Plague of Egypt Against Healing of Israel
It is written, “The L-RD strengthened the heart of Pharaoh, king of Egypt, and he pursued the Children of Israel” (Exodus 14:8), and a little further on “very frightened, the Children of Israel cried out to the L-RD” (v.10).
1. Why were the Children of Israel seized with fright? Why did they doubt the power of G-d? “Is the hand of the L-RD short” (Numbers 11:23) that a miracle could not be performed for them? Had these Children of Israel forgotten all the wonders that He had performed for them in Egypt, particularly the plague of the first-born, a plague after which Pharaoh himself asked them to leave Egypt?
2. Why did G-d strengthen Pharaoh’s heart so that he could pursue them? G-d could very well have killed Pharaoh, and even all his armies in Egypt.
The Children of Israel certainly saw all the plagues that the Eternal inflicted on Pharaoh, but they considered them as a punishment for his malice towards G-d. They didn’t think about the harm he had caused them. Each time that Pharaoh rebelled against G-d, he was struck. After the plague of the first-born, Pharaoh sent the Children of Israel out of the land, of his own volition, in order to abide by G-d’s will. Therefore he could have, in like manner, made them return to Egypt. The dread of the Children of Israel was thus doubled: Pharaoh was henceforth in a position to make them suffer the worst tribulations. This is why G-d strengthened Pharaoh’s heart and forced him to pursue them. He wanted to show the Children of Israel that He was punishing Pharaoh for the cruelty that he had shown to them, and to make them understand that all the wonders He had performed in Egypt was only for their good. Hence the Children of Israel no longer had anything to fear from Pharaoh and his armies.
We may also suppose that the Children of Israel believed that all the plagues suffered by Pharaoh in Egypt were a response to the pain that he caused them. Considering themselves as worthy, they believed that he did not have the right to persecute them, and that he fully deserved the plagues he suffered. However, after their departure from Egypt, G-d wanted to make the Children of Israel understand that they had no merit whatsoever, for they were guilty of idolatry in Egypt (Shemot Rabba 16:2). But in that case, why liberate them from slavery? This is why G-d filled them with dread. It was in order for them to return to Him. And in reality this is what they did. Imitating the response of their ancestors, they began to cry out and pray (Tanhuma, Beshalach 9; Mechilta). It was not by their own personal merit that they were saved, but by that of their ancestors, a merit “that exists forever” (Shabbat 55b). It was the merit of their ancestors that produced the miracle at the Red Sea (Shemot Rabba 21:8).
Another question arises: Why did Pharaoh choose to pursue the Children of Israel at the Red Sea, since it presented so many dangers? In our humble opinion, it seems to us that if G-d had not strengthened Pharaoh’s heart, he would not have ventured into it for fear of getting caught in an ambush. Hence punishment awaited him. This occurred because G-d wanted to show the Egyptians that the waters of the Nile that flowed into the sea were polluted in Egypt because they considered Pharaoh as the god of the Nile (Shemot Rabba 9:9). The Eternal acted “measure for measure”: It was precisely the sea – which is His servant, contrary to the idea of the Egyptians – that was to punish the king of Egypt (Shabbat 105b).
As for the argument of Egypt’s ministering angel, which stated that the Children of Israel also worshipped idols, G-d rejected it. “It was against their will that they acted as such,” He explained to the angel. They listened only to the Holy One, blessed be He, for if they had worshipped idols of their own free will, how could the waters of the sea (the god of the Egyptians) have arisen as a wall to their right and their left to protect them (Exodus 14:22)? These waters were but the Torah that the Children of Israel studied (Bava Kama 17a). Consequently, they merited a miracle that saved them from Pharaoh and allowed them to cross the sea in complete safety.