Parshat Beshalach: The Right to Choose

“And Hashem hardened the heart of Paroh the king of Egypt and he pursued Bnai Yisrael. And Bnai Yisrael left in triumph.” (Shemot 14:8)

The Egyptians are struck with the plague of the firstborn. Paroh agrees to allow the Jewish people to leave Egypt. Bnai Yisrael leaves Egypt and travels towards the wilderness. Hashem hardens Paroh’s heart. He decides to pursue the Jewish people. This ultimately leads to the miracle of the splitting of the Reed Sea. The sea miraculously separates before Bnai Yisrael. The nation crosses the sea. The Egyptians follow and the sea closes upon them. Paroh and his army are destroyed. Bnai Yisrael are redeemed. It is clear from our pasuk that the Almighty led Paroh and his nation to their destruction at the Reed Sea.

Paroh’s heart was hardened by Hashem. This caused him to chase Bnai Yisrael into the sea. Rashi comments that Hashem carefully planed the route of Bnai Yisrael’s escape. His objective was to encourage Paroh’s pursuit of Bnai Yisrael. After escaping from Egypt, Hashem told Moshe to lead the nation back in the direction of Egypt. He then commanded Moshe to instruct the people to camp near Baal Tzafon ­ an Egyptian deity. Rashi explains that these instructions were explicitly designed to mislead Paroh and his people. The backtracking implied that the nation was lost. The proximity of this confused wandering to Baal Tzafon implied that this deity was somehow acting against Bnai Yisrael. The deity was foiling the nation’s attempt to escape. Rashi’s interpretation raises an immediate question. According to Rashi, the Almighty was enticing Paroh to pursue Bnai Yisrael. Why was this complicated plan needed? Hashem had harden Paroh’s heart. Paroh was forced to chase after the nation! Why was any inducement needed? It seems clear from Rashi’s interpretation of the pesukim that Hashem hardened Paroh’s heart through these inducements. Hashem did not just turn-off Paroh’s ability to chose his course of action. Instead, Hashem maneuvered Paroh into a situation in which he would not be able to resist the urge to pursue Bnai Yisrael. The Almighty knows the inner workings of every person’s heart. He knew that given the proper inducements, Paroh simply would not be able to resist the urge to chase after Bnai Yisrael.

This interpretation resolves an apparent contradiction in the writings of Maimonides. Maimonides explains in the fifth chapter of Laws of Repentance that every person has the ability to choose the path of the good or the path of evil. Hashem does not decree that any person should be evil or righteous. It seems that this is an unqualified statement. Every person has this ability to choose. Oddly, in the very next chapter Maimonides explains that sometimes the Almighty withholds from an evil person the opportunity to repent from sin. This is a punishment. This person performed willful evil. Hashem prevents the person from repenting. This assures that this evil individual will suffer for his or her wickedness. These comments seem to contradict Maimonides earlier assertion that every person has the freewill to chose between good and evil! How can these two statements be reconciled? Rashi’s approach to explaining Paroh’s experience provides a resolution.

Humans are created with the ability to chose between right and wrong. However, this does not mean that we can exercise this ability in every area of our lives. We are all subject to strong, overpowering feelings. Confronted with these powerful emotions, we may be helpless to choose freely between options. On balance, we have enough freedom to constantly choose to improve ourselves. We are responsible to make the proper choices in those areas in which we are empowered. If we make the proper choices, we become better individuals. We become more empowered. With time, we can even overcome desires that once were irresistible. In short, we have freewill. But this does not mean that we have volition in every area of our lives. It is completely consistent for Maimonides to state that every person has freewill. Yet, in a specific situation one may be bereft of the ability to choose. This is clearly illustrated by the experiences of Paroh. Hashem did not disable any faculty in Paroh. He did not suddenly hit a switch and turn-off Paroh’s volition. Instead, he placed Paroh under the control of an irresistible urge. Paroh found himself outside of the area in which he could make choices. He had no option. He had to chase Bnai Yisrael.

“As Hashem commanded Moshe, Ahron placed it before the Ark as a keepsake.” (Shemot 16:34)

During the travels of Bnai Yisrael in the desert the nation ate manna ­ mun. Hashem commanded Moshe to instruct Ahron to create a reminder of this miracle. Ahron was to fill a container with the mun. This container would be placed before the Ark in the Mishcan. The miracle of the mun has an interesting expression in halacha. Shulchan Aruch explains that on Shabbat we are obligated to recite the blessing of HaMotzee on two loafs of bread. The Talmud explains that this recalls the mun of the desert. How do these double loaves represent the mun? The Talmud in Tractate Shabbat discusses this issue. A short introduction is required.

Generally, the mun fell in the desert each day. The people would collect enough mun for the day’s consumption. They were not permitted to collect extra. They were prohibited from saving a portion for the next day. Any portion, which was left at the end of the day, would quickly spoil. On Shabbat the mun did not fall. What did the people eat on Shabbat? On Friday the people were permitted to deviate from their regular practice. They were to collect a double portion. One portion would be eaten on Friday. The second portion would be saved and consumed on Shabbat. Miraculously, this mun would not spoil. The Talmud explains that the dual loaves recall the double portion of mun that provided for Shabbat.

There is another requirement of the Shabbat meal that recalls the mun. When the kiddush is recited the loaves are covered with a cloth. A number of explanations are offered for this requirement. One explanation offered by the Tur is that the covering recalls a characteristic of the miracle of the mun. Each day before the mun fell a layer of dew formed on the ground. The mun fell upon this dew. A second layer of dew then covered it. The covering over the loaves duplicates the dew that covered the mun. Tur explains that according to this explanation one cloth should be placed under the loaves and a second over the loaves. It is somewhat difficult to understand these laws. The mun did not fall on Shabbat. The double portion fell on Erev Shabbat ­ on Friday. In other words, the double portion did not fall on Shabbat. On Shabbat the people ate a single portion that remained from Friday! How do the double loaves on Shabbat recall a miracle that occurred on Erev Shabbat? In order to answer this question, we must more clearly understand the message of the double loaves.

Our Sages created, through these loaves, a reminder of the miracle of the mun. What aspect of the miracle is recalled through the loaves? The Sages did not attempt to duplicate, through the loaves, the Shabbat portion. On Shabbat the people ate a single portion, not a double portion. Instead, the Sages created a reminder of the origins of the Shabbat portion. The Shabbat portion was derived from the double portion of Erev Shabbat. The dual loaves recall this origin.

Bnai Yisrael experienced many miracles in the desert. They were provided with water and shelter. All of the needs of the nation were miraculously met in this desolate wilderness. Why did the Sages choose the miracle of the mun for special treatment? Why must this miracle be recalled each week? At a basic level, our pasuk provides a response. Hashem commanded Moshe to create a permanent reminder of the mun. This was accomplished through placing a container of the mun by the Ark. This command implies that the mun has a unique significance. Hashem singled out this miracle for constant remembrance. The Sages created an additional symbol designed to recall the mun. They reinforced the message of our pasuk. However, this does not completely answer the question. First, why did Hashem single out the mun? Why did this miracle require a constant reminder? Second, why did the Sages specifically relate their reminder of the mun to Shabbat? The mun was an ongoing miracle. We need to understand the implications of this miracle.

The miracle required a manipulation of nature. Nature was altered in order to conform to the needs of Bnai Yisrael. This is an important lesson. The Torah promises us that we will be rewarded for following the Torah. All of our material needs will be satisfied. This means that if we observe the Torah, nature will be altered. Nature is influenced by our virtue. The mun proves the veracity of this promise. It represents nature conforming to our needs. Through recalling the mun, we confirm the reality of the blessings in the Torah. The mun contained a second message. The laws of Shabbat forbade collecting mun on Shabbat. In order to provide for the needs of Bnai Yisrael, a double portion fell on Erev Shabbat. Nature conformed to the requirements of halacha! This provides an important message about halacha. We all recognize the reality of the physical world and the laws that govern it. However, the laws of halacha often seem less important or less real. The miracle of the mun taught that the halacha has a greater reality than the physical world! Nature conformed to the requirements of halacha! We can now better appreciate the lesson of the double loaves. The Sages chose to create a symbol recalling the double portion of mun that fell on Erev Shabbat. This double portion captures the concept of nature conforming to halacha.

Rabbaynu Shlomo ben Yitzchak (Rashi), Commentary on Sefer Shemot, 14:2.

Rabbaynu Moshe ben Maimon (Rambam / Maimonides) Mishne Torah, Hilchot Teshuvah 5:1-2.

Rabbaynu Moshe ben Maimon (Rambam / Maimonides) Mishne Torah, Hilchot Teshuvah 6:3.

Rav Yosef Karo, Shulchan Aruch, Orech Chayim 274:1.

Mesechet Shabbat 117b.

Mesechet Shabbat 117b.

Rav Yosef Karo, Shulchan Aruch, Orech Chayim 271:9.

Rabbaynu Yaakov ben HaRash, Tur Shulchan Aruch, Orech Chayim 271.