And Pharaoh and his people had a change of heart regarding the nation, and they said, “What is this that we have done that we have sent away Israel from serving us?” (Shemot 14:5)
Anyone who studies the events of the Ten Plagues would be shocked by the stubbornness of Pharaoh in the face of the step-by-step dismantling of his empire. How could any monarch hold on to slaves that were the cause of the destruction of his kingdom?
The Sages explain that initially Pharaoh himself stubbornly rejected Moshe’s demand for emancipation. However, after five refusals to comply, Hashem intervened and hardened the heart of Pharaoh, who otherwise would have yielded to the demands. After the firstborn were killed, Pharaoh not only allowed the slaves to leave his country, he forcefully demanded that they exit with all due haste. And so, at high noon in the bright sunshine, the Jewish people made their Exodus from Egypt.
The story might have ended here except for the surprising behavior of Pharaoh and his troops a mere six days later. Pharaoh sent some of his people to accompany the Jews on their “three-day sabbatical” to serve their G-d. When the people continued traveling away from Egypt rather than turn around to return, the messengers rushed back to Pharaoh and arrived on the sixth day following the Exodus. They reported that the Jews were not heading back but, rather, continuing to travel through the desert towards Canaan. The king immediately rushed to bring together a battalion of 600 chariots to pursue the fleeing slaves and return them to his land. Pharaoh and his people reasoned, “What is this that we have done that we have sent away Israel from serving us?”
Wherein is the source of this insanity?
The behavior of Pharaoh and his charioteers at the sea is even more surprising. They see a pillar of fire lighting up the desert sky for the benefit of the Jews, and they see the sea split into 12 lanes and produce paved roads for the fleeing tribes — yet they follow the Jews into the walled paths in the sea! Had they already forgotten the events of the past year? How could they exclaim, “What is this that we have done that we have sent away Israel from serving us?”
Harav Yaakov Kamenetsky explains (Emet l’Yaakov, Parashat Beshalach) that the Torah wants to teach us just how powerful desire is and how it can distort clear facts. Desire is so awesome that even one year of destruction can be wiped out with selective memory controlled by “want” in less than seven days. All that is needed is a small opening — a tiny room for error — and desire will step in to distort well-known facts.
After the tenth plague, it was obvious that Hashem controlled everything in Creation and micro-managed His world with His power. The fact that He left one idol standing in the desert left room for the Egyptians to conclude that that particular idol was more powerful than the L-rd of the Jews. Upon witnessing the splitting of the sea, they felt a warm east wind and concluded that the miraculous means for salvation was merely another weather event. The Egyptians wanted to recover the loss of their massive slave labor force and that desire blinded them to the facts that they saw with their own eyes.
How are we to deal with this powerful force embedded in human nature? As Jews, we have the benefit of the Torah. In it lie the ways of life that yield spiritual and material success. We learn what to want and how to be. If we train ourselves to “want” the right things, then we will be led by our desire in the right direction, always.
Fill your heart with Torah and you won’t leave any room for error.