I need nothing
To travel the sea
I need nothing
I need nothing
But there’s something
Eating at me
-Of Monsters and Men
This week’s parsha contains the fantastically dramatic Splitting of the Sea where the Jewish nation finally bids adieu to their Egyptian lords and masters. The last view of Egypt in the rear-view mirror was that of the mighty Egyptian army drowning and flailing about in the sea as the Israelites emerge from the other side – dry and unscathed. And even though the effects of the victory was short-lived, as the nation soon began complaining thereafter, nevertheless it was spectacular theater that we daily recount in our prayers to this day.
Part of the Torah’s narration of this event – and the whole Exodus exercise for that matter – that we sometimes overlook is the insistence that it was not just about redeeming the Israelites from their slavery, but also that Egypt should know full-well who was behind it all – God in all His glory and power.
When Moshe was first told of his mission, this wasn’t mentioned at all. God’s initial proposal to Moshe was simply the business at hand. Get the Jewish nation out of Egypt and get them to Mount Sinai to receive the Torah. But then it seemed to morph into something more. Once the Redemption begins in earnest, God tells Moshe that the signs, wonders and miracles are also so that “the Egyptians shall know that I am the Lord, when I stretch out My hand over Egypt and bring out the Israelites from their midst.” (Exodus 7:5)
When we get to the first plague, Moshe is told that his warning to Pharaoh must contain this ingredient of Egypt knowing that God is pulling the strings: Thus says the Lord, “By this you shall know that I am the Lord.” See, I shall strike the water in the Nile with the staff that is in my hand, and it will be turned into blood. (Ex 7:17)
And again in the second plague, when Pharaoh entreats Moshe to remove the frogs and Moshe asks to be tested as to when exactly he would like them gone, we are told: And (Moses) said, “As you say – that you may know that there is none like the Lord our God. (Ex 8:6)
And finally, for one last go, just to rub Pharaoh’s face in it one more time, when Moshe is told that Pharaoh will pursue them into the sea, it states: And I will harden the hearts of the Egyptians so that they go in after them; and I will be glorified through Pharaoh and all his warriors, his chariots and his horsemen. Egypt will know that I am God. (Ex 14:17/18)
There are even more examples of similar phrases throughout the plagues. Which begs the question, why so much emphasis on the reaction of the Egyptians? Especially in light of the fact that, after the Splitting of the Sea, we don’t really hear anything anymore about Egypt. They are history, literally and figuratively. Yes, we mention them in the context of the story of Redemption that we recount on Pesach and many other times, but we never hear about what affect, if any, it had on Egyptian society in the long run. And nor do we care it seems.
To help us with this query we have a tiny comment by the 15th century Italian commentary, Sforno who says that when the Torah states, And the Egyptians will know that I am God it refers to the remaining Egyptian populace, that they should do teshuva and return to God. Sforno then quotes a verse from the prophet, Ezekiel which we often cite during the High Holidays. Speaking in God’s name Ezekiel declares, “For I do not desire the death of the wicked” but rather that they should repent and live.
So even though we don’t hear much of what went on in Egypt after the Israelites were long gone, in the Torah’s presentation of the events, this notion of betterment of Egyptian society is repeated time and again. Yes, of course the main part of Redemption is for the nation to be free. But right up there with it is God’s wish that Egypt should see the destructive consequences of its philosophy, lifestyle and actions, and thereby mend its ways. The Redemption from Egypt wasn’t just about getting the Israelites out and bashing our enemies, it was also about hopefully getting them to recognize and realize that there was a better way for their society to go.
This might be best expressed in a curious Midrash that gives us an epilogue to the Sea Splitting event and its aftermath. The Midrash tells us that there was one sole survivor that did not drown and die at the Red Sea. Pharaoh. Yeah, he was the only one left. The Midrash then recounts that after losing everything, he rebuilt his life and fled to Nineveh and became the leader there. And when Jonah (he of Jonah and the whale fame) told Nineveh to repent or else, their leader, the former Pharaoh, led the way. So while maybe Egypt never did full teshuva for its behavior, its leader did and brought another powerful nation along with him.
Every day, three times a day, we recite the Aleynu prayer. The first paragraph expresses how fortunate we are to be God’s Chosen People. But then the second paragraph expresses the desire, wish, hope and prayer that every other nation and people should also recognize the blessings inherent in embracing One God. We don’t look to keep this good to ourselves. We wish it for everyone else – even for our enemies. Because once they get it, they will no longer be our enemies, but our friends.
Swallowed by a vicious vengeful sea
Darker days are raining over me
In the deepest depths I lost myself
See myself through someone else