Denial on the Nile: Egypts self-assurance led to its destruction

Exodus 13:17-17:16
Judges 4:4-5:31

Some people just never get it. When the Jewish people march out of Egypt, the country has just been struck by no fewer than 10 plagues. With their economy in tatters, livestock dead and families in a state of terror and mourning, Pharaoh finally gives in and releases the Jews.

Yet but a few days later, he leads his chariots in chase after us. Why? Hasn’t he learned anything? The sea then splits and we walk right in. You would think that this might be impressive enough to make him change his course, but no — he leads his forces right in after the people of Israel. How stupid is this man?

And then comes the kicker — the wheels break off the chariots as the Egyptians give chase between the walls of water, and lo and behold: “Let us run from before the Israelites, for HaShem is fighting for them against Egypt” (Exodus 14:25).

It took them that long to figure this out? Where have they been all this time? What were the Egyptians thinking?

In the search for clues, one place to look is the Haftarah. The Haftarah reading is a portion from the books of the prophets that on some level parallels the weekly Torah potion. This week, Sephardic Jews read the “Song of Deborah” as the Haftarah potion, mirroring the “Song of the Sea” sung by the Jewish people at the Exodus from Egypt. A nice fit.

Yet Ashkenazi Jews have the custom of reading a longer potion that includes the battle details of Deborah’s military campaign to free the Jewish people from the oppression of the Canaanites. Why do Ashkenazis include a long piece about the battle?

We can derive an interesting insight into the culture and mindset of Egypt from a commandment in the book of Deuteronomy. In 17:16, the Torah prohibits a Jewish king from owning too many horses, lest he be led to return to Egypt (a major horse trading center). It seems that Egypt was known for its horses.

Taking a closer look at the passage about the Egyptians chasing the Jews to the sea, one notices that it makes repeated references to their horses and chariots. Why?

Perhaps it is because this was the “ace” up Egypt’s sleeve. They had great horses and chariots. If ever an Egyptian citizen felt militarily insecure, they took comfort that Egypt had an advanced cavalry, a chariot force that was “unstoppable.” The same can be said of the Haftarah portion read by Ashkenazi Jews this week: The Canaanite General Siserah conquered with his intimidating legions of iron chariots.

Yet the horses become nothing more than a source of denial for both the Egyptians and the Canaanites. Egypt is so confident in its horses and chariots that they felt that they could still “win.” Blinded by their faith in their military might, they denied what they saw as either chance or a merely human challenge. Never did it enter their consciousness that HaShem had come to free the slaves.

When the chariot wheels fell off, the shock and realization of truth set in. They experienced a moment of sheer terror, as every bothersome detail and miracle that had been “explained away” suddenly fell into place. But it was too late. The water crashed down, and only at the end did they recognize the conclusion that had been before them all the time.

It is human nature to seek security, to grasp for horses and chariots to help us feel invincible. Our Torah portion of the week challenges us to transcend the Egyptian mindset, to stop denying that which has been plain in front of us all along. To look at that which is before us, and choose to be among those that recognize what life is truly all about, instead of chasing self-destructive delusions into the sea.

Rabbi Judah Dardik is the spiritual leader at Oakland’s Beth Jacob. He can be reached at [email protected] .