When Moshe and Aharon first approached the Jewish people in Egypt, “the people believed; they accepted that G-d remembered the Jewish people” (Shemot 4:31). Yet soon thereafter, Pharaoh increased their workload, and instead of being seen as the messengers of redemption, Moshe and Aharon were seen as the cause of their problems. “You have placed a sword to kill us in their hands” (Shemot 5:21) they are told. Moshe was despondent, as the people’s belief in G-d had dissipated.
The ten plagues were just as necessary to rekindle the belief in an omnipotent G-d amongst the Jewish people as they were to punish the Egyptians, and maybe more so. It would not be until the events at the Red Sea that Jews would regain their faith in G-d and their trust in Moshe. “The Jewish people saw the great hand of G-d unleashed on Egypt, and the people were in awe of G-d; and they believed in G-d and in His servant Moshe” (Shemot 14:31).
Belief in G-d, however, is not enough. It was to be accompanied by “belief” in Moshe as the faithful servant entrusted to relay the message of G-d to the people.
Noting the juxtaposition of the fate of the Egyptians and the belief of the Jewish people, Rashi comments that only when the Jewish people actually saw the dead Egyptian bodies did they truly trust in G-d. The sea, Rashi notes, spit out the bodies of the Egyptians so the Jewish people would not be able to say, “Just as we are being saved on this side of the river, the Egyptians are been saved on another side”. Even as they believed, their belief was apparently quite shaky. Did they really need to see the Egyptian bodies to trust in G-d’s promise to redeem them? Were the miracles performed in Egypt not enough?
The actions of the Jewish people seem to parallel those of Noach. The Torah (Breisheet 6:7) records that Noach entered the ark only when the floodwaters began to rage. Rashi notes that Noach, while a faithful servant of G-d, nonetheless lacked a certain degree of faith. Unsure if there actually would be a flood, he waited until he literally had no choice but to enter the ark as the water levels rose higher and higher.
Perhaps there is another way of looking at these events. The Torah commands us time and time again to use our experience in Egypt as an impetus for sensitivity, caring and compassion towards others. We are to be grateful to the Egyptians and are to bear no grudges nor seek revenge against them. This is in contradistinction to our relationship with Amon or Moav and, of course, Amalek. We pour from our cup of wine as we mourn the drowning of the Egyptians. The Midrash (as opposed to the Talmud) claims that we recite half Hallel on the last day(s) of Pesach to commemorate the suffering of the Egyptians. The Torah commands us to help “the one we hate” (see Shemot 23:4-5) to load and unload his possessions; we are required to offer charity to idolaters; the list of those whom we must help who would not help us is a long one.
The Jewish people may have thought that G-d’s compassion was so great that He would take mercy on the advancing Egyptians, sparing them their deserved fate. After all, as the Midrash proclaims, “they [the Egyptians] worship idols, and they [the Jews] worship idols”. If the Jews were worthy of being saved, so too were the Egyptians. Waiting to confirm the deaths of the Egyptians demonstrated their realization that G-d is a G-d of unending mercy. Similarly, Noach—working for 120 years to build the ark—believed that G-d had the utmost patience, waiting and waiting for sinners to repent—even as the waters were rising.
We are duty bound to feel the pain of our enemies, and even to help them when need be. However, there are times when enemies must be defeated. To know when to fight and when to let up is most difficult. Shaul Hamelech failed that test when he spared Agag, the King of the Amalekim. The result was Haman.
One of the key quandaries facing the State of Israel is balancing our need to exact justice with our even more necessary instinct for mercy. G-d is, as the Jewish people sung after they crossed the sea, “a Man of War” as well as the embodiment of peace. May we have the wisdom to know which trait to emulate and when.