I learned this week that there is a video game called “Fate of Pharaoh.” Its goal? “Construct houses and beautiful castles, collect taxes and materials, set up production and trade, and fight crocodiles and wicked cobras. Can you return Egypt to its days of glory?”
I don’t know if it can return to its days of glory, but glory days were not the days described in this week’s parshah.
There is a tradition I learned from Harav Avigdor Nebenzahl Shlita, that one ought to discuss faith and belief on Parshas B’shalach. After all, the Torah records that the Children of Israel finally believed in God and his servant Moshe (Shmos 14:31). We read of the encounters at Marah and the miraculous attempts (hitting a rock and mixing a bitter tree into a river) to yield potable water; the manna by day and the slav bird (quail) by evening to satiate and nourish the Jewish people. Finally our faith is kindled while reading of the battle with Amalek where Moshe’s uplifted hands inspired a nation to pray to God and emerge victorious.
This year I’d like to discuss a different angle of faith in the parsha, one that is not referenced in the text.
Some of our best questions come from children. The kids always want to know what happened to Pharaoh at the Red Sea? From their point of view, there are heroes and villians. It’s critical to learn the fate of the villain. Yet the text makes no overt mention if Pharaoh met his demise at the Red Sea. I believe both Cecil B. Demille’s movie, as well as that of Steven Spielberg, have him surviving. For so many of our brothers and sisters, this is their main point of reference for Biblical text.
The narrative does describe Pharaoh harnessing his own chariot and leading his troops to restore the freed slaves. The Children of Israel walked on dry land through the water unmolested by the approaching Egyptian army who were kept at bay by a pillar of fire. Once the last Israelites emerged from the dual columns of miraculously frozen water, the Egyptians pursued them. Once the entire Egyptian army found itself in the dry passage within the sea, the waters returned and drowned them. The Torah states that not one Egyptian remained (Ibid. verse 28). That would indicate that assuming Pharaoh led them through the sea, he did not survive. This is the opinion of the Emek Davar.
But our rabbis (Midrash Tehillim 106; Pirkei d’Rebbe Eliezer chapter 43) record a dispute on this issue. Rebbe Yehudah argues that Pharaoh indeed perished while Rabbi Nechemia opines that he survived (basing himself on a prior verse- Shmos 9:16). Some try to disprove Rabbi Nechemia, based on Psalms 106:11, a verse with which we are familiar in the morning liturgy:
"ויכסו מים צריהם, אחד מהם לא נותר" (תהלים ק"ו:י"א)
“And the waters covered their oppressors; not one of them was left”
Yet the Midrash (Mechilta, B’shalach 2:6) tries to analyze the Hebrew phrase ‘ad echad’ suggesting, only one survived, and that survivor is Pharaoh himself. In the ensuing song about the salvation, the text records:
"מרכבות פרעה וחילו ירה בים ומבחר שלשיו טבעו בים סוף" (שמות ט"ו:ד)
“Pharaoh’s chariots and army He cast in the sea, and the select of his officers were sunk in the Red Sea” (Ibid. 15:4).
Here is how Professor Louis Ginsburg describes the incident in his “Legends of the Jews” (I thank Rabbi Ephraim Z. Buchwald for this source. He cites it in a Dvar Torah on Parshas B’shalach).
Thus all the Egyptians were drowned. Only one was spared– Pharaoh himself. When the Children of Israel raised their voices to sing a song of praise to God at the shores of the Red Sea, Pharaoh heard it as he was jostled hither and thither by the billows, and he pointed his finger heavenward, and called out: “I believe in You, O God! You are righteous, and I and My people are wicked, and I acknowledge now that there is no God in the world beside You.”
Without a moment’s delay, [the angel] Gabriel descended and laid an iron chain about Pharaoh’s neck, and, holding him securely, addressed him thus: “Villain! Yesterday you did say, ‘Who is the Lord that I should hearken to His voice?’ and now you say, ‘The Lord is righteous.’” With that he [the angel Gabriel] let him drop into the depths of the sea, and there he tortured him for fifty days, to make the power of God known to him.
At the end of the time, he [Gabriel] installed him [Pharaoh] as king of the great city of Nineveh, and after a lapse of many centuries, when Jonah came to Nineveh, and prophesied the overthrow of the city on account of the evil done by the people, it was Pharaoh [now the King of Nineveh] who, seized by fear and terror, covered himself with sackcloth, and sat in ashes, and with his own mouth made this proclamation and published this decree throughout Nineveh: “Let neither man nor beast, herd nor flock, taste anything; let them not feed or drink water; for I know there is no god beside Him in all the world, all His words are true, and all His judgments are true and faithful.”
I actually may even have a Scriptural source to support this Midrash about Pharaoh’s metamorphisis. This takes me back a few decades! Believe it or not, when I was in 7th grade, our class Shabbaton took place on Parshas B’shalach. I was asked to give a D’var Torah. IT’s the first dvar Torah I can remember ever delivering. I worked on it for weeks. I looked up in a Concordance the aforementioned word “and the Jews believed”. In Hebrew it is “vaya’aminu.” That exact word appears thrice in Scriptures: this source, Psalms 106:12 and (drumroll!) – Jonah 3:5.
The quote in Psalms overtly refers to the splitting of the Sea. The usage of “they believed” makes sense in context.
The verse in Jonah, taking place after the prophet’s sojourn in the belly of a fish, states:
"ויחל יונה לבוא בעיר מהלך יום אחד, ויקרא ויאמר עוד ארבעים יום ונינוה נהפכת. ויאמינו אנשי נינוה באלקים, ויקראו צום וילבשו שקים מגדולם ועד קטנם" (יונה ג:ד-ה).
“Jonah commended to enter the city, a distance of one’s day’s journey, then he called out and said, ‘Forty days more and Nineveh shall be overturned.’ The people of Nineveh believed in God, so they proclaimed a fast and donned sackcloth, from their great to their small.” (Jonah 3:4-5).
Rabbi Chaim Kanievsky, one of the elder sages of the Jewish people today, tries to reconcile these two midrashim in his book “Ta’ama d’Kra” (pp. 46). The truth is, the Midrash seems to do the same. At first, he claims, Pharaoh did indeed die. God then resuscitated him in order to spread the gospel of God’s miracles and omnipotence. The Midrash in Pirkei d’Rebbe Eliezer explicitly notes his revival from the dead.
One could say that “A new Pharaoh emerged” (referencing Shmos 1:8) again.
Rav Soloveitchik offered a powerful homily on the Book of Jonah. After the entire day of Yom Kippur focusing on the Children of Israel, highlighted by a Mincha Torah reading which describes appropriate marriage partners, -what is more exclusive than that? - the Rav suggested that the day turns more universal, which segues to Sukkos which also focuses on the nations of the world. That’s where the story of Jonah comes in. The Rav understood the famous book as one stressing the goodness of humanity in general. When one looks closely at the Book of Jonah, one sees that every person and object fulfills the will of God save for one: the Jewish prophet. The sailors acknowledge Jonah’s God; the fish performs God’s bidding, as do the worm and the gourd. Andwhat about the wayward citizenship of Nineveh? As soon as they hear Jonah’s prophetic words, the one’s he tried so hard not to deliver, they immediately and without hesitation repent from their evil ways. Not just cold turkey: freezing turkey! No arguments. They are righteous. Imagine what that would mean if the Pharaoh of Egypt was the man who led them back to the path of God.
The message of the Midrash is always more important than its facts or even if it is factual. Upon the Jewish Mt. Rushmore of villains, Pharaoh will always appear. Yet, we are told that even one of the most sadistic, cruel and unrepentant individuals can still be saved, can still see the truth. This message sends a clear clarion call that faith will endure, faith will emerge in the end and faith brings salvation. Our sages have clearly delineated that one can repent at the last second, as unlikely as that may be.
The United States finds itself in a period lacking faith. Both the Republican and Democratic parties have suggested individuals with checkered pasts for important posts. Congressman Keith Ellison had a relationship with the Reverend Louis Farakhan, a man identified with unambiguous anti-Semitic beliefs. He has announced that he no longer identifies with him. Attorney General Jeff Sessions had been identified with hateful white supremacist groups. He too has disassociated with these lowlifes. Americans can choose to believe or not to believe that these men have changed and are repentant. Both men seem to be religious. They are not the same case, and Attorney General Sessions and Congressman Ellison are different people. But I find it sad that many are willing to accept one’s change but are unwilling to accept the others, purely for political theater or positioning.
The greatest salvation is hope and change (no covert reference to former President Obama’s mantras). Our destinies can change in a moment: our lives can be altered for the better in an instant.
In Steven Spielberg’s “The Prince of Egypt” a song was written that accompanies the Jews on their journey out of Egypt. Its chorus proclaims:
There can be miracles
When you believe
Though hope is frail
It’s hard to kill
Who knows what miracles
You can achieve
When you believe
Somehow you will
You will when you believe.
Since this Shabbat is Tu Bishvat, the new year for the trees, I end with a beautiful and relevant thought by the late Rabbi Avraham Pam of Yeshivas Torah Vodaath in Brooklyn. I thank my friend and colleague Rabbi Efrem Goldberg for the reference:
“The great masters of mussar and Jewish thought derived many important insights from Tu B’Shevat, which always falls in the midst of winter, while the trees are totally bare of leaves and seemingly bereft of any sign of life. The fields are usually covered with snow, the white shrouds of winter. Yet, when this special day arrives, a techiyas ha’meisim (resurrection of the dead) begins. Something happens under the earth; life-giving ‘sap’ begins to work its way up through the trees to give them new life. This expresses itself in buds, blossoms, flowers, and eventually luscious fruits that the trees will produce in the coming spring and summer.
Man is compared to a tree of the field (Devarim 20:19). At times it seems that he, too, is totally stripped of any spiritual life, with little or no connection to God and His Torah. Yet, the pintele Yid, the indestructible spark of one’s Godly soul, lies dormant under the surface. It waits for an opportunity to burst forth and flower and flower with spiritual growth that can erase years and decades of apathy to a life of spirituality."
The text does not specify if Pharaoh died with his soldiers at the Red Sea. Our sages present two conflicting views on this, with some trying to reconcile both opinions. How can it be that Pharaoh survived? Why would God allow such a villain to survive and what did he do as a survivor?