by Dr. Avigdor Bonchek
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Parashas B'shalach(69)This week's sedra tells of the Israelites' escape from Egypt, the dramatic crossing of the Reed Sea, the drowning of the Egyptians. Unfortunately the sedra ends with several complaints of the Israelites. One is amazed that after so many miracles the nation could find fault with their lot. But the Torah is truthful and people are human.
He (Pharaoh) harnessed his chariot and he took his people with him.
He (Pharaoh) harnessed his chariot: Rashi: He (Pharaoh) himself [harnessed his own chariot].
This is really quite a simple Rashi-comment; too simple!
It is so simple you should have a question.
A Question: Rashi says the obvious. The verse says that Pharaoh harnessed his chariot and Rashi says the very same!
What has Rashi told us that we didn't know before?
Can you see Rashi's 'chidush' here?
IBN EZRA'S VIEW
We will quote Ibn Ezra's comment on this verse in order to clarify Rashi's position.
He Harnessed: Ibn Ezra: By commanding [others to do it] as it says: 'and Solomon built the house [Temple]' (I Kings 6:14).
The Ibn Ezra is saying that just as Solomon certainly did not build the Temple with his own hands, but rather had it built by others, at his command, so here too, Pharaoh, the king, didn't degrade himself to harness his own chariot. He had enough servants to do that menial task; but the fact that he told them to do it is as if he himself did it and that's why the Torah says he harnessed the chariot.
THE RASHI- IBN EZRA DISPUTE
So we see that Rashi disagrees with Ibn Ezra's approach (Note: Ibn Ezra knew of Rashi's commentary; it is unclear whether Rashi heard of Ibn Ezra's commentary, though they were contemporaries.) Rashi thinks the Torah means that Pharaoh did this himself. It should be said, that Ibn Ezra is considered one who pursues the P'shat interpretation, even more so than Rashi does.
Can you see why Rashi thinks so?
Why does Rashi stray from the simple p'shat? And what is p'shat in this case?
An Answer: What is most likely bothering Rashi is the following: If the Torah is telling us that Pharaoh had his chariot harnessed by his servants (as Ibn Ezra says), then what is so important about that, that the Torah had to tell us? Whenever and wherever Pharaoh went he probably went with his chariot; and it had to be harnessed and his servants did that. So why mention it now? Does the Torah need tell us that Pharaoh put his pants or his royal robe on? Certainly he didn't go out naked! But that is obvious. What is unremarkable is in no need of remarking. See Rashi's comment on Genesis 38:5. There Rashi makes his position clear; if a fact has no particular significance, the Torah would not mention it. And if the Torah does mention something that, at first glance, does not seem to have significance then we must search to find it significance.
So here the unremarkable fact that Pharaoh's chariot was harnessed is mentioned. And if his servants did that, then there's nothing noteworthy about that. So it must have been Pharaoh himself who did the dirty work. And why would he stoop to do it? Probably his anger at the Israelites was so burning in his gut that he put his pride aside and ran down to the stables to get the job done himself ASAP.
WHAT IS P'SHAT?
We had said that both Rashi and Ibn Ezra are interested in p'shat interpretation. Which is p'shat in this case? Rashi explains the verse literally while the Ibn Ezra does not. Is a literal interpretation, p'shat and one that is not literal, not p'shat? The difficult, but true, answer is that sometimes p'shat is literal, as in our verse, and sometimes it is not litera, as in the very next Rashi-comment. There Rashi says that the words " he [Pharaoh] took his people", is not to be taken literally, i.e. that he took them physically. Rather he took them with words, convincing them to go with him. One must use common sense in detecting if words are to be taken literally or otherwise.
A LOOK AT THE MIDRASH
I will quote an interesting Rashi in parashas Balak, which should give us cause to think.
"And Balaam arose in the morning and saddled his donkey and went with the officers of Moab."
And [Balaam] saddled his donkey: Rashi: from here we see that hatred breeds impropriety, for he saddled his donkey himself. So G-d said: 'Evil one! Abraham, their Father, has already preceded you, as it says: "He (Abraham) woke up early in the morning and saddled his donkey."
In this Rashi-comment Rashi compares the two very similar phrases "he saddled his donkey" both in the story of Abraham taking Isaac to the Akeida and Balaam getting ready to curse the Jewish People. Implying that Abraham's act of devotion neutralized Balaam's act of preparing to harm the nation.
We ask: Why didn't Rashi make a similar comparison between our verse and a verse in Genesis (46:29) where it describes Joseph preparing to meet his father Jacob. There it says: "He harnessed his chariot" and here it says of Pharaoh: "he harnessed his chariot". Both had many servants who could have done this job, both use the same phrase; why did these powerful men do it themselves?
Why doesn't Rashi on our verse cite that verse in Genesis and imply that Joseph's act of love (himself saddling his chariot to meet his father) neutralized Pharaoh's act of hatred (He harnessed his chariot to pursue the Israelites)? They both use the same phrase.
Can you think of an answer?
An Answer: I would suggest that the Rashi in Balak is based on a case of fulfilling a mitzvah (Abraham taking Isaac to the Akeida). It was Abraham's devotion to do a mitzvah that neutralized the harm that Balaam intended to do. But in Joseph's case, he was showing his devotion to his father and not fulfilling a command that G-d made of him. While Joseph's harnessing his donkey himself was quite a sign of devotion, but it wasn't done as an act of devotion to G-d, so it couldn't be seen as a merit which would neutralize the evil Pharaoh intended against Israel.
What's Bothering Rashi?" is a production of "The Institute for the Study of Rashi."
This article is provided as part of Shema Yisrael Torah Network
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