Several weeks ago, I set out to write what I thought would be a single longish article… Many hours and 4,837 words later, I found myself putting the finishing touches on a three part series of articles. I’m surprised at where this magnum opus Hashem sent me went– the unexpected turns, side paths, and hidden gems along the way. The text that follows not only totally changes our understanding of both Shirat HaYam and Shirat Miriam, it offers much insight on how to approach the moments of adversity and struggle in our lives.
In the space of two possukim, the Torah captures the moment immediately preceding Shirat HaYam, the Song of the Sea. Though a lot of focus is given to the Song itself, the events leading up to it are a critical turning point in Klal Yisroel’s journey to becoming an Am Segula.
Setting the Stage for Shirat HaYam
Following the splitting of the sea, the Jewish people stood by the shore watching the demise of their former Egyptian masters and absorbing the awesome miracles they had just witnessed. It was at that point that they collectively removed the yoke of Egyptian servitude.
וַיוֹשַׁע יְהֹוָה בְּיּ֥וֹם הַהוּא אֶת־יִשְׂרָאֵל מִיַּד מִצְרָיִם
וַיַּרְא יִשְׂרָאֵל אֶת־מִצְרַיִם מֵת עַל־שְׂפַת הַיָּם׃
וַיַּרְא יִשְׂרָאֵל אֶת־הַיָּד הַגְּדֹלָה אֲשֶׁר עָשָׂה יְהֹוָה בְּמִצְרַיִם
וַיירְאוּ הָעָם אֶת־יְהֹוָה וַיַּאֲמִינוּ בַּיהֹוָה וּבְמֹשֶׁה עַבְדּוֹ
And Hashem delivered Israel on that day from the hand of Egypt,
and Israel saw Egypt dying on the shore of the sea.
And Israel saw the Great Hand that Hashem did with Egypt,
and the people feared Hashem, and they had faith in Hashem
and in Hashem’s servant Moshe.1
But, a closer reading of the above possukim combined with a number of Midrashim, reveal a series of profound ideas and lessons hidden below the superficial meaning of the words.
Let’s break this down verse by verse…
And Hashem delivered Israel on that day from the hand of Egypt…
Why “from the hand of Egypt”?
At that very moment, standing by the shore the Jewish people removed the psychological yoke of slavery. Before this time, though Klal Yisroel had physically left the land of Egypt, armed and with great wealth and honor, mentally they still considered themselves to be slaves.
As the Ibn Ezra2 puts it:
We may ask: how could a great camp of six hundred thousand people fear their pursuers? Why would they not fight for their lives and for their children? The answer [is that] the Egyptians were masters to Bnei Yisrael; this generation which had just left Egypt had grown up under the yoke of Egyptian slavery, and their spirit was downtrodden. How could they now fight against their masters, with Bnei Yisrael lowly and untrained in war?
On the verse, “Yisroel saw Egypt meis on the seashore,” Reb Eliezer Nachman Foa z”l, points out that the verb is in the present tense. Thus, “Yisroel saw the Egypt dying on the seashore.” He goes on to explain that each Egyptian landed in front of the Jew who he had tortured the most. Just as the Jewish People saw the Egyptians dying, each Egyptian saw in his last moments that the Jewish People had survived.3
…and Israel saw Egypt dying on the shore of the sea.
There are two reasons given for the presence of the Egyptians on the shore of the sea. According to one explanation, some of the Jewish people feared that the Egyptian army had survived and would be empowered to pursue them again later on:
…the Jews were rebellious at that time, and they said: Just as we are ascending from one side, so too perhaps the Egyptians are ascending from the other side and will attack us later. The Holy One, Blessed be He, said to the ministering angel of the sea: Spew out the Egyptians onto dry land. … Immediately, the sea spewed the Egyptians out onto the land. As it is written: “And Israel saw Egypt dying upon the seashore”4
Elsewhere, however, Chazal teach that the Egyptians were on the shore for an entirely different reason. They were there to receive a proper burial:
The mouth that had said: “Who is the Lord that I should hearken to His voice?” (Shemos 5:2), that same mouth said: “The Lord is righteous, and I and my people are wicked” (Shemos 9:27). What reward did they receive for this? A place to be buried in was given to them, as it is said: “You stretched out Your right hand – the earth swallowed them” (Shemos 15:12)5
Though it was Pharaoh alone who actually made this statement, as their leader he represented them. It was as if the Egyptians themselves had uttered these words:
By what merit were they given burial? By the merit of the fact that they said ‘The Lord is righteous.’”
Later in the same source, we are given more information:
The Holy One said, ‘You brought judgment upon yourselves, so I will not deprive you of your reward, and I will give you a burial place’ as it is written, ‘You stretched out your right hand – the earth swallowed them’…there is no right hand except in [moments of] judgment6
So, the “judgment” given to the Egyptians by none other than Hashem Himself was that they deserved a proper burial.
But, if both explanations are true, then we are left with several apparent contradictions:
First, what was the primary cause of the Egyptians being spit out of the sea? Was it the Jewish people’s lack of emunah or the Egyptians’ temporary acknowledgment of Hashem’s Righteousness and their wickedness?
Second, how could the Egyptians get rewarded with a proper burial that eternally benefits the spirit? Aren’t the wicked rewarded for any good deeds in this world so that they may be destroyed in the next world? As it says, “He repays His enemies to their face in order to destroy them.”7
And Israel saw the Great Hand that Hashem did with Egypt…
These questions, however, pale in comparision to the following insight:
Rashi translates the words, הַיָּד הַגְּדלָה, the Great Hand, as “the Great Might that the Hand of the Holy One, blessed be He, did.”8
What was this “Great Might” that Hashem did with Egypt which caused the Jewish people to “fear Hashem” and “believe in Him and Moshe His servant”? While there certainly is “poetic justice” in the way the Egyptians perished, was it really so remarkable given that many Eyptians had already died during the plagues? Plus, why is Hashem’s “Great Might” not attributed to the splitting of the sea itself?
Perhaps the spectacle of the Egyptians dying on the seashore was a revelation of a different kind altogether…
A Light Unto the Jewish Nation
As we saw above, the sight of those dying Egyptians became a vehicle through which Klal Yisroel recognized Hashem and was ultimately brought closer to Him. This seemingly benign fact supersedes the fundamental rules of creation.
According to Chazal, the goal of creation is that God’s glory fill the entire world. But, the realization of that goal depends on the actions of Klal Yisroel. Through learning Torah and observing its mitzvos, Klal Yisroel reveals Hashem’s Presence on earth and automatically increases God awareness among the nations of the world. The Jewish people are thus meant to be “a light unto the nations”9 and “a kingdom of kohanim (princes/priests), a holy nation.”10
In the aftermath of the splitting of the sea, however, Hashem turned the tables. The result of one small, positive act from the leader of the pagan, immoral and lowly Egyptian people ultimately strengthened the Jewish people’s own connection to their Creator.
The Egyptians became a light unto the Jewish people!
What is going on here?
We’ll get back to this point later on.
Where Yiras Hashem and Emunah Meet
…and the people feared Hashem, and they believed in Hashem and in His servant Moshe.
Chazal teach, “In the merit of the emunah that they [Klal Yisroel] had they earned the privilege of singing shira and the Shechina rested upon them.”11 Yet it also says, “The Jewish people of that generation were of little faith.”12
We know that within Klal Yisroel, there were groups of people on various spiritual levels. Thus, though all of Israel saw the Egyptians dying on the shore, there were very different reactions.
According to Chazal, where ever it says הָעָם “the people,” it is referring to those on the lowest spiritual levels. These individuals only feared Hashem after seeing the destruction of their former oppressors. Then, “they believed in Hashem and His servant Moshe.”
This is odd, however, given that these same individuals had already witnessed numerous open miracles such as the ten plagues, the pillars of cloud and fire, and the splitting of the sea. Regarding the last miracle, the Midrash states that the level of revelation experienced by a maidservant at the sea was greater than that of Yechezkel the prophet.13
How then could they still fear an army of Egyptians, who were mere flesh and blood, after witnessing such open displays of God’s Greatness, Might, and Awesomeness?
From here we learn two fundamental points: 1) Yiras Shamayim (Fear of Heaven) precedes emunah; and 2) these two qualities work in tandem. The greater one’s Yiras Shamayim, the greater one’s emunah.
If we acknowledge the existence of Hashem as the Creator of the World, Who is all-knowing and perfect in every way, and Who continuously sustains and directs every aspect of creation, then we truly have no reason to fear anyone or anything except for Him. Absolutely nothing can happen to us that is not the explicit Will of the Ribbono Shel Olam.
When ever we fear anyone or anything other than Hashem, we show a lack of emunah in His existence and His omnipotence. Real emunah means living our lives in accordance with our knowledge of Hashem and to walk in His ways by learning Torah and fulfilling its mitzvos. For that to happen, however, we need Yiras Shamayim:
And Rabbi Chanina said: Everything is in the hands of Heaven, except for fear of Heaven, as it is stated: “And now Israel, what does the Lord your God ask of you other than to fear [the Lord your God, to walk in all of His ways, to love Him and to serve the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul](Devarim 10:12)14
Everything that comes to a person, is by way of HaKodesh Boruch Hu, for example, someone who is tall, short, poor, rich, wise, impaired, white, black. All is from Heaven, but the choice to be a tzaddik or a rasha does not come from Heaven, this a person acquires for himself. And he is given two paths and he is supposed to choose with Fear of Heaven
Only when the people no longer feared the Egyptians (because they died at the Sea) were they mentally “free” to fear Hashem, and that naturally led to an increase in emunah towards Hashem and His servant, Moshe.
This was the experience of the people on the lowest spiritual levels. But, what about those within Klal Yisroel who already had emunah from the beginning?
As a group this refers to the women.
In part two of this article, we’ll continue the topic by delving into the mysteries of Shirat Miriam (Miriam’s Song) and learn from the awesome spiritual level the women of that generation were on.
- Shemos 14:30-31
- Ibn Ezra on Shemos 14:13
- Haggadah Shel Pesach Midrash B’chiddush p.110
- Arachin 15a
- Mekhilta d’Rabbi Yishmael 13:7
- ibid 15:12
- Devarim 7:10
- Rashi on Shemos 14:31
- Isaiah 42:6
- Shemos 19:6
- Shemos Rabba 22:3
12. Arakhin 15a
- Mechilta de’Shira, Part 3
- Brachos 33b:23