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Parshas Beshalach – The Impact of Gentile Impurity

By: Rav Dov Lipman

The Jewish people fled Mitzrayim at the end of last week’s parsha.  This week’s parsha begins with G-d instructing Moshe and the Jews to turn back towards Egypt.  Why should they do so? G-d explains to Moshe:

“And Pharaoh will say about the Jewish people that the desert is closed to them . And I will strengthen Pharaoh’s heart and he will chase after you and I will deal heavily with Pharaoh and all of his troops and Egypt will know that I am Hashem…”(14:3-4)


G-d repeats this message when the Jews feel trapped between the Egyptian army and the Red Sea.  G-d instructs Moshe to lift his hand above the sea to split it and then -

“And I will strengthen the heart of Egypt and they will come after you and I will deal harshly with Pharaoh and with all of his troops , with his horsemen and his chariots .  And Egypt will know that I am Hashem when I deal harshly with Pharaoh , with his horsemen , and with his chariots .”(Ibid: 17-18)

There is an obvious question on these two statements.  We can understand the concept of G-d teaching the Egyptians a lesson about His existence through the plagues in Egypt since Pharaoh and his cohorts openly defied G-d and had to be taught that they were wrong.  However, in this week’s Parsha, once Pharaoh and his army will be destroyed, why does G-d have to make this point to “Egypt” again?  The evildoers would no longer exist!  

The Even Ezra teaches that the Egyptians to whom G-d wanted to send a message, were the “remaining ones,” referring to those who did not chase the Jews into the Red Sea.  The Seforno gives the same explanation and adds that G-d desires that they should do teshuva, repent and return to G-d.  The Malbim (14:4) explains further that “the great miracles which will be done at the sea will become known to…the surviving Egyptians .”  

Why was it so important for the surviving civilian Egyptians to know about G-d and His power?  Wasn’t the message necessary only for the Egyptian leaders and soldiers who openly rebelled against G-d?  We can take this question one step further. When G-d brought the plagues upon the Egyptians, this in no way endangered the Jewish people.  G-d taught the Egyptians a lesson while also helping the Jews by ultimately bringing an end to their slavery.  But, in this instance, didn’t commanding the Jews to turn back towards Egypt actually endanger their lives?  While  G-d would, of course, protect them, we have a general rule that we don’t rely on miracles and, therefore, G-d would not put us in “danger” unless it was for a very good reason.  Why was it so important that the surviving Egyptians “should know that I am Hashem” to the extent that the Jews should risk their lives to make that happen?

Let’s take a look back to the first time we find this concept of “the Egyptians will know that I am Hashem ,” before the Ten Plagues.  Numerous commentaries teach that G-d’s concern that the Egyptians know that He exists went way beyond simply instructing those who did wrong regarding the Truth.  The Nesivos Shalom explains it in the following manner:  The ultimate goal of the Creation of the world is to “fill the world with the awareness of G -d .”  This will come to complete fruition when the Moshiach comes. The giving of the Torah, our guide to understanding and connecting to G-d,  was the most crucial step towards bringing the world to that point of ultimate completion.  The Egyptian people reached such a low level of impurity that it decreased the entire world’s spiritual level.  The Torah, an entity of the highest spiritual level, could not enter a world which contained the spiritual contamination caused by the existence of Egyptian impurity.  Thus, through the Ten Plagues, G-d destroyed this impurity by displaying His awe and might, ultimately breaking the pagan ways of the Egyptians.

To fully comprehend the Nesivos Shalom’s approach we must take a moment to explore the degree of promiscuity and impurity found amongst the Egyptians at that time.   The Torah, in providing background to the immorality of Sedom, describes the wealth and prosperity of the land.  Great affluence leads to pursuit of physical pleasure and the removal of G-d from people’s lives.  The Torah explains that Sedom’s prosperity was “like the land of Egypt.” (Beraishis 13:10)  If Egypt was chosen as the “model” to help us understand the affluence of Sedom which led to its spiritual lows, Egypt undoubtedly stood out in the world for its impurity.  Furthermore, the Torah introduces the section dealing with forbidden immoral acts by stating: “Do not perform the practice of the land of Egypt in which you dwelled…” (Vayikra 18:3)  Clearly, the Egyptians who enslaved the Jews performed all of the adulterous and immoral acts listed in that chapter and, as a result, were the one nation which truly imparted impurity to the world at that time in history.

We can now apply the explanation of the Nesivos Shalom to this week’s Parsha as well, but we can learn a far more poignant message from its application here.  The Torah could not be presented to this world even if there was just a remnant of the impurity of Egypt in existence.  The number of people involved in this lowly way of life was irrelevant.  The degree of their moral depravity was the issue.  As the Malbim (14:18) points out, after the Jews left Egypt the Egyptians reverted right back to their previous beliefs and immoral practices by convincing themselves that the plagues did not, in fact, come from G-d.  Immorality and un-G-dliness emanating from even a small number of surviving Egyptians created a reality in the world in which the very giving of the Torah and, in turn, the purpose of creation, was in jeopardy.  Thus, it was worth putting the Jews at “risk” in order to deal with that problem.

This thought teaches a very important lesson.  Many people don’t concern themselves with the low morals and values of the world around us.  They think that as long as we can perform our mitzvos and learn Torah, it is unnecessary to concern ourselves with the spirituality of the rest of the world.  We see from here that the immorality and impurity emanating from the Gentile world impacts the general spiritual atmosphere of the entire world which then weakens our connection to Torah and G-d. 

May all of us do our part in our contact with the Gentile world to impress upon people the importance of proper morals and values.  And may we be blessed to see the fulfillment of the prayer we recite three times a day in the second paragraph of “Aleinu” - that all of humanity should come to recognize our G-d and His values.