These and Those

Musings from Students of the Pardes Institute of Jewish Studies in Jerusalem

Overcoming Yad Mitzrayim and Recognizing the Power of Hashem

Posted on February 4, 2023 by Carole Daman

My mother, Rose, was a very warm, vivacious woman who was active in Jewish communal affairs into her 90’s. For many years she co-chaired the UJA-Federation Super Sunday campaign in the Riverdale section of the Bronx. She was also active in her synagogue, B’nai Brith Women (later called “Jewish Women International”) and the Riverdale Jewish Community Council. She was always young-at-heart and a very loving mother and grandmother with great insight, in whom it was very easy to confide.

The following is a talk I prepared last year for the Shalosh Seudos at my synagogue, the Young Israel of Scarsdale, prior to the tenth yahrzeit of my mother, Rose Goldberg, Bryna Rayzel bat Avraham z”l.

I originally thought that this year instead of talking about Parshat Beshalach as I usually do, I would focus on the beginning of Parshat Yitro which was read at Mincha.  However I was intrigued by the fact that when Yitro expresses his joy at Israel’s salvation he refers 3 times to Yad Mitzrayim and once to Yad Paro.  This led me to an exploration of the use of Yad as a signifier of power and control and brought me back to Parshat Beshalach. There, in contrast, the word “yad” appears numerous times referring to the power of God through his servant Moshe- first in splitting the sea and drowning the Egyptians, then in striking the rock for water and finally 7 times in the battle against Amalek.

In fact, the theme of Hashem’s Yad is considered central to this parsha.  The Masoretic note at the end of the parsha indicates that the number of psukim in the parsha, 116, is equal to the gematria of Yad Emunah, “the hand of faith”.  Faith however is not immediately apparent in the parsha.

The phrase “Yad Mitzrayim” appears once in Parshat Beshalach.  It is in the prose summation after the Egyptians have drowned and before the singing of Shirat Hayam (Ex. 14:30-31). In words similar to those of Yitro, the Torah tells us “On that day Hashem saved Israel from the hand of Egypt “miyad Mitzrayim” and Israel saw the Egyptians dead on the seashore.” It continues, “Israel saw the great hand “hayad hagedolah” that Hashem inflicted upon Egypt and the people revered Hashem and they had faith –Vayaaminu– in Hashem and in his servant Moshe.”  

In Shirat HaYam itself, the word yad appears twice. First, at the end of a boast by the Egyptians that they will despoil and destroy Bnei Yisroel.  The second use of yad is in the penultimate verse of the song which in contrast envisions the glorious future when God’s sanctuary will be established by His hand. The song also contains three references to the power of God’s right hand,”Yamincha”, and one to the greatness of God’s arm “zroacha”.

The Israelites’ recognition of Hashem’s might in the narrative and in their song stands in contrast to the first verse of Parshat Beshalach which refers not to Hashem taking Israel out of Egypt but to Pharaoh sending them out.  Vivien Hidary, a prominent Torah lecturer, notes that God is referred to in this verse twice as Elokim, signifying the God of Creation, rather than Hashem, the God who has heard Israel’s cries and sent all the plagues. She interprets the verse to suggest that at that moment the Israelites attributed their exit from Egypt to Pharaoh’s initiative, overlooking the miracles that Hashem had performed which caused Pharaoh to issue his order.

It is not until the verse quoted above when they saw the dead Egyptians that the Israelites recognized that Hashem’s “Hayad Hagedolah”, His “great hand” had been the force behind it all and that Moshe had been the instrument through which Hashem had orchestrated their deliverance.

Rabbi David Fohrman points out that this is the second time that the Torah tells us that Bnei Yisroel had faith. The first time was when Moshe first came back to Egypt, before he appeared before Pharaoh.  He and Aharon gathered the elders and Moshe performed the signs that he had been given by God at the burning bush, When Moshe had asserted that the Israelites would not believe him- Lo Yaaminu Li. (Ex. 4:1), God asked him what he had in his hand, Moshe responded “Mateh” “a staff”. Following God’s instructions, Moshe threw the staff (which would later play a major role as the extension of his arm and of God’s power) on the ground. It became a snake but then when he grabbed it by its tail it became a staff again.  This and the other signs given to Moshe at the burning bush convinced the people that God had remembered them and seen their affliction.  (Ex. 4:31) But once Pharaoh made their work harder after being approached by Moshe and Aharon, the people lost their faith.

When Moshe complained to God about what had happened (Ex. 6:1), God alluded to the strong hand of Pharaoh. As it states, “Hashem said to Moses ‘now you will see what I shall do to Pharaoh, for through a strong hand, (b’yad chazaka), he will send them out and with a strong hand (b’yad chazaka), he will drive them from his land.’”

There is only one time before this that the phrase “Yad Chazaka” “strong hand” appears in the Torah, and there it is slightly ambiguous as to whether it refers to the hand of God or the hand of Pharaoh.  At the burning bush, God tells Moshe “I know that the king of Egypt will not allow you to go, “V’lo b’yad chazaka” usually translated as “except with a strong hand.”  (Ex. 3:19) This is in accordance with the interpretation of most commentators that God’s strong hand will be required to move Pharaoh.  However several others including Onkelos suggest that the phrase means “and not because Pharaoh’s power is mighty”. Indeed in the first section of God’s speech to Moshe at the burning bush, God recognizes the power of Egypt.  He tells Moshe,  “V’ered l’hatzilo miyad Mitzrayim”.  “I shall descend to rescue it (My people) from the hand of Mitzrayim.” (Ex. 3:8)

The phrase “B’yad Chazaka” with reference to Hashem appears in the commandment to wear Tefillin in Shmot chapter 13. However it is probably most familiar because we recite it every year in the Pesach Haggadah. There, quoting the declaration from Sefer Devarim to be made when one brings one’s first fruits (bikkurim) to the Temple, we read (Deut. 26:8), “And Hashem brought us out from Egypt with a mighty hand and with an outstretched arm – “b’yad chazaka uvizroa netuya”.  The two phrases appear together many times in Moshe’s speeches in Sefer Devarim but never in Sefer Shmot.  A reference to Hashem’s zroa netuya appears only once in Sefer Shmot (Ex.6:6) in the third of the four expressions of redemption (“v’gaalti”) which Hashem tells Moshe to communicate to Bnei Yisroel.

After the Israelites leave the sea, there are many miracles providing them with food and water but arguably they are not the same dramatic manifestations of divine power that preceded them.  Perhaps this helps explain why the Israelites question whether Hashem is in their midst. This doubt gives Amalek an opening to attack them at Rephidim. In the description of the battle, there are six references to Moshe’s hands and the sixth describes them as “yadav emunah”, which many commentators interpret to suggest a reaching out to Hashem. While the battle is won by virtue of God’s staff in the hand of Moshe and the efforts of Yehoshua’s soldiers, the ultimate victory will be in the hands of Hashem as indicated by the seventh and final mention of “yad”, in the last verse of the parsha.

In facing Amalek, the Israelites have finally taken some action and have not resorted to crying about how good it was in Egypt.  Though they will have more complaints in the future, Yitro will be correct in concluding that they have indeed been delivered from Yad Mitzrayim and at Mount Sinai the next phase of their relationship with Hashem will begin.