parsha of the week

Questions shroud the great chase


Nothing in parshat B’shalach touches capture our attention as much as the events surrounding the splitting of the sea.

The stubbornness of Pharaoh and his army is a tragic tale of greed, human manipulation and sacrifice for a foolish king willing to lose every one of his followers to hold onto a warped sense of dignity that had already been destroyed.

“And the king of Egypt was told that the nation had fled, and so the heart of Pharaoh and his servants turned with respect to the nation and they said. ‘What is this that we have done in sending away Israel from serving us?’ And he set up his chariot and he took his nation with him.” (14:5-6)

Netziv is of the view that the “nation” Pharaoh “took” with him were his soldiers. Malbim shares that opinion and suggests that the 600 chariots and whatever horses Pharaoh brought were all that remained in Egypt’s arsenal; all animals were killed in the fifth plague unless brought indoors by those who feared G-d.

But are we reading the verse correctly? The Egyptians refer to the departing slaves, who were sent away, as “Israel.” So what is the “nation” which caused Pharaoh and his servant to turn their hearts? Why would the “fleeing nation” in verse 5 refer to Israel, which had been sent away?

In the second verse, Pharaoh takes his own “nation” with him in pursuit of Israel. Did Pharaoh turn on his own people, looking to enslave them in place of the now missing Israelites? Were they forced to chase after the Israelites — after all, Pharaoh “took” them, perhaps against their will? Does “the nation” and “his nation” refer to two different groups?

Each time “ha’am” (the nation) appears in the text, the context is vague.

While Ramban famously refers to the Egyptians’ chasing the Israelites into the miraculously split sea as an act of madness, one wonders if the madness is on the part of all the Egyptians who gave chase, or if the madness was that of their leader who ordered them into the sea.

The Torah does not give a reason for the chase and one wonders what outcome anyone, including Pharaoh, was hoping for. After all, Egyptians encouraged — possibly even forcibly — the Israelites to leave faster than Israel had intended. People who so convincingly want Israel out don’t turn around so quickly after three days of quiet and calm to re-enslave them.

Did they want to kill the Israelites? That is not even hinted to in the text, except in the fears of the Israelites, who came to their own conclusions without a shred of diplomacy or summary of Egyptian intent.

In fact, Alshikh notes that most Egyptians were not on board with whatever it was that Pharaoh thought to do in giving chase. The only reason anyone came along was that Pharaoh “took them” in the sense of kingly cajoling. When he arranged his own chariot and saddled his own horse, which “loyal follower” of the king would not follow suit? When a king does indeed lead by example, fighting in the front of the charge, his people will dutifully follow.

More specifically, the Mechilta explains, “He took them with words saying, ‘Kings usually follow their soldiers, but I will lead! Kings usually plunder for themselves getting first pickings, but I will share equally with all of you! Not only that but I will open a treasury and pay you all silver, gold, precious stones and jewels’.”

This man is either a masochist, a manipulative liar, a sadist, or a combination of any of these. He is insecure, impulsive, and he hides his manipulation tactics in the guise of giving people choices.

This is very different than having a people on board with the idea that Israel “fled” or “escaped” or “broke promises” and all agreeing that the freed slaves needed to be pursued for a shared destiny. This is a tragedy for every Egyptian forced who sacrificed his life for what Pharaoh personally deemed “the greater good” of Egypt.

Will the true story please stand up? 

Which just goes to show — leaders are only as good as when they give others the wherewithal to make their own decisions of what’s best for their future. The Egyptians who drowned were under the persuasive powers of a man who did not accept no for an answer, and who made people who knew better engage in a wrongful pursuit and senseless battle only for the sake of his own pride.

Freedom is what the Egyptians lacked. Had they had freedom, they never would have joined their crazed-up-king on a suicide mission against a G-d that had already defeated them. Because when one wants to live, no amount of money or promise of riches can truly convince someone to take a risk that is much easier to avoid when opting out, while walking between two miraculously suspended walls always has the clear possibility of drowning those caught between the water’s crossfire.