l'ilui nishmat R' Avraham ben Yona Ya'akov
“And it was when Pharaoh sent the people” (13; 17)
In the Midrash Rabba it states:
“And it was, when Pharaoh sent out the people...”
Was it Pharaoh who sent them? It was G-d who sent them! As the verse states (Bamidbar 23; 22) “G-d brought them out of Egypt”. Rather ‘sent’ in this context means ‘accompanied’.
This Midrash is unbelievable! When the Midrash wants to prove that it was G-d who brought Israel out of Egypt could it find no other source than Bilaam? The whole Torah (from Shemot onwards), and the Prophets are full of quotes that it was G-d who took us out of Egypt. Almost every single parsha attests to this, both in the words of G-d and in the words of Moshe. Why did the Midrash leave all of those holy, trustworthy sources and had to search for this principle in the words of Bilaam! Is this not incredible?
I am amazed that none of the commentaries discuss this, and they all read it without question.
If this proof (that it was G-d who took us out of Egypt) would have been directed at the non-Jewish nations, in order that they should know, perhaps we could have explained that the Midrash wanted to bring a proof from a non-Jewish source (i.e. Bilaam). This would be saying that even their non-Jewish prophet accepts that G-d brought us out of Egypt. However this whole Midrash is clearly directed at Israel and for Israel, in order that we should understand the language of the Torah. It is explaining why the Torah used the word ‘when he sent’ and what it means. The Midrash is bothered as to why the Torah seems to make the Exodus from Egypt dependent on Pharaoh. The verse should have said ‘when G-d brought us out of Egypt’, or like the language of Tehillim “When Israel came out of Egypt” (114; 1). If so, why do we need the proof from Bilaam?
I have thought about this, and found one possible explanation based on something that appears many times in the Tanach and in Aggadata. This is that the word ‘Am’ (people) usually applies to people on the lowest level. This explains the phrase ‘Hamon Am’ (multitude of people – average person). There are many places in Tanach that show this, like in parshat Shelach (Bamidbar 13; 28) “The people that dwells in this land is powerful” and in Yishiahu (49; 1) “The people who are going in darkness” and in Yeremiah (8; 5) “Why is this rebellious people…” and in Tehillim (95; 10) “And errant hearted people are they” and in Iyov (12; 2) “Truly you are people” (meaning that they are unlearned and average). Also in the Midrash (Parshat Balak 20) ‘Every place that it says “Am” it is derogatory language. Rashi also explains based on this in Parshat Beha’alotecha on the verse “And the people were like complainers” (Bamidbar 11; 1) – the word ‘Am’ means wicked people. Also the normal word for unlearned people is ‘Am HaAretz’.
The root of the word ‘Am’ is ‘Amam’, meaning ‘dark (in colour), as Onkelos translates “The plague became darker” (Vayikra 13; 5) as “Amema Nagaah”. Aslo in Yechezkel (31; 8) “Even cedars could not obscure it (Amamuhu)”, or in the Talmud (Pesachim 27b) “Glowing coals” – meaning that they are about to become extinguished. We find similar language in Eicha (4; 1) “How did the gold become dimmed (yu’am)”, meaning that it has lost its shine.
Since most people are dim and their spirit and talents are ‘dark’, therefore they are called ‘am’. (The exception is when it is used with another word to describe holiness, for example “The people of G-d” or “A holy people”.)
It is known that the phrase used to describe the ‘Am’ in Egypt is ‘Erev Rav’. We see this in the Zohar (Parshat Ki Tissa) on the verse “The people (Am) saw that Moshe delayed” (32; 1) – ‘Who are the ‘Am’? The Erev Rav. It is explained in the Midrashim that there were people in Egypt who did not want to leave and they were forced by G-d to leave.
Look also in the Parsha there (Ki Tissa) on the verse “These are your gods Israel”, and “Go down because your people have sinned” (32; 8).
All of the statements of the Torah and the prophets that it was G-d who took the Israelites out of Egypt are only directed at the Children of Israel, who believe in G-d and observe the Mitzvot. Therefore it does not apply to the Erev Rav who abandon G-d and desecrate the Mitzvot.
But when Bilaam said “G-d brought them out of Egypt” he was speaking to Balak, who had said “Behold a people (Am) have left from Egypt” (Bamidbar 22; 5), “Go and curse this people (Am) for me” (verse 6). To this Bilaam responded that even the ‘people’, the Am did not leave on their own but only because “G-d brought them out of Egypt”.
According to this we can explain why the Midrash brings the proof from Bilaam. That G-d brought out the Am is only shown from there, and not from any of the other sources which refer to the Israelites. Since the verse here “When Pharaoh sent the people (Am)” and not the Israelites, the Midrash is correct in questioning that it was not Pharaoh who sent them but G-d. For this it needed to bring the proof from Bilaam.
“Moshe took with him the bones of Yosef.” (13; 19)
The previous verse states that “G-d led them through the wilderness to the Sea of Reeds”, and the following verse says “they travelled from Succot”. These two verses are connected, i.e. they list the order and direction of travel. Therefore it is not easy to understand why the Torah interrupts these two verses with the fact that Moshe took Yosef’s bones with him. This should have been written later, after verse 22. Here it doesn’t seem to connect at all with what comes before or after, and appears to interrupt the flow of the narrative.
Perhaps it is possible to explain (allegorically) based on the Midrash brought on the verse in Tehillim (114; 3) “The Sea saw and fled.” What did the Sea see (that caused it to split)? – the coffin of Yosef. Therefore since the previous verse states that G-d led them towards the Sea of Reeds, the Torah comes to explain here that Moshe took Yosef’s bones in order that the Sea should split.
“It was told to the king of Egypt that the people had fled” (14; 5)
It is hard to understand what they told the king. He himself went to Moshe and Aharon to hurry them out of Egypt. Also the rest of the Egyptians pressured B’nei Yisrael that they should leave as quickly as possible, as explained in Parshat Bo (12; 31 – 33) “Pharaoh arose in the night and called to Moshe and Aharon and said to them ‘Get up and leave, you and all of Israel’ and the Egyptians pressured the people to leave.” What suddenly awakened in Pharaoh and the Egyptians the strong regret that they had let the Israelites go?
Furthermore the phrase “that the people had fled” doesn’t seem to make sense. There is no indication in the Torah that they were fleeing or running away quickly. In fact it was just the opposite, “The Children of Israel left with a mighty hand” (verse 8). Not only were they not fleeing, but they were going determinedly and deliberately.
Even Rashi is forced to explain according to the Mechilta that Pharaoh’s intention was only to send them for three days, and when he saw that they were not returning he chased after them. But this is not the simple reading of the verses at the end of Parshat Bo. When Pharaoh told them to “Get out” it seems as though he was trying to get rid of them for good.
Perhaps we can explain that the word ‘flee’ here does not mean to run away quickly. Rather it means leaving a place before the appointed or appropriate time. We find this meaning in Parshat Vayetze (Bereishit 31; 20) “For he did not tell him that he was ‘fleeing’ (leaving’)”. In other words that Ya’akov left without Lavan’s knowledge. Similarly with Yonah we find that “he ‘fled’ from before G-d” (chapter 1). In other words he tried to leave the place of prophecy – to leave Israel. Similarly in the Talmud we find ‘a slave who ‘flees’ before his time’ (Kiddushin 16a). In all of these cases the meaning is not that they fled quickly, running, but rather that it was before the appropriate time and not according to the proper fair behaviour.
So too here, as is known, the Israelites were supposed to be enslaved for 400 years (as it says in Parshat Lech Lecha – Bereishit 15; 13) “They will enslave them and afflict them for four hundred years”. Their slavery was only shortened because of outside reasons – either because the slavery was too harsh, or because of the merit of the patriarchs, that G-d had pity on them.
Therefore it could be that Pharaoh’s advisors and magicians informed him that the Jews had only been enslaved for 210 years and not the full 400 that they deserved (this secret was only known to certain individuals from the time of Avraham, and it was made known to the magicians).
This is the meaning of ‘fled’. In other words that the Israelites were leaving before the appropriate time. According to the original decree they still had another 190 years of slavery in Egypt, and Pharaoh should have been able to keep them. These is what inspired Pharaoh to chase after the Israelites and try to bring them back, since he realised (according to this calculation) that he should still enslave them for many more years. Perhaps we can find a hint to this in the fact that the gematria of the word ‘barach’ (fled) is 210, which is the number of years that they had been in slavery.
“For as you have seen Egypt today, you shall not see them ever again.” (14; 13)
I have already written the following story in my book ‘Makor Baruch’. But since it relates to this verse, and since it contains a gem of Torah, and is also a story from my youth which is dear to me despite the passage of many years, I have decided to retell it here.
This is the story:
Many decades ago I spent Shabbat with my uncle (who was also my brother-in-law) the Netziv. It was Parshat Beshalach, and on Motzei Shabbat many of the wise men from the Yeshiva were sitting around the table, and I was with them. Just then a man came to the house, one of the people of the town, and came to ask my uncle a question about something that had just occurred on that day. He began to speak:
‘More than twenty years ago, after many years of partnership in business with Mr ‘A’, we had a fight. The dispute became so bitter that I took a vow that I would never look him in his face again. For all these years I have kept this vow completely. However, today this man has just passed away. I wanted to go now, on his last day on this earth, to look at him one last time and ask him for forgiveness, as is the custom. But I am afraid that I may not be permitted to do so because of my vow. This is my question. Am I permitted to look now at his face in order to ask his forgiveness?
My uncle turned to the assembled guests at the table and asked them to give their opinions on the matter. Almost all of them focussed on one point, which was that ‘had he known that this would happen he would not have made the vow’ (a phrase from the Gemara which allows the judge to nullify the vow). They discussed this at length, in all its details.
When it came my turn to give my opinion, I told them that I was amazed at their uncertainty. I told them that it was only a few hours ago that we read the solution to this problem in the Torah. And this answer is so clear that it does not leave room for any doubt or further discussion.
All of them looked at me incredulously and waited for my solution.
I explained: It has only been a few hours since we read in parshat hashavua (I have already explained that it was just after Parshat Beshalach). G-d promised us “For as you have seen Egypt today, you shall not see them again”. Later in the same parsha it states “And Israel saw Egypt dead….” We see clearly that ‘seeing’ normally applies only to live people and not to the dead.
Furthermore, perhaps you will tell me that this was only superficial ‘seeing’, glancing at the corpses. In which case this is not an answer to our question, since our questioner wishes to actually look at the face of the deceased. For this I will bring you the Midrash which tells us that each Israelite recognised the Egyptian who had persecuted him, and saw him dead. So we see that even looking properly at someone who is dead is not included in the normal usage of the word ‘to see’. Therefore the oath not to look at his partner again, only applies to during his lifetime, and not after his death.
Based on my words my uncle permitted the questioner to go and look at the deceased and ask for forgiveness. The next morning my uncle told me that he had spent the night thinking of beautiful gems hidden in the Torah, and that this insight of mine had been one of them. With great feelings of love he wished me ‘yashar kochacha’ - ‘well done’.