Encouraging the Nation

June 24, 2009

7 min read


Beshalach (Exodus 13:17-17:16 )

This Sedra tells of Israel's escape from Egypt and their miraculous crossing of the Reed Sea. It contains the famous Song of the Sea. Thus this Shabbat is also referred to as Shabbat Shira.

I will inject here a personal note. The readers may know that I have published a five-volume set of "What's Bothering Rashi?" with Rashi analyses on each sedra (though not on each and every Rashi-comment). For this weekly Rashi thought on the Internet I try to introduce a new Rashi (not included in the published works). This is sometimes difficult and sometimes less difficult. But it is always enjoyable & enlightening for me. The following analysis is on a Rashi-comment that I never looked at closely before, when I did this week, I found a deeper meaning than I expected. Come along with me on my search. We'll look at one of the first Rashi's on the sedra.

Exodus 13:17

"When Pharaoh sent away the People, G-d did not lead them by way of the land of the Philistines because it was near (i.e. a short route) for G-d said Lest the People change their mind when they encounter war and return to Egypt."



When they encounter war - RASHI: : For example the war of "na" (in Hebrew) can only mean [here] "please." [God is saying] I beseech you [Moses], please instruct them about this (i.e. that the Israelites should take the silver and gold vessels of the Egyptians), so that the righteous man, Abraham, should not say "He fulfilled [the promise] 'and they will enslave and afflict them' but [the promise] 'and afterwards they will go free with great wealth' He did not fulfill.



Let us begin this analysis by first understanding what Rashi is saying.

First, he says that the word "na" For example the war of ‘and the Amalekites and the Canaanites came down' (Numbers 14:45), Had they traveled the straight way they would have returned [to Egypt]. Now, if when He led them by a round-about way they nevertheless said ‘ Let us appoint a leader and we will return to Egypt.' (Numbers 14:4) had they gone on a straight way certainly [they would have returned to Egypt].

Read the comment carefully and ask your question(s).


Question #1: Rashi tells us that G-d feared that when the People will encounter a war (like they did in Numbers 14:45) they would want to return to Egypt, so G-d took them on a circuitous route, so they could not easily return.

Is this not exactly what our verse says? What has Rashi added to our understanding?

Hint: Read it through and see if you figure this out. Not easy. Let us add more questions which will make our work harder, then easier!



Question #2:

An Answer:Rashi says that in Numbers 14:4 the People wanted to appoint a leader and return to Egypt. So I ask: This is after G-d led them on a circuitous route, they nevertheless made preparations to go back. So G-d's round-about way did not accomplish anything!

Your Answer:


Before we can answer, let us look at yet another Question



Question #3:

Look up the verse in Numbers 14:4. Why did the Jews want to return to Egypt?

Your Answer:



Answer: The drash continues (after the part quoted by Rashi):

"They (the Israelites) said to him (Moses, after he told them to take the vessels): 'Oh! That we ourselves should get out of here!' This is similar to a man who was in jail and they said to him 'we will free you tomorrow and then you will receive a lot of money.' He answered them 'I beg you, free me now and I'll gladly forgo the money.' "

In light of the completed midrash can you now answer the question?

Your Answer:

An Answer: This statement was said after the Spies' negative report about the Land of Israel – not about encountering any war!

Now look up Numbers 14:45 when Canaan and Amalek attacked. What do you find?

Your Answer:

An Answer:After G-d decreed that the People must wander for 40 years in the wilderness, the People wanted to proceed against G-d's advice. Then they were attacked by Amalek & Canaan. They brought this war upon themselves! And lo and behold! The People DO NOT ask to return to Egypt after their defeat. Why does Rashi cite this case as an example of encountering war & wanting to return?


Question #4: Look at the end of our sedra Exodus 17:8. What do you find?

Your Answer :

Then Your Question!

Answer: There we find Amalek attacking Israel!

A Question: Why didn't Rashi cite this case of war encountered by Israel? Instead of the one in Numbers?

This is getting complicated, isn't it?

Think the whole thing through and come back with some answers.


An Answer to #1: Remember, Rashi cited a few "inappropriate" verses. Rashi may have been bothered by the fact that G-d had especially taken them round-about for fear that they'd see a war and want to return. But here in this sedra itself they saw war with Amalek (17:8) and they did not want to return.

Why didn't they express their desire to return once Amalek (in our sedra) attacked them? Isn't this exactly what G-d feared? Rashi's comment is geared to answer this question.

Seeing how this is a real challenge.

Remember our Question #4: Why didn't Rashi cite the war with Amalek in our sedra?

An Answer to #4: Because, Israel was miraculously victorious in a swift battle. Their victory gave them no reason to think of returning to Egypt. So this is not the kind of war our verse is referring to. The war with Amalek & Canaan in the Book of Numbers, on the other hand, was a stinging defeat for Israel. That is what G-d was afraid would cause Israel to return to Egypt. So Rashi cited that war.

But, in fact, even though they were defeated they did not mention returning? Why not?

Now let us look at Question # 3: The verse in Numbers 17:4 "let us appoint a leader and return to Egypt" had nothing to do with wars. It was after the Spies gave their evil report & Israel was condemned to the wilderness. It was then that they voiced the desire to return to Egypt. So why did Rashi cite it?

An Answer: Rashi cited this as evidence that the desire to return could arise after any disappointment – not just a war. Any struggle that had to be waged might discourage the people and cause them to want to return to Egypt. The decree to wander forty years in the wilderness was certainly such a disappointment. So Rashi cited it. And the people did voice their desire to return. So G-d's fear was confirmed.

But we had a problem with that, remember?

Question #2: G-d had led them on a circuitous route precisely to avoid them returning. And, as Rashi points out, even so they wanted to return. So was G-d's maneuver of any value?

Answer: Yes it was! They only said that they wanted to return but in fact they did nothing. Why? Because the way was long and round about, exactly as G-d had wanted.

Now our last question: Why didn't Israel voice the desire to return after their defeat at the hands of Amalek & Canaan? (in Numbers)

An Answer: Because they had already seen (in Numbers 17:4) that they couldn't actually return. They had wanted to, but didn't, because they couldn't find their way back, as G-d had planned.

In Summary:

All falls into place. Rashi is telling us that the words ‘ Lest the People change their mind when they encounter war and return to Egypt.' means encounter a life-struggle difficulty & not necessarily an actual war. All our questions have been answered. And Rashi has actually uncovered a hidden meaning in our verse that we might not have understood without his comment.


Shabbat Shalom and a fruitful Tu B'shvat,
Avigdor Bonchek

"What's Bothering Rashi?" is a production of "The Institute for the Study of Rashi."


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