The Exodus from Egypt is recounted in two weekly portions: The preceding portion (3), Bo, the “Moses” portion – the Exodus from the “internal” point of view, i.e., as viewed from within the Jewish people. And this weekly portion (4), Beshalach, the “Aaron” portion – a recounting of the Exodus from the “external” point of view, i.e., as seen through the eyes of the world.
The story of the Exodus, portion Bo just concluded, placed the emphasis on the separation of the Jews from the Egyptians: the final plagues, the Passover seder, the Passover sacrifice so reviled by the Egyptians, the new lunar-solar calendar system, and the proselytes who realigned themselves with the Jewish position.
But if we look at the Exodus from the outside – as viewed by the peoples of the world – we get an entirely different impression, in which it seems that the crossing of the Sea of Reeds is the main event.
Those who look from outside care little about the Passover Seder, the Jewish calendar, or the proselytes. But the death of the preeminent Egyptian army at sea is for them a monumental event of international significance that has affected the entire course of world history.
For the nations of the world, what is important is not that a bunch slaves who longed for their freedom finally got it, but that Pharaoh and his entire army, chasing them in hot pursuit, were annihilated, and that the military power of the Egyptian state was utterly destroyed. That is how the Exodus is presented in this Beshalach portion.
When God intervened in the course of history and destroyed Israel’s enemies, this left an indelible impression on the peoples of the world. The Song of the Sea emphasizes precisely this aspect of the Exodus: “Now are the clans of Edom dismayed; The tribes of Moab — trembling grips them; All the dwellers in Canaan are aghast. Terror and dread descend upon them; Through the might of Your arm they are still as stone — Till Your people cross over, O Lord, Till Your people cross whom You have ransomed.” (15:14-16)
The book of Joshua, describing events that occurred forty years after the Exodus, records that the deep impression that the Exodus made on the surrounding nations helped the Jewish people conquer Canaan. “[Rahab] said to the men, “I know that the Lord has given the country to you, because dread of you has fallen upon us, and all the inhabitants of the land are quaking before you. For we have heard how the Lord dried up the waters of the Sea of Reeds for you when you left Egypt” (Josh. 2:8-10). This was the reason that during the conquest of Canaan by the grandchildren of the Jews who had left Egypt, the Canaanite kings received no assistance from Egypt in resisting the Jewish conquest (notwithstanding that Canaan was a province of Egypt, and the kings of ancient Canaan were vassals of Egypt). Moreover, for more than four hundred years thereafter Egypt would not intervene in anything that was happening in the Holy Land, allowing Jewish history to take its course unimpeded.
And yet, the crossing of the Sea of Reeds had no such effect on the Jewish people themselves. Yes, they saw in it a remarkable revelation, but almost immediately after that, at the very first sign of difficulties, they began to grumble and complain. At the crossing of the Sea of Reeds the Jews experienced a powerful emotional upset, but it was not visceral enough to be long-lasting. The real revelation to the Jews is the giving of the Torah at Sinai (which occurs in weekly portion Yitro immediately following this one).
The name of the Beshalach portion (“when he let the people go”) reveals its primary theme — Israel’s relationship with Egypt from the moment the Jews are liberated and begin to experience freedom, and the behavior of the Jews themselves under those conditions of freedom.
The crossing of the sea is the completion of the Exodus, in the sense that it represents the complete and final separation of the Jews from the Egyptians. But at the same time, it was a test for the Jewish people themselves, because it is precisely at the onset of that freedom that internal problems begin to appear, and murmurs of discontent arise. Such problems are inevitable, because “the Exodus” is the normal but lengthy process of becoming a free people, which cannot possibly happen overnight.
In the relatively short journey from Egypt to Mount Sinai, several moments of crisis arise: the undrinkable bitter water, the incident of the manna from heaven, the story of drawing water from the rock, and the war with Amalek. The Jews had to encounter all these difficulties, so that by overcoming them, they could rise to that higher level of spiritual development that they needed in order to receive the Torah at Sinai.