Pharaoh Drew Nearer

Shalom Aleichem!

It is among the most dramatic moments in the Torah. The Jewish people have just been extricated from 210 years of bondage, and are heading into the Sinai Desert.

Pharaoh changes his mind; he decides that he doesn’t want to set the Jewish people free, after all. Chase ensues.

Confident of victory, the Egyptian army appeared on the horizon. As the Jews were camping by the Sea of Reeds, the chariots, horses and men surge towards them.

The Torah then tells us, “Pharaoh drew nearer,” and the Jewish people saw the advancing army.

Rashi explains that the Hebrew word for “drew nearer” (which would literally mean that he caused others to draw nearer) is grammatically curious; a different conjugation should surely have been chosen. What does this unexpected word teach us? It means not just that Pharaoh came closer, but rather, that he drew himself nearer, personally leading his men into battle, as he had promised earlier (v.6).

Yet the Midrash offers a different interpretation: Pharaoh drew the Jews nearer to G-d. How? By pursuing them. This is illustrated by their crying out to Him (in the next verse).

How can it be that the same words simultaneously mean two opposite ideas? Who actually came closer, Pharaoh or the Jews?

Seemingly, Rashi’s explanation speaks to the ignominy of the Jews, while the Midrash brings out a positive point. How does that work?

For a seed to grow, it must first decompose. If you don’t fall down, you can’t pick yourself up. If we didn’t become slaves, we could never have experienced what it means to become free.

Imagine the stress and dread as Pharaoh and his army approached; we must have been terrified! No sooner had we become free, than we were on the cusp of being dragged back into slavery. Who knew what our end would be?

Ironically, then, it was the menacing pressure of Pharaoh drawing himself nearer to us that caused us to be drawn closer to our Father in Heaven.

* * *
In our generation, too, we have experienced Divine self-concealment, and it begs to be redirected to a constructive purpose.

Nineteen years have elapsed since the passing of the Rebbe. This Shabbat marks 64 years since he began his leadership, but the vision that propelled his worldwide outreach initiatives began decades earlier. In fact the Rebbe once remarked that ever since he was three years old, he envisioned our People and the entire world, being extricated from exile by Mashiach. And today, nineteen years after his passing, his vision and his presence are still very much felt.
May we each do our bit to help materialize that vision, and ultimately be privileged to usher in the Messianic era, when the entire world will live in peace and harmony.

Shabbat Shalom & l’chaim!