Photo Credit: Jewish Press

It seems strange that the Egyptians did not yet know G-d even after the plagues, and especially after the plague of the First Born. Yet, this is exactly what Hashem tells Moshe before the episode of the splitting of the sea:

And I will harden Pharaoh’s heart and he will pursue (the people of Israel); and I will be honored before Pharaoh and his whole army, and the Egyptians will know that I am Hashem (Shemot 14:4).


What exactly could the Egyptians learn that they did not learn thus far? Granted, the miracles at the splitting of the sea were tremendous, but what more could they possibly need to know? Did they not free the Children of Israel precisely because they finally learned who G-d is?

The answer seems to come later, when the Egyptians follow the People of Israel into the dry land of the Yam Suf.

And it was when (the Israelites) waited for morning. And G-d looked upon the Egyptian encampment, through the pillar of fire and the cloud. And He confounded the Egyptian encampment… And Egypt said, “I will run away from Israel, because G-d fights the Egyptians on their behalf” (14:24-25).

Rabbi Yaakov Moshe Charlop shares an arresting insight that explains the entirety of this passage: The Egyptians do not say they will run from G-d. Rather, they decide to run from Bnei Yisrael, since G-d fights on their behalf. In other words, the Egyptians already knew G-d. But they did not yet grasp His connection with the people of Israel.

Rabbi Charlop writes:

“Though the miracles and wonders that G-d performed in Egypt convinced the latter to surrender to Him, they did not yet come to understand the elevated status of Israel.”

This changed at the moment that Egypt said, “I will run away from Israel.” At that moment, the Egyptians realized they had not freed a random group of slaves. Apparently, they had freed G-d’s people. Only once they learned that lesson, could the Exodus come to a conclusion and the people of Israel could begin the next chapter of their story.

It is worth meditating for a moment on what it means to be G-d’s people. We know that we have a unique covenant with G-d, that we have been chosen. Yet, can we not try to sharpen what this means? What do we actually tell our children about being G-d’s people? What do we tell ourselves?

Rabbi Charlop writes: “One who says he knows G-d without any connection with Israel – as they are the Name of G-d – that is the way of idolatry.”

Why should that be so?

The question deserves an answer, or answers, that deserve book length treatments. We will give just one, short answer.

Next week, we will read that G-d tasks us with being a “kingdom of priests” (19:6). This means, Rabbi Avraham ben HaRambam teaches us, that we must be like kohanim, priests, “since a people’s priest is its leader; he is its honored person and its model. The people of a community follow in his footsteps and find the upright path through him” (comments to ibid.).

The implications of these short comments are staggering. First, they require that we recognize human frailty and the possibility of serious moral failure. If people could not fail, Hashem would not need the Jewish people to act as a model for others. Apparently, while Hashem could have just made human beings perfect, He chose not do so. Instead, He gave us free will and innumerable challenges. Instead of removing impediments to our success, He made our successes meaningful because He allows us to overcome challenges ourselves. And our job, as the Jewish people, is to model the process of human overcoming, to live up to G-d’s instructions and vision and show the rest of the world how to rise up and do so as well.

If we recognize G-d, even His omnipotence, but reject His connection with the group of people that He chose to bring His moral vision to the world, then, as Rabbi Charlop writes, such religious thinking is “no more than heretical cursing and swearing.” To see G-d without His emissaries is to think less of Him, to think G-d does not bother with the moral instruction of human beings, that He does not give us a way to grow and help ourselves. To see G-d as so removed would be idolatrous indeed.

We must recognize our unique relationship with G-d if we are going to live up to His moral vision and expectations for us. We have a gift, an irreplaceable role to play. But we cannot play that role, live well, or share our treasury of instruction and moral gifts, unless we recognize just how special it is.

We are required to recognize our own role as well as our unique connection with G-d if we are to live up to the tasks set before us. Only by recognizing how special this role is – how much it is a gift and how incredible a responsibility – can we begin to actually live up to ourselves.


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Yitzchak Sprung is the Rabbi of United Orthodox Synagogues of Houston (UOSH). Visit our facebook page or to learn about our amazing community.