The Exodus

The redemption and the test after the temptation afterward of returning to Egypt

The Ten Plagues, according to tradition, covered a ten-month period of time. In that relatively short time frame the once great empire of Egypt was shattered. The streets were strewn with the dead of their firstborn. Their economy was in ruins. Most of all, the collective psyche of ancient Egypt was obliterated.

The Jews did not sneak out like prisoners in a prison break. They left as victors. They left “with an upraised hand” (Exodus 14:8).

So shattering was the experience that Egypt would never again appear on the world stage as the dominant empire.

Not Via the Via Maris

600,000 men from the age of 20 to 60 marched out of Egypt. That is at least two million people overall when you add women and those under 20 or over 60. A very large crowd. The logistics of the exodus alone are mind-boggling to contemplate.

God marched the Jews along a route that took them to the desert of Sinai. He did not lead them along the road which led directly to the land of Israel (Exodus 13:17-18), which would be the Via Maris or “Way of the Sea” (see Isaiah 9:1). This was the northern road stretching from what would one day be Alexandria up the coast into Gaza, which was the main road used in the ancient world to travel from Egypt to the lands of the north. It was one of the most ancient roads in the world.

God, however, plunged the Jewish people into the heart of the desert. They came to the Sea of Reeds. As they encamped by the sea, Pharaoh suddenly had a change of heart. He realized that the Jewish people were in a terrible logistical situation. They had nothing to eat, nowhere to go and were trapped against the sea, a position no General would allow his army to find itself in.

Chariot Tanks

Pharaoh could not resist the temptation. He gathered what was left of the Egyptian army: 600 chariots. Chariots in those days attacked in squadrons of three and charged in the formation of a triangle, one on the point and two on the flanks. The chariots also had knives and sharp instruments on their sides. Three charging chariots could break through any line of infantry. They were the tanks of their day.

The Jews had no defense against chariots. Suddenly, they saw Pharaoh’s army approaching and found themselves in a situation in which there was no exit and no hope of victory. It was their most desperate hour.

The people were too immersed in the moment to realize that their highly compromised situation was the precise means by which they would achieve total victory. Had Pharaoh not thought they were vulnerable he would not have attacked and his army would not have been destroyed. The threat of Egypt might have continued. Their own desperate situation duped Pharaoh into throwing everything into the fray in the hope of a final kill. In his headlong rush to victory he guaranteed his defeat.

The Egyptians entered the waters in hot pursuit of the Jews – and then the waters came crashing down upon them. The Jewish people, in their moaning and troubles, experienced a salvation so unexpected that a song of spontaneous joy collectively burst forth from them.[1] All sorts of feelings of faith, emotion and hope for the future erupted from their hearts, mouths and limbs.

The same is true in the life of the individual. No one likes troubles. However, the truth is that troubles are usually opportunities for growth and achievement more than one could have before. Many a successful person went on to success because he got fired from his job. He was forced to go out on his own and achieved unprecedented success.

That is an important subtext to the story of the Exodus. Troubles offer a ray of opportunity. That does make it easier for one suffering from the troubles. Nevertheless, things are usually never as black as they look. One never knows how things will turn out.

And then one day a person looks back in hindsight and says it was not so bad because out of the very trouble came good things. Being human, of course — and by definition limited in our vision — it is very hard to be calm and philosophical about the event as it occurs. Nevertheless, that is the challenge.

The Egypt Option

The great moment of freedom and redemption had finally arrived. The faith of the people of Israel in Moses had been vindicated. God’s plagues had finally brought down the arrogance and stubbornness of Pharaoh. If this was an old-fashioned movie script we would write “and then they lived happily after.”

Nevertheless, this only represented the beginning of a long and arduous story plot. The new situation of freedom from actual physical slavery, as heady and triumphant as it was, presented new challenges.

Life itself resembles a series of doors. Upon successfully opening one door, it is discovered that there are now different doors – even a series of doors — behind the original one. The challenges of living as a free person are, to a great extent, even more challenging than those of existing locked into servitude.

In actuality, the Jews left Egypt physically but not necessarily mentally. Every time they faced adversity in the desert a faction arose and said, “Let’s go back to Egypt.” Egypt was always an option to them – in their minds at least. They thought they could always go back “home.” As long as a person feels he has an option, that he is not bound or committed to the future, he does not approach that future with the same vigor.

But you can never go back. That is true on a personal and national level. The Jews could not go back. However, as long as some of them believed they could it impacted their ability to face the adversity and step into the future. Looking backwards is not only painful but counter-productive.

Even immediately after the sea split at the Sea of Reeds, the people complained and wanted to return to Egypt when there was no water to drink. Better to be a slave in Egypt, they argued, than dead in the desert. All the lofty slogans about freedom and independence failed to ring true because there were those who preferred to go back and be slaves. In their minds it was an easier, more secure life.

They developed nostalgia about Egypt. We all have memories of the house in which we were raised. Then one day you go back to it and it was a lot smaller and run down than you ever imagined. In your mind’s eye it was much larger and prettier. Nostalgia invests the past with hues and colors it did not really have. It paints a rosy picture.

That is what happened to the Jewish people in the desert. “Oh yeah, in Egypt we had cucumbers and vegetables and fish. It was just great. But here you have to go out every day and collect manna.”[2] That is the psychology of nostalgia at work. It is a false picture. It is a dangerous picture. It seduces a person.

Egypt was always part of the collective nostalgic memory of the Jewish people. That is why there are three specific warnings in the Torah about returning to Egypt.[3] If not for the religious prohibition, the natural tendency would be to want to return to Egypt even many centuries later.

That is why God did not lead the Jewish people on the easy road out of Egypt (Exodus 13:17-18), because if they would have seen war they would have gone back to Egypt. They would have been unwilling to wage that struggle. You can take the Jews out of slavery but you cannot take slavery out of the Jews.

Egypt had to be uprooted from the Jewish people for there to be any chance to establish them as a free and independent people, a people who will be able to push their horizons forward. That was not easy. That was Moses’ task over 40 years.

The Past Washed up on the Shore

After the Egyptian army charged headlong with a suicidal fanaticism at the entrapped Jews and was drowned in the crescendo of the returning waters they washed up dead on the shore for the Jews to see.

This was an important psychological step for the former slaves. No longer would those who held the whip over them intimidate them. Never again would a world-dominating Egyptian empire control and threaten them. The Jewish people could march forward into history.


[1] The song is such an important part of Jewish history and traditional Jewish life that it is included in the morning prayer service every day of the year. This song has accompanied us throughout our long journey from the banks of the Sea of Reeds to this very day.

[2] See Numbers 11:5-6.

[3] Exodus 14:13; Deuteronomy 17:16, 28:68.

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Crash Course
by
Berel Wein adapted by Yaakov Astor

One Response to “The Exodus”

  1. bob says:

    I found this short passage to be very helpful!