Beit Midrash

  • Torah Portion and Tanach
  • Beshalach
To dedicate this lesson

The Right Thing, for the Right Reason

Just when they thought it was safe to leave Egypt, they would again face an existentialist danger at the banks of the Reed Sea. Why did Paro change his mind once again?


Rabbi Stewart Weiss

Shvat 13 5781
Just when you thought it was safe to leave Egypt....
After 210 years in Mitzrayim, after 117 years of slavery and subjugation by the Pharoahs, after 10 crushing plagues that brought once-mighty Egypt to its knees, you would think that finally, Bnei Yisrael could heave a sigh of relief, that they could leave Egypt behind and head straight for Israel. But no, it didn't quite happen that way. For no sooner had the Israelites departed, that they would again face an existentialist danger at the banks of the Reed Sea. What happened?! Why did Paro change his mind once again, reneging on his pledge to let us go?
One idea we have discussed before comes from the opening pasuk of our Sedra, "And it was, when Paro sent out the people..." Excuse me!! When WHO sent out the people?! Paro?! Wasn't it Hashem who freed us?! And so G-d, hearing that Paro was (falsely) being given credit for the Exodus, decided that He needed to do one more thing to absolutely show us that He, and He alone was our savior - and so there followed the saga of the splitting of the sea, after which the whole nation sang in unison, "Who is like You, Hashem - mighty in holiness, awesomely praised, doer of wonders; Hashem shall reign for eternity!"
But Rav David Lieberman - the venerated chief rabbi of Antwerp, who I merited to have teach me for my Bar Mitzva - has another answer. He says that after Bnei Yisrael exited Egypt, Paro began to think, "Now why did Moshe, supposedly acting on behalf of the Israelite G-d, keep asking me, pleading with me, begging me to let Israel go?! If He is such an all-powerful G-d, then why did He need my permission, my help?! Why didn't He extricate Israel all by Himself?! Obviously, He isn't so great or so mighty! In fact, He actually must fear ME!"
And so, Paro, in his final miscalculation, made the fatal decision to lead his army into battle against us. As a result, Egypt would see its place as a world power vanish into oblivion at the bottom of the sea.
What Paro failed to understand was that Hashem wanted Paro - of his own volition, without any coercion - to come to the moral conclusion that one human being has no right to enslave or oppress another human being. To acknowledge that there are boundaries of right and wrong in the universe, and that each person must use his G-d given intelligence and sense of fairness to pursue justice and decency. The problem with coercion is if you do that which is right only because you are forced to do it, then not only do you forfeit your b'chira chafsheit, your right to choose, but you will invariably revert to your evil ways when you think you can get away with it.
Paro's decision to free Bnei Yisrael could have sent a powerful, revolutionary message to the world at large, a history-changing declaration that would have vaulted him to immortal status for all time. Instead, he led his grand army to destruction, & his reputation, along with the pride and prestige of Egypt, sank forever to a watery grave.
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