“…and the heart of Pharaoh and his servants was turned regarding the people, and they said, ‘What is this that we have done that we have sent away Israel from serving us?’ … Hashem strengthened the heart of Pharaoh … and he pursued the Children of Israel … Egypt pursued them.” (Shemot 14:5, 8, 9)
After Pharaoh strengthened his heart of his own volition following the first five plagues, Hashem intervened and hardened Pharaoh’s heart after each of the last five plagues. Even after his people petitioned him to let the Jews go because their once-mighty empire was in shambles (Shemot 10:7), he refused to free the Children of Israel. Finally, on the first Pesach, he forced our people to leave the land.
Only seven days later the Jews were trapped at the sea. Hashem had once again hardened the heart of Egypt’s monarch; he gathered troops and they set out in hot pursuit. Rashi explains (14:5) that the expression “vayehafech — turned” means that his heart “was transformed from that which it once was … and the heart of his servants was turned as well; for in the past they would say ‘How long will this be a hazard to us?’ But now they changed their attitude to pursue the Israelites on account of their property that they had lent to the Jews.”
One must ask: Pharaoh endangered himself by chasing after the Jews through no choice of his own. Hashem hardened his heart. But why did the Egyptians undertake such a dangerous chase? They were the ones who insisted that Pharaoh allow the slaves to leave. They were the ones who feared total destruction of their homeland. Hashem did not intervene in their free will, so why did they have a change of heart? Our question is strengthened when we take into account that the entire population was involved in the funerals and mourning for their first-born sons who died on the night of Pesach!
The answer is revealed in the last three words of Rashi — Bishveel mamonam sh’hisheeloom — on account of their property that they had lent. We learn from here the power that the desire for money has over the minds of otherwise clear-thinking individuals. This desire is so powerful that it can drag an entire nation to a hopeless battle to regain some money. There are many desires that can make a sensible person do foolish things but the Torah stresses that it is money alone that can blind a person. “For bribery blinds the eyes of the wise…” (Devarim 16:19).
The passuk commands “You shall love the L-rd Your G-d with all your heart and all your soul and all your possessions” (Devarim 6:5). The Gemara (Berachot 61b) explains: “There is potentially a person whose money is worth more to him than his life; therefore, the verse says ‘with all your possessions’ last!” (meaning the highest level of love). The common reaction to this Chazal is: “Can it be true that anyone would value his money more than his life?” Yet it is very common for people to pursue wealth to such a degree as to put stress on their hearts, raise their blood pressure, lose sleep and travel without healthy meals. They sacrifice their health in the pursuit of wealth. This “bribe” blocks a person’s ability to choose wisely.
We look at the Egyptians entering the sea in pursuit of the temporal property they lent and call them fools. We must take stock of our behavior and place importance on what has true lasting value. Family, health, community and mitzvah performance — especially Torah learning — are the values that deserve our pursuit.