Why was Hashem concerned that Yisrael might consider returning to Egypt?
(13,17) “And it came to pass, when Pharaoh sent the people, that G-d did not lead them by way of the land of the Philistines, for it was near, because G-d said: Lest the people reconsider when they see war, and they will return to Egypt.”
Why does the Torah attribute the sending of Yisrael to Pharaoh, instead of saying “when Yisrael went out”, or “with the going out of Yisrael from Egypt”? Because it wants to tell us that Pharaoh went with them to accompany them, as it says in 12:30 “And Pharaoh arose in the night”. He followed them himself and sent them out.
Now, if Klal Yisrael had not seen that Pharaoh was still alive, they would have thought that he had also died amongst the firstborn, and consequently they would have no longer been afraid of the Egyptians because they would have thought that Egypt was no longer a viable power, and so even when they later saw the threat of war, it would not have occurred to them to return to Egypt. But seeing him alive, and knowing that he was in fact a firstborn, created a question in their minds - why was he allowed to live? And therefore when they saw the threat of war, they would have thought that he had been left alive because they had sinned, and it was Hashem’s will that they return to Egypt, and thus they would have considered doing so.
This is especially true according to the Midrash, which explains that the war which Yisrael might see that would cause them to return to Egypt, is the war which the men of Gath waged against the children of Ephraim, who had left Egypt thirty years early against Hashem’s will, and who had been killed and their bones left strewn on the way. Because if Pharaoh was dead, or if they thought that he was dead, then Yisrael would not have compared their leaving Egypt to what happened to the children of Ephraim when they had tried to leave, and think about turning back. They would have understood it was different then because Pharaoh was still alive and therefore they had not been freed, and so the children of Ephraim were killed. But that now Pharaoh was dead they were free.
But, “Pharaoh sent the people” - he sent them himself, and everyone saw that he was alive, so “G-d did not lead them…because He said: Lest the people reconsider when they see war, and return to Egypt”.
Another explanation of the posuk is as follows. It is normal that when someone wants to do a friend a favor he will not try to make maximum effort to get him to accept the favor. He will say to himself: It is sufficient that I want to do him a favor, and if he prevents me from doing the favor, because he does not want it, I do not have to be concerned about him, since he is not concerned about himself.
But if a person wants to do a favor for his son, he will make every possible effort to get his son to agree to accept the favor, because even if the son does not want his favor due to the fact that he does not understand that it is good for him, the father, who cares for his wellbeing, will persuade him in any way possible to get him to accept the favor.
And so it is with the Creator. As the posuk in Devarim 4:7 says, “For what great nation is there that has G-d so near to them?”, and it says in the Midrash, that if a person has a poor relative, he doesn’t acknowledge him, but with Hashem, the poor are close to Him. Therefore it says, “For what great nation is there that has G-d so near to them”. We are close to Him, and we are called His children.
This is the explanation of our posuk - if Hashem was not close to us, he would not have been concerned lest the people reconsider when they see war, and return to Egypt. It is sufficient that He wanted to bring us close and to do us a favor by taking us out of Egypt. And if we ourselves do not want this favor, and we return to Egypt, why should Hashem care that we are lacking intelligence and don’t recognize His favor. But Hashem did not do this, but rather “G-d did not lead them by the way of the Philistines”, because “He is near”, that is, Hashem is close to us like a father to his son, and therefore cared for our wellbeing, and was concerned “lest the people reconsider when they see war, and they will return to Egypt”.
Now, Rashi explained, “lest the people reconsider” - lest they have second thoughts about their going out, and consider returning. It seems that Rashi found difficult the expression ‘lest the people reconsider’ - it should have said, ‘lest the people will be afraid when they see war’. Also, “and they will return to Egypt”, implies that they would actually return. But do you think that if they had wanted to return, that Hashem or Moshe would let them! In fact, later on they said, (Bamidbar 14:4) “let us appoint a leader, and return to Egypt”, and nevertheless they did not return, so how could it say here “and they will return to Egypt”?
But Chazal teach that the posuk in Yechezkel 18:24 “When a righteous person repents of his righteousness, and does wrong…all his righteous deeds that he has done shall not be remembered” refers to one who regrets his former, righteous deeds. According to this, here also, behold, the main merit that Yisrael had when they went out of Egypt was the merit of their faith in Hashem, as it says, “I remember to you the kindness of your youth…following me into the wilderness, into a land that is not sown”. Now, if afterwards they wanted to return, but they did not regret that they had originally gone out, then at least the merit of their faith would remain with them, so that Hashem will be with them. But if they regret that they had gone out, if so they would have ruined their earlier merit, and they would not be worthy that Hashem should be with them, and so, in fact they would return to Egypt, because Hashem would abandon them.
This is what the posuk is saying, “G-d did not lead them by way of the land of the Philistines, for it was near”. Because later, even if when they see war they would regret their going out of Egypt, since it would be after a long time, they would by then have some other merit by which Hashem would stay with them. But the land of the Philistines was close to the time of their leaving Egypt, and all they had then was the merit of their faith. This is what Rashi explained: “it was near” to return to Egypt - because it was a short distance, it was likely that, G-d forbid , they would be obliged to return. That is, “lest the people regret when they see war, and have second thoughts about their leaving Egypt, and consider returning, and by regretting their earlier actions, they would annul the merit of their faith in Hashem, and consequently, with no merit, they would actually return. Therefore, “G-d led the people around by way of the wilderness to the Red Sea., and the children of Yisrael went up armed” - he led them on a long journey, to delay several days, and in the mean time, Moshe armed them with Torah and mitzvos, so that later, even if they would regret their going out of Egypt, they would already have other merits. But right now, when they were close to Egypt, and they had no other merit except the merit of their faith, if they have regrets they would lose this one merit, and therefore there was a concern that they would return to Egypt.
Why did Hashem want them to return to Pi Hachiros?
(14,2) “Speak to the children of Yisrael, and they should turn back and they should rest in front of Pi Hachiros, between Migdol and the sea; in front of Baal Tzephon, opposite it you shall rest, on the sea.”
We have two questions here. Firstly, it already said “they should rest in front of Pi Hachiros”, so why does it repeat and say, “opposite it you shall rest”. Furthermore, how is it possible to rest on the sea?
In the gemora Avodah Zora 17a it says: “R. Chanina and R. Yonasan were traveling along, and they came to two paths - one led to the door of a place of idol worship, and one led to the door of a brothel. One of them said to the other, let’s go by the place of idol worship, because the evil inclination for this has been slaughtered (as a result of the intercession of the Men of the Great Assembly). The other one said, let’s go by the brothel, in order to subdue our evil inclination, and receive reward”. But in earlier times, for the sin of idol worship also, the evil inclination was very powerful.
So it seems here, that it was actually an idol that was called Pi Hachiros, and Hashem commanded that they return there because He wanted to seek for them merit, so that they would be fitting for the miracle of the splitting of the Red Sea. Because whilst they were going in the wilderness, even though they were not worshiping idols, this itself was no merit - firstly, because there were no idols in the wilderness, but also, due to their fear of the being in an uninhabited area, they feared Hashem, and so there was not much of a test. Therefore, Hashem commanded them to return to Pi Hachiros, which is an idol - to put themselves in a place where there is an idol. Alternatively, if we explain like Rashi, that Pi Hachiros was the same as Pisom, one of the cities that Yisrael had been involved in building, it still fits with our approach - since it was an inhabited place there were certainly many idols there, and thus they had a possibility of worshiping them. Also since it was inhabited, they no longer had the fear of the wilderness upon them. So now they had the opportunity to overcome their evil inclination and not worship, and then this merit would be sufficient for them, for splitting the Red Sea.
Now, the evil inclination is called the ‘tzephoni’ - the hidden one, like it says in Yoel 2:20 “And the hidden one I will distance from you”, because it is concealed and hidden in the chambers of a person’s heart, as Chazal have said. This is what the posuk is saying “between Migdol and the sea, in front of Baal Tzephon - in a place of idol worship, and before the concealed evil inclination. In front of it you shall be, and you will subdue your inclination. And therefore “opposite this”, in return for this, “you shall rest on the sea”, you shall rest on dry land within the sea - you will merit through this the splitting of the Red Sea. But even if the intention is the simple explanation of the words, that Baal Tzephon is the name of an idol, this approach still works.
Why did Pharaoh pursue Yisrael?
(14,3) “And Pharaoh will say about the children of Yisrael: They are trapped in the land. The wilderness has closed in on them. And I will harden Pharaoh’s heart, and he will pursue them, and I will be glorified through Pharaoh and through his entire army, and Egypt will know that I am Hashem.”
Hashem is showing Yisrael here how He has the ability to turn a person’s heart to do anything that He desires. Because normally when one is considering pursuing his servant, only if he sees that his servant could be successful in his flight will he make every effort to pursue him in order to catch him. But if he understands that his servant cannot flee, and on the contrary, he must come back, what is the point of pursuing him? In any case, he has to come back and appease his master.
So too here. Granted if Pharaoh had heard that Yisrael were fleeing, and they had the ability to successfully flee, that he should pursue them in order to catch them. But since Pharaoh himself said that “they are trapped in the land, the wilderness has closed in on them”, and it is impossible for them to escape, if so, why should he pursue them? Yet, nevertheless, Hashem hardened his heart to pursue them. From this is clearly seen that Hashem can turn a person’s heart, as it says in Yeshayohu 44:25 “He turns the wise backwards, and makes their knowledge foolish”.
This is what the posuk is saying: “And Pharaoh will say about the children of Yisrael: They are trapped in the land. The wilderness has closed in on them”. And nevertheless, “I will harden Pharaoh’s heart, and he will pursue them”, and therefore, “Egypt will know that I am Hashem”, and can turn a person’s heart as I wish.
Why did Pharaoh have a change of heart about sending out Yisrael?
(14,5) “It was reported to the king of Egypt that the people had fled; and Pharaoh and his servants had a change of heart towards the people, and they said: What is this that we have done, that we have released Yisrael from serving us?”
In order to explain this posuk we need to preface two things. The first is that whenever the Torah says ‘the people’ (העם), it refers to the mixed multitude, and those on an inferior spiritual level. The second is that which Chazal taught, that when Yisrael left Egypt, Pharaoh also freed all the captives and they went with Yisrael. The reason he did so, was that because of the great fear which fell on Pharaoh at the time of the plague of the firstborn, he spoke without knowing what he said, and gave permission to all the captives in his land, that they could go free. After his mind was settled, he thought that even though he had by chance said this, nevertheless, just because of his words, they would not do so, that they would not suddenly uproot themselves and go. But afterwards, he was informed that the people had fled, and large numbers of the mixed multitude had gone out with Yisrael. Due to his great distress on hearing this, he had a change of heart. He figured that if Yisrael had gone alone, then they would have thought that he had not sent them away completely, but rather for the three days they needed to worship Hashem that they had spoken about, and no more than this. But now Yisrael will see that even the captives, about whom Hashem and Moshe had not requested, and for whose sake the Egyptians had not been smitten, also these Pharaoh commanded to leave. If so, for sure Yisrael will conclude that Pharaoh wanted to send them out completely, and not just to worship Hashem, and that he had given the go ahead for all the captives in his land to leave.
This is what the posuk is saying: “It was reported to the king of Egypt that the people had fled” - he was informed that also the mixed multitude went out with Yisrael. Then, “Pharaoh and his servants had a change of heart towards the people”, that is, because he had sent out the people, and they had fled, he had a complete change of heart, and said, “What is this that we have done?”, that we have sent out the people, that is, the captives and the mixed multitudes. Because since we did that, “we have released Yisrael from serving us” - they will understand from this that we sent them out completely, and no longer have to serve us. They will say that if we sent others out completely, something which they never requested, all the more so we sent them out completely.
Why did the Egyptians agree to go with Pharaoh?
(14,6) “So he harnessed his chariot, and took his people with him.”
Because he was very zealous in the matter and harnessed his chariot himself, which is something that is not normal for a king to do, it caused all of his people to have pity on him. This what the posuk is saying, “he harnessed his chariot, and took his people with him” - by his action of harnessing his own chariot he took the hearts of his people to be with him and listen to his counsel, and to do whatever he desired.