Finally. We escaped Egypt. If anyone had been holding their breath, the beginning of Beshalach would be an apt time to let it out. There were months of makot, countless disputes with Pharaoh, and the challenge of winning over the Jewish people whose minds were numbed by slavery. Moses finally seems to have a handle on the situation. He has grown as a leader, fulfilling the role of messenger of God and standing up to a powerful dictator. It seems this slave nation is on their way to the promised land.
The plan is to head on a “roundabout, by way of the desert at the Sea of Reeds” (Exodus 13:18) to protect the weak-willed Israelites from an encounter with the belligerent Philistines. They set out, traveling from Succoth and reaching Etham. The Pillar of Fire and the Pillar of Cloud escort and safeguard them on their journey.
Then, the story comes to a dead halt.
God tells Moses:
“Tell the Israelites to turn back and encamp . . . Pharaoh will say they are astray in the land the desert is closed on them . . . and he will pursue them, that I may gain glory through Pharaoh and all his host and the Egyptians shall know that I am the Lord” (Exodus 14:1-4).
The Israelites stop in their tracks and just as God says, Pharaoh takes bait. The minute he sees the Israelites hesitate he musters to attack with six-hundred chariots.
What could be motivating this perplex maneuver? Victory is at hand! Why return to incur the wrath of an already defeated, yet still dangerous, world power?
Rashi, a medieval commentator, explains that God wants to demonstrate his omnipotence in a public manner. Pharaoh and his officers jump at the chance to attack the Israelites in their moment of weakness, assuming God has forsaken his chosen people. The miracle at the Sea of Reeds demonstrates that God is still at hand to dispense justice and deliver a lasting blow to Pharaoh.
The Or Hachaim takes a different approach, examining the incident from the perspective of the Israelites themselves. Perhaps the purpose is not only to educate Pharaoh but also the budding Jewish nation. He explains that functionally speaking, Pharaoh’s attack burns bridges. If anyone was entertaining the possibility to return to Egypt, that option becomes null and void after the Egyptian onslaught. The Or Hachaim makes a powerful point, which can also be interpreted to have a larger metaphorical significance.
Never before had Egypt attacked the entire Israelite nation in all its military might. At this moment, from the Jew’s perspective, the Egyptians become not only their former captors also their enemy attacking them on the field- who they obliterate in an utter victory.
This is a critical moment of awakening for a nation struggling to rid itself of a slave mentality. Though they escape physical servitude at the beginning of the Parshah, the moment of transition from psychological enslavement comes only later after the confrontation with Egypt on the banks of the Reed Sea.
As the Egyptians draw near they cry out to Moses, “What have you done to us, taking us out of Egypt? . . . We told you in Egypt: Let us be, and we will serve the Egyptians.” (Exodus 14.12).
The fateful confrontation with the Egyptian army, wipes away any delusions of return to their former position. They are no longer former slaves longing for their master but rather a victorious fighting force who has prevailed over a veritable “foe.” They feel it is their duty to thank God for the victory, which they had not done with any of the ten plagues. Az Yashir, the song they sing, bespeaks of triumph in battle. At that moment they taste the opportunities to come when they will once again sing such songs, conquering foes as a nation when they reach the promised land.