“Pharaoh Sends the People of Israel out of Egypt”

by Rabbi Ephraim Z. Buchwald

Parashat B’shalach opens with a well-known verse describing Israel’s dramatic exodus from Egypt. The Bible, in Exodus 13:17, states: “Vy’he b’shalach Pharaoh et ha’ahm,” And it came to pass, when Pharaoh sent the people out. Although this statement seems rather innocuous, it is a verse laden with complexity.

Throughout the Bible we are told or it is assumed that it was G-d who took the people out of Egypt. The first of the Ten Commandments (the Decalogue) states definitively (Exodus 20:2): I am the L-rd your G-d who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of bondage. The Torah, in parashat Bo, states (Exodus 12:51): “Vy’he b’ehtzem ha’yom ha’zeh, ho’tzee Hashem et B’nai Yisrael may’eretz Mitzrayim…,” On that very day, G-d took the Children of Israel out of the land of Egypt. Even the wicked Bilaam declared unequivocally (Numbers 23:22), “Kayl mo’tzee’am mee’Mitzrayim,” G-d took them out of Egypt.

The Abarbanel (1437-1508, Spanish statesman, philosopher and commentator) formulated the question as follows: “Surely the text should rather have read, ‘When Israel went out of Egypt…’ Why mention Pharaoh as responsible?”

This is not the only difficulty that the commentators encounter in this brief verse. Our rabbis are similarly perplexed by the very first word of the verse, “Vy’he,” which means, and it came to pass. To students of the bible, the term “vy’he,” indicates trouble ahead or a sad event. In fact, “vy’he” is regarded as the origin of the popular expression “vy,” meaning “woe unto me.” All of this begs the question: What was so sad about the Jews leaving Egypt?

The commentators, especially those of the Midrash, see in this verse an allusion to the complex emotions that were stirred up at the time of the exodus from Egypt on the part of all involved: Pharaoh, the Canaanites, Moses and even G-d.

In order to explain his position, Rabbi Levi, as quoted in the Midrash, offers a parable. A farmer once sold a field that he regarded as irredeemable, since it was littered with rocks, thorns and thistles. The new owner labored diligently to clear the field and even found water flowing beneath the earth. He planted the field with vines, all types of fragrant spices and handsome pomegranates. Now that it was thriving, he built an imposing watchtower. All who beheld the field praised it. When the original owner passed by and saw all the goodness in the field, he cried out. “Woe unto me, that I have sold this field. Woe that I ever let this out of my hands.”

While in Egypt, the people of Israel were regarded by Pharaoh as useless slaves, a pile of stones, thorns and thistles. Once they departed from Egypt, they were suddenly transformed into an orchard of pomegranates, and became like a fruitful vine. When they marched, all the tribes of Israel stood beautifully arrayed like a handsome tower and all the nations praised them as they passed by. When Pharaoh saw this, he cried out, “Woe to the one who allowed these people to depart from under his hands!”

There are those who say that it was the Canaanites who cried “Woe,” and compare it to a young prince who had his own private orchard. When the prince wished to travel across the sea, he asked one of his loyal and talented servants to care for the orchard while he was gone. In return for his labors, the prince permitted the caretaker to benefit from the fruits of the orchard. Many months passed and the caretaker grew accustomed to partake of the benefits of the orchard. Therefore, when the prince returned, the caretaker cried out, “Woe.” Similarly, while the people of Israel were in Egypt, the Canaanites were permitted to dwell in the land of Canaan, to guard it and to eat of its fruits. Now that the Canaanites heard that Israel had left Egypt and would soon return to reclaim their land, they began to cry.

Others maintain that it was Moses who cried “Woe,” and compare Moses to a courtier who was placed in charge of caring for the king’s daughter. With great devotion the courtier helped nurture and raise the princess. When the attendant saw the princess preparing for her wedding, and realized that she would soon be leaving to live with her new husband, he began to cry: “I’ve worked so hard to care for her and prepare her for this day. But soon I will be bereft.” So cried Moses, “I worked so hard to free the Children of Israel from Egypt, and I will not even merit to enter the land of Canaan with them!”

Others suggest that it was the Al-Mighty who was upset, comparing it to a king whose son had been taken into captivity. The king immediately mobilized his forces, rescuing the prince from his kidnappers. Soon after placing the villains on the rack, they confessed. Cried the king: “Woe to those who confess. I wanted them to suffer more, but they confessed so quickly.” Similarly, wicked Pharaoh enslaved the people of Israel–G-d’s people. Despite the numerous plagues, Pharaoh would not let the Israelites go until all the ten plagues had been visited upon Egypt. G-d cried out, “Woe that he [Pharaoh] released my children. I had initially hoped that [Pharaoh] would release all the people. Instead, he released only the parents, but cast the children into the river. I will therefore cast Pharaoh and his hosts into the sea.”

While these Midrashim attempt to account for the use of the word “Vy’he” and the sadness that was part of the exodus, they still fail to explain why the verse indicates that Pharaoh, rather than G-d, sent the people out of Egypt? Upon examining the biblical texts closely, we find that, despite several quotes to the contrary, there are many scriptural sources that indicate that Pharaoh, and not G-d would chase the people out of Egypt. In Exodus 11:1, G-d says to Moses: There is one more plague that I will visit upon Pharaoh and upon Egypt, after that he [Pharaoh] will send you away from here. When he does send you away, he will drive you out completely and drive you out forcibly.

That is exactly what happens, and is described in Exodus 12:31: Pharaoh calls for Moses and Aaron at night, instructing them to rise up and get out of Egypt, and together with all the children of Israel, to go serve G-d as Moses and Aaron had said. The Bible tells us further, in verse 33, that the Egyptians “imposed” themselves on the people to send them out of the land urgently, for they said: Otherwise, we will all be dead men. The Israelites hasty departure under duress is further confirmed in verse 39, which states that the dough that the people had brought out from Egypt did not have time to rise, “kee gor’shoo me’Mitzrayim,” for they [the people] had been driven out of Egypt, they could not tarry, and they had not prepared any provisions for themselves.

After all this, we are still left with the question why was it Pharaoh, and not G-d, who sent the Children of Israel out of Egypt? Our rabbis therefore suggest that it wasn’t only Pharaoh, the Canaanites, Moses and G-d who were distressed at this point–the Israelites, as well, cried, “Woe!”

There are two possible reasons why the people of Israel might be in distress at this epochal juncture. The Israelites had been enslaved in Egypt for 110 years. Slavery was the only way of life with which the people were familiar. Now, they were being sent out to the great unknown, as an independent people. But, they had no idea which way to turn. Apparently, they were distressed at the prospect of freedom and independence, for which they were thoroughly unprepared.

In Exodus 21, the Torah indicates that such ambivalence is not at all unusual for slaves. In fact, Scripture presents a similar scenario. It may happen, says the Torah, that after completing six years of servitude, a Hebrew servant will say, (Exodus 21:5), “I love my master, my wife and my children. I shall not go free.” The master is then required to take the reluctant servant to the court of law, bring him to the doorpost, and bore his ear with an awl. The servant shall then serve forever. Could it be that the ancient Israelites were too intimidated to face freedom? Perhaps, refusing to leave, Pharaoh had to literally throw the Israelites out of Egypt?!

A second possible reason why the Jews would be depressed at the prospect of leaving Egypt is alluded to in the comment of the Midrash Tanchuma on the verse in Exodus 1:7: “Oov’nay Yisrael pah’roo va’yish’r’tzoo…va’tee’mah’lay ha’aretz oh’tahm,” and the Children of Israel were fruitful, teemed, increased and became strong–-very, very much so. And the land became full of them. The Midrash suggests that the theaters and the circuses of Egypt were filled with Jewish people.

Could it be that despite the arduous slavery, the Jews of Egypt had become passionate aesthetes in their land of enslavement, filling the concert halls, the theaters, the movie houses, enchanted by the fine arts, dominating Egypt’s Hollywood and in control of Egyptian entertainment, which was not known to be very sedate? Could it be that the Israelites, despite the brutal persecution, had become too comfortable with Egyptian values, and lusted for the ribald Egyptian entertainment and the blood-filled orgies? Apparently, G-d knew only too well that the people would not leave unless Pharaoh physically threw them out.

Suddenly, the daily beatings were forgotten. The trauma of having Jewish children thrown into the river or plastered into the walls when sufficient bricks were not produced was suppressed, because of the great “evening activities” that they would enjoy after their daily enslavement. The reason that it does not say that G-d took them out of Egypt was simply because they wouldn’t have responded to G-d. In fact, in our study of B’shalach 5765-2005, we are told that according to some commentators only one-fifth of the Israelites departed from Egypt! Fully four-fifths of the people assimilated or refused to leave, and died in Egypt during the three days of the plague of darkness.

Perhaps, that is why this historic verse of Exodus 13:17, reporting on the exodus from Egypt, is tinged with the word, “Vy’he.” Apparently, even after witnessing the many miracles of G-d, the Jews were not ready to leave willingly, and Pharaoh had to chase them out. How sad it is when Jews themselves refuse to allow themselves to be rescued from spiritual suffocation.

Rav Tzaddok HaCohen (1823-1900, Chassidic sage and thinker, author of many discourses on the Pentateuch), states that the whole purpose of the ten plagues was to implant within the Jews a yearning to be free from the spiritual impurities of Egypt. Alas, it failed to work. Alternatively, says Rav Tzaddok, the fact that Pharaoh chased after the Israelites indicates that there was still an emotional attachment between Pharaoh and the Jewish people. Pharaoh wanted them back. And, if it were up to the Jews, they would have returned.

How tragic! Will our people ever learn?

May you be blessed.

In this week’s parasha, parashat B’shalach, we encounter the Shira, the song, namely the historic song that Moses and the People of Israel sang as they crossed the Red (Reed) Sea. Because this song plays a central role in Jewish history and Jewish life, the Shabbat on which it is read is called Shabbat Shira, the Sabbath of Song.

On Sunday night and Monday, February 8th and 9th, we celebrate Tu b’Shevat, the fifteenth day of the Hebrew month of Shevat, the New Year for trees. In Israel it symbolizes the beginning of Spring. On Tu b’Shevat it is customary for Jews to eat species of fruit that grow in the land of Israel.