The parasha commences with what appears to be the most mind boggling statement ever issued by HaShem in His Torah. It is said (Shemos 13:17) וַיְהִי בְּשַׁלַּח פַּרְעֹה אֶת הָעָם וְלֹא נָחָם אֱ-לֹהִים דֶּרֶךְ אֶרֶץ פְּלִשְׁתִּים כִּי קָרוֹב הוּא כִּי אָמַר אֱ-לֹהִים פֶּן יִנָּחֵם הָעָם בִּרְאֹתָם מִלְחָמָה וְשָׁבוּ מִצְרָיְמָה, it happened when Pharaoh sent out the people that G-d did not lead them by way of the land of the Phillistines, because it was near, for G-d said, “Perhaps the people will reconsider when they see a war, and they will return to Egypt.” Here HaShem had punished the Egyptians for an entire year with the sole focus of demonstrating His might and that He is all-powerful, and now He is expressing a concern that the Jews will be fearful of war and return to Egypt! HaShem could have instilled fear in the Philistines just as He had done to the Egyptians and as He would do in the future to the Canaanites. What, then, was the concern regarding travelling the way of the Philistines?
Furthermore, throughout the entire journey of the Jewish People in the Wilderness, they appear to be suffering from an achilles heel of idolatry. When they leave Egypt, the Medrash (Yalkut Shimoni Beshalach § 234) states that the Sea did not wish to split, claiming that both the Egyptians and the Jews are idolaters. Further on down the road the Jews aroused strife and discord and it is said (Bamidbar 14:4) וַיֹּאמְרוּ אִישׁ אֶל אָחִיו נִתְּנָה רֹאשׁ וְנָשׁוּבָה מִצְרָיְמָה, so they said to one another, “Let us appoint a leader and let us return to Egypt,” and Rashi writes that the word רֹאשׁ alludes to idolatry. What is all this idolatry about and how did it affect the Jews odyssey in the Wilderness?
The Baal Haturim, characteristically, sheds light on this enigma when he writes as follows (Shemos 14:8): ביד רמה. ג’ הכא ואידך בפ’ מסעי והנפש אשר תעשה ביד רמה בפ’ שלח גבי ע”א מלמד שפסל מיכה עבר עמהם כמו שדרשו ועבר בים צרה, “the words ביד רמה appear in three instances: here, in Parshas Masei (describing the Exodus from Egypt) and in Parashas Shelach regarding an idolater. This teaches us that the idol of Micha passed through the Sea with them.” While time and space do not allow for an elaboration of this idol and its effects on the Jewish People, we will suffice with the words of the Rema MiPano, who writes that the Jewish People only said (Shemos 15:18) יְ-ה-וָ-ה יִמְלֹךְ לְעֹלָם וָעֶד, HaShem shall reign for all eternity, in the future tense, and not מֶלֶךְ in the present tense, because they had the idol of Micha with them. This subtle yet haunting idolatrous presence was sufficient to wreak havoc on the entire Jewish camp throughout their forty-year journey in the Wilderness.
We can suggest that when the Torah states that HaShem was concerned that the Jews would see war and become afraid, resulting in a hasty retreat to the safe confines of Egypt, the Torah refers to the spiritual struggle that existed in the hearts of the Jewish People. Their proverbial head was an idol and the lifestyle that they had adopted in Egypt. Balaam, the cunning and diabolical prophet of the gentiles, explained to Balak that it was not a nation who had left Egypt, i.e. led by idols and other forces. Rather, it was HaShem Who had taken the Jews out with a Mighty Hand and an Outstretched Arm (Rashi Bamidbar 23:22). When the Torah states that the Jews left with an upraised arm, the Baal HaTurim is teaching us that that this upraised arm alludes to the rebellious arm of idolatry. Indeed, the word רָמָה equals in gematria the words פסל מיכה, the idol of Micha.
The implications of this lesson are frightening, as it would appear that the Jews were unable to shake themselves loose from the shackles of idolatry. Nonetheless, we can be encouraged to know that HaShem is always with us, and that all the demons in our heads are mere figments of our imagination. As Dovid HaMelech teaches us so eloquently (Tehillim 121:4) הִנֵּה לֹא יָנוּם וְלֹא יִישָׁן שׁוֹמֵר יִשְׂרָאֵל, behold, He neither slumbers nor sleeps, the Guardian of Israel.
HaShem will continue watching over His Beloved Nation, and despite all the travails that we have undergone, He will redeem us with the arrival of Moshiach Tzidkeinu, speedily, in our days.
Have a Safe and Protected Shabbos!