(The seventh day of Passover commemorates the day the Children of Israel reached the Red Sea and witnessed both the miraculous ‘Splitting of the Sea,’ the drowning of all the Egyptian chariots, horses and soldiers that pursued them, and the Passage of the Red Sea.)
Seven days after we left Egypt, we reached the Red Sea.
That was the day our enemies died. And, to be honest, we were happy about it.
At first, it looked as if we were doomed. We had just fled from Egypt, after getting the word that Pharaoh had finally agreed to let us go. So we all raced out, in a hurried panic, with our packs on our backs, leading our animals into the desert, and dragging our children along behind us. And then someone turned around and saw, and shouted…
The Egyptian army was coming after us. Pharaoh, that mercurial dictator, had changed his mind again. And now he and all his chariots were blazing towards us, swords in the air, ready to slaughter us all. And there ahead of us was the Red Sea. We could go no further. This was the end.
And then our God did the impossible. The greatest miracle anyone has ever seen. He split the waters before us. They parted and formed two walls, and a pathway of dry land between them. And we walked right across.
But of course, they followed after. And miracle or no, they would still overpower us. What did it matter if they killed us on this shore or on the other side? The splitting of the Red Sea, all that wonder and amazement, would be for nothing.
But our God had another surprise in store for them:
The Lord said to Moses, “Hold your arm over the sea, so that the waters come back upon the Egyptians, their chariots, and their horsemen.” Moses held his arm over the sea, and at the break of day, the sea returned to its normal state, and the Egyptians fled as it approached. But the Lord hurled the Egyptians into the sea. The waters turned back and covered the chariots and the horsemen – and of Pharaoh’s entire army that followed them into the sea, not one of them remained. (Exodus 14:26-29)
וַיֹּאמֶר ה אֶל–מֹשֶׁה, נְטֵה אֶת–יָדְךָ עַל–הַיָּם; וְיָשֻׁבוּ הַמַּיִם עַל–מִצְרַיִם, עַל–רִכְבּוֹ וְעַל–פָּרָשָׁיו. וַיֵּט מֹשֶׁה אֶת–יָדוֹ עַל–הַיָּם, וַיָּשָׁב הַיָּם לִפְנוֹת בֹּקֶר לְאֵיתָנוֹ, וּמִצְרַיִם, נָסִים לִקְרָאתוֹ; וַיְנַעֵר ה אֶת–מִצְרַיִם, בְּתוֹךְ הַיָּם. וַיָּשֻׁבוּ הַמַּיִם, וַיְכַסּוּ אֶת–הָרֶכֶב וְאֶת–הַפָּרָשִׁים, לְכֹל חֵיל פַּרְעֹה, הַבָּאִים אַחֲרֵיהֶם בַּיָּם: לֹא–נִשְׁאַר בָּהֶם, עַד–אֶחָד. וּבְנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל הָלְכוּ בַיַּבָּשָׁה, בְּתוֹךְ הַיָּם; וְהַמַּיִם לָהֶם חֹמָה, מִימִינָם וּמִשְּׂמֹאלָם.
Yes, they all died there, out in middle of the sea, just as we were walking out the other side. Legions of men and beasts, sunk down together in one mass, watery grave.
And you know what we did? We sang. We sang a song of joy. That is the very next thing you read in the Torah, the famous Song of the Sea:
Then Moses and the Israelites sang this song to the Lord. They said: I will sing to the Lord, for He has triumphed magnificently. Horse and driver He has hurled into the sea. (15:1)
אָז יָשִׁיר–מֹשֶׁה וּבְנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל אֶת–הַשִּׁירָה הַזֹּאת, לַה’, וַיֹּאמְרוּ, לֵאמֹר: אָשִׁירָה לַה’ כִּי–גָאֹה גָּאָה, סוּס וְרֹכְבוֹ רָמָה בַיָּם
You hear that? We didn’t just sing of our own salvation. No, the very first thing we sung about was their death. Oh, and we celebrated it. The bastards – our slave-owners and torturers. They deserved to die. And good riddance! So we sang, to thank God for killing them all.
But then, you know, it turned out, God didn’t actually kill them all. One Egyptian was left alive.
And you’ll never guess who.
You remember we said that that the waters covered, “Pharaoh’s entire army that followed them into the sea, not one of them remained.” Well that phrase at the end there, “Not one of them remained,” in Hebrew, is ‘ad echad’ (עד אחד), and could also mean ‘until one’ of them remained – meaning, they were all drowned until God got to the very last person… who wasn’t killed. And who was that? The Da’at Zekinim, a medieval French commentary, has an answer:
But one of them did remain. And that was Pharaoh!
אבל אחד נשאר והוא פרעה
Pharaoh?! Of all the Egyptians, it was Pharaoh who made it out? But he was the very worst of them! He was the one responsible for the whole mess in the first place. He was the one who enslaved us, and decreed our sons be drowned in the Nile. The one who mocked God, and refused to let us go. And he was the one leading the charge into the ocean, to kill us once and for all. And now he – he is the one who is saved?!
The Da’at Zekenim are taking their cue here from an amazing midrash, in one of the classic works of the genre: Pirkei d’Rabbi Eliezer. The midrash tells us not only that Pharaoh was saved, but why:
Rabbi Nehunia ben HaKana would say: Know the power of repentance! Come and see it from Pharaoh, King of Egypt, who rebelled against the Highest Rock [our God] greatly … And then the Holy One saved him from amongst the dead. And from where do we know that he did not die? Because it said “I could have stretched forth My hand and stricken you and your people with pestilence, and you would have been effaced from the earth. But I have spared you for this purpose: in order to show you My power, and so that My fame shall resound throughout the world.” (Exod 9:16)
ר‘ נחוניא בן הקנה אומר, תדע לך כח התשובה בא וראה מפרעה מלך מצרים שמרד בצור עליון הרבה מאד… הב“ה בין המתים מניין שלא מת שנ‘ כי עתה שלחתי את ידי ואך אותך ואולם בעבור זאת העמדתיך וכו‘
The midrash is playing off that last verse it cites, from earlier in Exodus, where God says that Pharaoh has been spared from the plague of pestilence, and seems to suggest Pharaoh is being saved for some later purpose – something that will promote God’s fame throughout the world. So the Rabbis take the “sparing” here as an allusion to a later salvation, the saving of Pharaoh at the sea. So how will he then go on to spread God’s fame throughout the world? The midrash continues with an astounding suggestion:
[Pharaoh] went and ruled in Nineveh. And the people of Nineveh would write works of profanity, steal from one another, engage in all kinds of perversity, and other such wicked things. And when the Holy One sent Jonah to deliver a prophecy to [Nineveh] about its destruction, Pharaoh heard and stood up from his throne and tore his clothes, and put on sackcloth and ashes, and announced to all his people that they should fast for three days – and that anyone who did not do it, would be burned in fire. (PdRE 43)
והלך ומלך בננוה והיו אנשי נינוה כותבים מכתבי עמל וגוזלים איש את ריעהו ובאים איש על רעהו במשכב זכור ובא אצלו מעשיהם הרעים וכששלח הב“ה ליונה להנבא עליה להחריבה שמע פרעה ועמד מכסאו וקרע בגדיו ולבש שק ואפר והכריז בכל עמו שיצומו כל העם שני ימים וכל מי שיעשה את הדברים הללו ישרף באש
This is is a remarkable proposition! The idea is that our Pharaoh here in Exodus is also the king in the Jonah story. He was plucked out of the Red Sea by divine fingers, just as he was about to drown, and teleported to Nineveh, to play a pivotal role in that drama.
The Book of Jonah is probably best known for its protagonist being swallowed by a whale; but it is, more importantly, the tale of a reluctant prophet, sent to announce that God intends to destroy the city of Nineveh for their wickedness, and then that city’s mass repentance. And they turn themselves around so immediately, and so completely, that God is thoroughly impressed, and calls off the destruction. The example of that kind of unreserved atonement, and its capacity to save us from punishment, is the reason we read the Book of Jonah on Yom Kippur.
And in that story, as the midrash correctly notes, it is indeed the king who leads the charge to repent:
When the news reached the king of Nineveh, he rose from his throne, put on sackcloth and sat in ashes. And he had the word cried throughout Nineveh… “Let everyone turn back from his evil ways and from the injustice of which he is guilty. Who knows? Maybe God will turn and relent! He may turn back from His wrath, so that we do not perish!” (Jonah 3:6-9)
וַיִּגַּע הַדָּבָר, אֶל–מֶלֶךְ נִינְוֵה, וַיָּקָם מִכִּסְאוֹ, וַיַּעֲבֵר אַדַּרְתּוֹ מֵעָלָיו; וַיְכַס שַׂק, וַיֵּשֶׁב עַל–הָאֵפֶר. וַיַּזְעֵק, וַיֹּאמֶר בְּנִינְוֵה …וְיָשֻׁבוּ, אִישׁ מִדַּרְכּוֹ הָרָעָה, וּמִן–הֶחָמָס, אֲשֶׁר בְּכַפֵּיהֶם. מִי–יוֹדֵעַ יָשׁוּב, וְנִחַם הָאֱלֹקים; וְשָׁב מֵחֲרוֹן אַפּוֹ, וְלֹא נֹאבֵד.
Now if we imagine, with the midrash, that this king is actually the Pharaoh from Egypt, then these words take on a particular note of urgency. Because he isn’t just speculating on the possibilities of repentance. He is remembering how he once refused to acknowledge his wrongs, and how, as a result, his own people died before his eyes, in the sea that day.
“Oh no,” he thinks. “It is happening again. I know the power of this God. We are in terrible trouble, and if I don’t do something quickly, the blood of these people will be on my hands as well. I have to warn them, to tell them what they’re up against.”
So he does, and it works. And in doing so, he has repented not just for the sins of Nineveh, but for his own sins back in Egypt.
Now all this may sound rather far-fetched, but the brilliance of the midrash is that it fulfills the promise of the verse it quotes from Exodus: “I have spared you for this purpose: in order to show you My power, and so that My fame shall resound throughout the world.” Who but Pharaoh knows the extent of God’s power? And now it is Pharaoh bringing the message of that power to far-flung lands throughout the world. Now we understand why this is the one person God saved from the sea.
But there is another question that this fantastic narrative merger helps us answer in the Book of Jonah. One of the great difficulties of the story is that Jonah doesn’t want to deliver the message to Nineveh. Not only does he try desperately to flee from his mission, but when he is finally forced to carry it out, and the people of Nineveh do repent and are saved, Jonah is furious!
This displeased Jonah greatly, and he was angry. He prayed to the Lord, saying, “O Lord! Isn’t this just what I said when I was still in my own country? That is why I fled before to Tarshish. For I know that You are a gracious and compassionate God, slow to anger, abounding in kindness, renouncing punishment. Please God, take my life, for I would rather die than live!” (Jonah 4:1-3)
וַיֵּרַע אֶל–יוֹנָה, רָעָה גְדוֹלָה; וַיִּחַר, לוֹ. וַיִּתְפַּלֵּל אֶל ה וַיֹּאמַר, אָנָּה ה הֲלוֹא–זֶה דְבָרִי עַד–הֱיוֹתִי עַל–אַדְמָתִי—עַל–כֵּן קִדַּמְתִּי, לִבְרֹחַ תַּרְשִׁישָׁה: כִּי יָדַעְתִּי, כִּי אַתָּה אֵל–חַנּוּן וְרַחוּם, אֶרֶךְ אַפַּיִם וְרַב–חֶסֶד, וְנִחָם עַל–הָרָעָה. וְעַתָּה ה, קַח–נָא אֶת–נַפְשִׁי מִמֶּנִּי: כִּי טוֹב מוֹתִי, מֵחַיָּי.
This reaction has baffled commentators throughout the ages. What kind of prophet is this? He doesn’t want people to repent?! He is angry at God for being compassionate? He wanted the people of Nineveh to die, and now that they will live, he’d rather die. The whole thing is appalling – but appalling in a way that makes no sense.
Unless you imagine that Jonah knows that the King of Nineveh is Pharaoh. This is the man who enslaved Jonah’s people for hundreds of years. This is the mass murderer of Hebrew children. This is a man who was supposed to have died hundreds of years ago at the hands of a just and vengeful God.
And now he is alive and well in Nineveh? He is ruling over a wicked kingdom once again. And yet God is giving him a chance to repent – a chance, even, to be the hero of the story.
No. No, this is unacceptable. There is no repentance for Pharaoh. This monster had his chance to repent back in Egypt. And instead he spat in the face of God, again and again, because all he ever wanted was to kill more Israelites.
What is God thinking? How could he have let Pharaoh live – and now repent, and be forgiven?! If this is a world where evil men are spared, Jonah thinks, then I don’t want to live in it.
Now God does have an answer for Jonah, in last line of the book:
Should I not care about Nineveh, that great city, in which there are more than a hundred and twenty thousand [children], who do not yet know right from left, and many animals as well! (Jonah 4:11)
וַאֲנִי לֹא אָחוּס, עַל–נִינְוֵה הָעִיר הַגְּדוֹלָה—אֲשֶׁר יֶשׁ–בָּהּ הַרְבֵּה מִשְׁתֵּים–עֶשְׂרֵה רִבּוֹ אָדָם, אֲשֶׁר לֹא–יָדַע בֵּין–יְמִינוֹ לִשְׂמֹאלוֹ, וּבְהֵמָה, רַבָּה.
God is asking Jonah to see the big picture. Yes, Pharaoh is alive, but he’s just a tool. He is one person, but he is being used to save hundreds of thousands of people, many of whom are completely innocent. Of course Jonah is angry that Pharaoh, of all people, was spared at the Red Sea. Of course Jonah wants this perpetrator of genocide to finally get the death he deserves. But God cannot let personal vendettas – no matter how well-deserved – get in the way of the salvation of an entire city.
That’s one explanation. But there is probably even more to it than that. For remember the first line of the midrash: Know the power of repentance! Pharaoh wasn’t just spared for his usefulness in some future catastrophe. Pharaoh was spared so that he could repent for his sins, and be forgiven. Because the truth is, God accepts repentance from everyone, and for any crime. God, as Jonah well knows, is all-merciful, a “gracious and compassionate God, slow to anger, abounding in kindness, renouncing punishment.”
And that is a spiritual truth that we, human beings, cannot always accept. There are sins we cannot forgive. Crimes so monstrous that we feel their debt can never be paid. Some people, we think, are just evil. Some people have lost their chance to atone.
Jewish tradition holds otherwise – that repentance is always possible, for any sin and for any person – even for a Pharaoh. We, like Jonah, may never be able to fully embrace the magnitude of this principle. We’re only human, after all. But then, that was precisely the point of casting Pharaoh into the Red Sea to begin with: to show the world that, in the end, human beings are not in charge – God is.