Abarbanel on the Parsha

For the week ending 23 January 2016 / 13 Shevat 5776

Parshat Beshalach

by Rabbi Pinchas Kasnett
The Color of Heaven Artscroll

After the entire nation had safely crossed the Red Sea and the entire pursuing Egyptian army had drowned when the waters returned, the verse states “On that day, G-d saved Israel from the hand of Egypt…” (Exodus 14:30). Abarbanel emphasizes that until they saw the complete destruction of the Egyptian army, the people were still afraid that the pursuers would drag them back into slavery, or at least confiscate all the wealth that they had taken from the Egyptians just prior to their departure. True salvation only occurs when the enemy is completely defeated. Moshe himself illustrates this concept when he names his son “Eliezer”, based on the verse “the G-d of my father came to my aid, and he saved me from the sword of Pharaoh.” (Exodus 18:4). He gives him this name only after he has been told by G-d, “Go, return to Egypt, for all the people who seek your life have died.” (Exodus 4:19)

Once they were assured of salvation, the verse goes on, “Israel saw the great hand that G-d inflicted upon Egypt, and the people revered G-d, and they had faith in G-d and in Moshe, His servant.” (Exodus 14:31) G-d’s intention was twofold: to redeem the people as He had promised; and to demonstrate to the people the true essence of His abilities and His Divine Providence in order that they should be in awe of Him. This is alluded to by the prophet Tzefania, “I have eliminated nations; their towers have become desolate...I said, ‘just fear me and accept chastisement’.” (Tzefania 3:6-7)

Even though prior to this point the people had a fear of G-d, now, however, all of them witnessed with their own eyes the extent of His omnipotence. Awe and fear of G-d can come through the intellect, but sensory experience is still a requirement. The Torah uses the anthropomorphic expression “the great hand that God inflicted…” as a metaphor to illustrate the enormous impression that this event made on the entire nation. When we see a footprint in snow or mud we know that it was made by a foot, even though the foot is no longer visible. When we see the imprint of a hard slap to someone’s cheek, we can gauge the size of the hand that inflicted the blow. Similarly G-d is telling the people, “Even though the concept of the ‘hand of G-d’ is completely beyond your understanding, you can see its ‘print’ in the destruction of the Egyptians.” The result was that they now believed in G-d and his servant Moshe, meaning that not only did they believe in His abilities right now, but they would also believe in whatever predictions would be made for the future as well.

The splitting of the sea and the destruction of the Egyptian army employed the term “great hand of G-d”. The plague of the cattle epidemic is described as coming about through “the hand of G-d”. This, however was the “small’ hand”. G-d also says in regard to the killing of the first-born, “I will send forth My hand” (Exodus 3:20). This is the “medium-sized” hand. Now, however, the Egyptians have experienced the ultimate plague, since it incorporated the natural elements of many of the previous plagues as well. The drowning Egyptians tasted undrinkable water; the first plague turned the water into undrinkable blood. Their corpses attracted frogs, lice and other crawling creatures. Their horses died just as their herds and flocks had been decimated. Boils appeared on these corpses, they drowned in the darkness of the sea, and the east wind which had brought the plague of locusts had now come to dry out the seabed so that the Jewish People could cross. The plagues that began in the waters of Egypt ended in the waters of the Red Sea.

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