIII, 1-49) Israel made an “end run” around Eretz Yissra’él through the Negev and invaded from the east, crossing the Jordan, thus avoiding the Pëlishtim.

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 VI, 4-V31), for instance, 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 a special fear of the Pëlishtim?

The midrash (Shëmoth Rabba XX, 11; cf. also Targum Yonathan on the first verse in our parasha) informs us that there was a precedent. Thirty years before this Exodus, the tribe of Efrayim had rebelled against the Egyptians, broken out into the Sinai, and attempted to storm the Holy Land, derech eretz Pëlishtim; they failed, and were largely wiped out. The sources differ as to precisely how many of the Efrayimites 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, Sanhedrin 92b tells us that these were the “dry bones” which Ezekiel revived, cf. Ezekiel XXXVII, 1ff.). This, then, was the milchama whose very sight would have demoralized Israel.

The Emeth lëYa‘aqov offers, in explanation of Efrayim’s disastrous impatience, that the Egyptian bondage weighed especially heavy on them. Efrayim, after all, was Yoséf’s son, 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 labor and hard servitude with the rest. It was this extra burden which caused Efrayim, as the midrash tells us, to make a mistake in their calculations and count 400 years from the promise to Avraham instead of 430. Their rash and precipitous action was surely understandable. But this simple explanation breeds another question: Mënashe was no less a son of Yoséf and Osnath than Efrayim; surely his descendants felt the injustice of the Egyptian yoke no less than did his brother. How were they able to restrain themselves and avoid this pitfall?

The Emeth lëYa‘aqov (Parashath VaYëchi) offer a brilliant psychological insight deduced from the brothers’ names. Yoséf named his first-born Mënashe ki nashani Elo-him eth kol ‘amali vë’éth kol béyth avi (“for G-d has made me forget all my travail and all [that happened in] my father’s house,” Genesis XLI, 51). Mënashe’s birth followed rather closely on the heel of Yoséf’s elevation to high office. The contrast between the trappings of that office and the dungeon he had just vacated 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 ki hifrani Elo-hjim bë’eretz ‘onyi (“because G-d has made me prosperous in the land of my poverty,” ibid., 52). Thus Efrayim was a little more acclimated in 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 tzaddiq, fit in the eyes of his grandfather Ya‘aqov, the man of truth, to found a tribe in Israel. Nonetheless, by the nature 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, lest we become impatient and provoke disaster.