When Pharaoh let the people go, God did not lead them on the road through the Philistine country, though that was shorter. For God said, “If they face war, they might change their minds and return to Egypt.” — Exodus 13:17
The Torah portion for this week is Beshalach, which means “when he sent them away,” from Exodus 13:17–17:16, and the Haftorah is from Judges 4:4–5:31.
This week’s Torah portion leads us to the next stage in the Exodus with the children of Israel finally leaving Egypt. The portion begins, “When Pharaoh let the people go . . .” and it is from these words that the portion gets its name, Beshalach, “when he sent them away.”
The Jewish sages are bothered by the words of this verse. Why is Pharaoh, the villain of the story, even mentioned? Shouldn’t the verse have said, “When the people left Egypt . . .” Or “When God took the people out of Egypt . . .” Why give credit to the bad guy for his role in the Exodus? And why is the entire portion named for his actions?
Jewish tradition teaches that when Pharaoh finally allowed the Israelites to leave Egypt, they were afraid to go. That’s why it says that Pharaoh let them go, which in the original Hebrew literally means that Pharaoh sent them away. After all those years of longing to leave Egypt, when the time came, Pharaoh and his army had to shove the Israelites out the door! How can that be?
The reaction of the Israelites represents a fundamental part of human nature: Most of us resist change. We fear the unknown. As much as we dream of making changes in our lives, when the opportunity comes to change them, we often hide in fear.
This is where Pharaoh stepped in. Sometimes, God helps us take those first steps toward change by giving us a push. The push usually comes in the form of a villain, such as a difficult person or a challenging circumstance. It could be a lost job or a broken relationship. We may resent our new situation, but ultimately, difficulties are what get us to change. The villain becomes our hero!
Consider this short poem by French poet Guillaume Apollinaire:
“Come to the edge, He said.
They said, we are afraid.
Come to the edge, He said.
He pushed them…and they flew!”
You see, oftentimes we have to be pushed so that we will spread our wings and fly. We are afraid to spread them on our own. When Pharaoh pushed the Israelites out of Egypt, he forced them to step out in faith. They had no choice but to place their trust in God. And because of that, they were able to go on and receive the Ten Commandments and inherit the land of Israel.
Next time life gives you a push, remember that the children of Israel on the eve of their departure from Egypt, were also afraid and uncertain. God isn’t trying to push you down; He wants you to fly!
With prayers for shalom, peace,
Rabbi Yechiel Eckstein
Founder and President