By Rabbi Rami Pavolotzky
This week we read parashat Beshalach. The first verse of this parasha reads, “Now when Pharaoh let the people go, God did not lead them by way of the land of the Philistines, although it was nearer; for God said, “The people may have a change of heart when they see war and return to Egypt” (Exodus 13:17).
The first Hebrew word of this verse is Vayehi, which can be translated as “now when,” “it came to pass when,” or just “when.” The sages of the Talmud (Megillah 10b) made the following commentary about this word, “Rabbi Levi said, and some say that it was Rabbi Yonatan who said: This matter is a tradition that we received from the members of the Great Assembly. Anywhere that the word vayehi is stated, it is an ominous term indicating nothing other than impending grief.”
The verse quoted earlier describes the beginning of the exodus from Egypt, after hundreds of years of slavery, physical and psychological suffering. We wonder, why this happy moment could entail any grief? It almost looks like a contradiction!
The sages answered this question by explaining that the grief can be found in the fact that the Children of Israel were set free, but they were not able to get rid of the slave mentality that was still carved in their souls, after a life of servitude. Even after witnessing the miraculous plagues that had whipped Egypt, the Children of Israel were not completely ready to live as free men and women, and as a sovereign people.
Some sages even think that this is the reason why the Torah says, “Now when Pharaoh let the people go.” The Children of Israel did not leave Egypt by themselves, because of their decision and their natural willingness to live a life of freedom, they waited for Pharaoh to let them go.
Perhaps the first word of our parasha, vayehi, is an indication of the many challenges that Moses would find during his forty years of leadership in the desert, when he will have to deal with his people. The Children of Israel were free at last, but their hearts were still attached to the slave life. As many commentators have stated, that is why this generation was not ready to conquer the Land of Israel, where the people of Israel would live a sovereign life. Only those born free, the children and grandchildren of those who left Egypt, will be ready for the next challenge in the history of the Jewish people.