“The water came back and covered the chariots and the horsemen of the entire army of Pharaoh, who were coming behind them in the sea …” (Shemos 14:28)
After all the years of servitude and oppression, the Ten Plagues, the emotional ups and downs as Pharaoh granted them permission to leave and then retracted it, the Jewish nation was finally standing at the edge of the Sea of Reeds, pursued by the Egyptians. Even though by this time, the Egyptians should have realized that they would surely die, as Hashem intended for the Jewish people to emerge victorious, they nevertheless continued their frenzied chase.
The Menachem Tzion cites the Zohar that elaborates more on what happened here. In truth, Pharaoh didn’t willingly choose to let the Jewish nation leave; he was forced because of the Plagues. However, when he saw that his magicians, the erev rav, had joined the Jewish people in their exodus, he felt betrayed. At that point, he regretted his concession to Moshe Rabbeinu, and set out in pursuit of the Jewish nation.
The Torah then tells us that the entire army, the chariots and the horses were covered by the sea, and “they sank like lead in the water.” When the peoples of the world heard about Hashem’s might and glory, a great kiddush Hashem was created and they all feared Hashem.
The Shiras HaTorah asks: Hashem had already begun to punish the Egyptians on the ground in Egypt. Why didn’t He wipe out the army there? Why was it necessary to have them pursue the Jewish people into the Sea of Reeds?
The great Chassidic master Rabbi Nachman of Breslov told the following: A Jew was traveling home after being away for more than two years. Apprehensive of the unsavory characters who waylaid travelers on the road and the dangerous animals who inhabited the forests, he had hidden on his person a large amount of money, which he had earned during his travels. Suddenly, he heard a loud shout behind him. When he turned he saw a short man, his eyes gleaming with a hunger for money, holding a pistol.
“Give me all your money,” he demanded, “and you can go on your way.”
“I am not able to,” the Jew said.
“I will take it by force then,” threatened the robber.
“This is my pay for two years of work. My wife and children are awaiting my return, and they will be heartbroken.”
“I am not going to kill you,” said the robber. “Just give me your money!”
“Who would believe he had been robbed and left alive?” thought the Jew to himself. “Everyone would think he squandered his money in the bars.” The Jew then turned to the robber and said, “You can have my money, but I need a favor from you because no one will believe that I was held up and lived to tell about it.”
“What do you want?” growled the robber.
“Please put a couple of bullets into my suitcase, so they will think there was a gunfight.”
The thief did so, and then jumped onto his horse, ready to leave.
“Could I ask you one more favor?” pleaded the Jew. “I need to make this look good. Could you put a couple of bullets through my coat?”
The thief did so, and once again jumped onto his horse, ready to leave. “Please have mercy,” called out the Jew, “and I won’t bother you anymore. I want it to look like it was a good fight. Put a couple of bullets through my hat.”
The robber was getting upset by now, but he put the hat on a branch and began to shoot. Suddenly there were no more shots. He had run out of bullets!
The Jew quickly jumped on him, beat him up, and grabbed back his money.
Similarly, as long as Pharaoh had some merits, Hashem did not destroy him. When Pharaoh gave the Jewish people permission to leave, he was left with some merits that protected him. But the moment that he regretted his decision and set out to pursue the Jewish people he lost all his merits and protection. It was then that Pharaoh and his army drowned in the waters of the Sea of Reeds.
This is an incredible affirmation of the significance of a mitzvah or a good deed. Pharaoh’s decision to be benevolent served as a merit, protecting him and his army. We can only imagine the power of a mitzvah or a zechus to protect the Jewish Nation.
The Talmud tells us (Brachos 28a) that one should always ascend to a higher level of sanctity and not go lower. The commentaries explain that when one has implemented a good action, or has become more meticulous in the observance of any mitzvah, he should never back down. One can never calculate its implication in his life.
The Talmud Yerushalmi (Shekalim) tells of a pious individual who dug wells for the travelers on the road so they would have water. Once, as his daughter traveled to marry, the bridge she was crossing broke and the river below swept her away. The Talmud relates that since he honored his Creator by digging wells for the wayfarers, his daughter could not be hurt by water, and she was saved from a calamity.
Sometimes a person considers the prospect of pulling out from his service or assistance to the tzibbur. Yet, one cannot assess the value of one good deed, no matter how small. It is unquestionably worthwhile to retain every zechus available for the protection of ourselves and the community.