By Rabbi Avraham
Fischer. A publication of the Orthodox Union in cooperation with the Seymour
J. Abrams Orthodox Union Jerusalem World Center
January 26, 2002
Although Pharaoh and the Egyptians urged the Children of Israel to leave,
Hashem does not want the Egyptian exile to end this way. And so, Hashem issues a commandment to His children that will lure the Egyptians to their final and utter defeat:
And they traveled from Sukkot, and they encamped in Eitam, at the edge of the wilderness. And Hashem was going before them by day in a pillar of cloud, to show them the way, and by night in a pillar of fire to give them light, to go by day and by night. He did not remove the pillar of cloud by day, or the pillar of fire by night, from before the people. And Hashem spoke to Moshe, saying: " Speak to the Children of Israel that they turn back and encamp before Pi-Hachirot, between Migdol and the sea; before Baal-Tzfon, opposite it, shall you encamp by the sea. Then Pharaoh will say of the Children of Israel: 'They are entangled in the land, closed upon them the wilderness (SAGAR ALEIHEM HAMIDBAR).' And I will strengthen Pharaoh's heart, and he will pursue them, and I will become revered through Pharaoh and through all his host; and Egypt will know that I am Hashem…" (Shemot 13:20- 14:4).
While Hashem wages this psychological warfare against Pharaoh, the Children of Israel, who do not know fully what is about to happen, behave commendably, as we see from the final words of 14:4 - "And they did so."
Thus, the path that leads to the Sea of Reeds is readied.
The Mechilta says that Pi-Hachirot is a place replete with history: first, it was the site chosen by Yosef to gather and distribute the food; later, it was known as Pitom, one of the storage cities (1:11) the Hebrew slaves were forced to build. Now, it becomes the site of the "final showdown" against Pharaoh and the establishment he represents.
The phrase SAGAR ALEIHEM HAMIDBAR poses problems of precise translation. The commentaries wonder what is the subject of the verb, and whether the verb is active or passive. Ibn Ezra translates:
(the paths of) the wilderness have been closed upon them.
However, this requires understanding SAGAR, which is an active verb, as if it were passive. Rashbam understands HAMIDBAR as the subject:
the wilderness has closed (the path) upon them, but this necessitates providing an object for the preposition ALEIHEM.
Most interesting is the translation of Sforno (R. Ovadia ben Yaakov Sforno, c. 1470-c.1550):
He (Baal-Tzfon) has closed the wilderness upon them.
According to Sforno, Pharaoh will mistakenly think that the powerful G-d of the Hebrews has finally "met His match" in Baal-Tzfon. Clearly, the pillar of cloud by day and the pillar of fire by night is G-d leading them, but (Pharaoh will erroneously think) He is leading them into confusion, and even He cannot take them past Baal-Tzfon.
Rabbi Shimshon Raphael Hirsch (1808-1888) says that Baal-Tzfon was "the Egyptian god of the sirocco, of death, evil, blight and barren wastes, hence the desert would be one of his domains." Furthermore, we know from ancient Ugaritic inscriptions that Baal-Tzfon was the seat and sacred mountain (probably Mount Casius) of the chief Canaanite god Baal, which may have also been worshipped by the Phoenicians before they set out to sea. It is possible that the Egyptians worshipped this god as well, which had been introduced into Egypt by the Canaanites. (It is important to remember that the Hyksos, who had usurped the original Egyptians and were, generations later, forced out by the Egyptians, were Semites who brought their gods from the area of Canaan.) Thus, while challenging the Egyptian idolatry, the Children of Israel are being prepared for their inevitable - and more difficult - conflict with the Canaanite pantheon, a conflict which would continue unabated for hundreds of years.
In analyzing this passage, Malbim (R. Meir Leib ben Yechiel Michael, 1809-1877) identifies three factors that will cause the Egyptians to carry out their doomed pursuit:
1. To go by day and by night: It is not normal for a planned journey such as this one, which includes men, women and children, young and old, as well as livestock and property, to continue day and night. Since they did not stop, the Egyptians assumed they were both exhausted and lost.
2. Turn back and encamp before Pi-Hachirot, between Migdol and the sea: They stopped in a narrow place, with no option of flight, before a tower that was a military outpost, embodying Egypt's vaunted military might.
3. Before Baal-Tzfon, opposite it, shall you encamp by the sea: Although all the other idols of Egypt were toppled during the
plagues, Baal-Tzfon, the "guardian of the desert," remained. Thus, Pharaoh will think that this god closed the wilderness to them (this agrees with the reading of Sforno).
Pharaoh will pursue them because the powerful Egyptian machine, which has both physical strength and at least one powerful god, will be compelled to exploit the Hebrews' vulnerability. They will be driven by habit, and they will regret having allowed the Hebrews to leave. They will chase after the Hebrews, leading to their own destruction in the Sea of Reeds.
As throughout the plagues, this final confrontation before Pi-Hachirot, between Migdol and the sea; before Baal-Tzfon, opposite it
is more than punishment for the Egyptians' oppression. It is intended, as well, as a defeat of all idolatry, both of the recent past and of the imminent future. The Children of Israel, and the entire world, will learn that there is no G-d but
Hashem, and I will become revered through Pharaoh and through all his host; and Egypt will know that I am Hashem.
Those who seek to destroy the people of Israel need to realize that their value-system is in opposition to Hashem's values. Consequently, then as now, their fate, and the fate of their system, is sealed.