by Dr. Avigdor Bonchek
Back to this week's parsha | Previous Issues
And he [Pharaoh] harnessed his chariot and his people he took with him.
And he harnessed his chariot: Rashi: He himself.
This is a simple comment. What would you ask about it?
A Question: It is too simple! Too obvious. Rashi is telling us the self-evident. The Torah says that Pharaoh harnessed his chariot and Rashi confirms this! He harnessed the chariot himself, says Rashi. And we ask: Of course, thats what the Torah says. Why belabor the point?
But Rashi does not say the obvious nor does he belabor points. Whats bothering him here that caused him to make this comment?
What Is Bothering Rashi ?
An Answer: The fact that Pharaoh prepared his chariot to pursue the Israelites is so trivial a piece of information as to be unnecessary to record. He couldnt go to war without his chariot and he couldnt use his chariot without harnessing the horses to it. He probably also tied his shoes (or buckled his sandals) in the morning, but that is not mentioned. Of course not. Why then is this equally trite incident mentioned? It should be clear that the Torah does mention every single bit (or bite) of information when it tells a story. It chooses only what is essential and meaningful. So Rashi is bothered by this superfluous statement.
How does his comment explain matters?
An Answer: By mentioning this unnecessary fact, the Torah alerts us to something important. It tells us that Pharaoh, himself, harnessed his chariot. Certainly it is unusual for a king to do such menial work. This is a task which is ordinarily left for servants. But since the Torah went out of its way to mention that Pharaoh harnessed his chariot we can be sure that Pharaoh himself did this job.
Why is this important for us to know?
The Significance of the Comment
An Answer: Rashis simple comment conveys to us the depth of Pharaohs hatred for the Israelites. His profound obsession with pursuing his former slaves is graphically portrayed by imagining Pharaoh dirtying his hands as pulls at his horses, sweat pouring down his face as he ties them to his chariot, in his race against time to catch the fleeing Israelites.
A Note on Torah Interpretation
From this example we can learn something of the way the Torah commentators viewed the narrative parts of the Torah. They realized that Torah narration was always guided by a central consideration: What lesson will this story teach? No parts of the story are included just for literary considerations. No detail or quote is recorded in the Torah unless it carries with it a moral, ethical or religious lesson. The Torah never records historical events in all their detail; this would be impossible. A clear example of this can be found in Genesis 42:21 when Josephs brothers regret their having sold him. They say: But we are guilty concerning our brother for we saw the distress of his soul when he implored us and we would not hear etc. But if we check with the Torahs recording of the actual event - when the brothers threw Joseph into the pit (Genesis 37:24) - we find no mention of Josephs pleading.
Likewise when the Torah records the apparently incidental detail of Pharaoh harnessing his own chariot, we can be certain that it is recorded for a purpose; we learn of his all-consuming hatred for the Children of Israel which led eventually to his punishment at the hand of G-d. This punishment is faithfully recorded later in the Torah: When Pharaohs horse and his chariot and horsemen came into the sea and Hashem turned back the waters of the sea upon them and the Children of Israel walked on the dry land amid the sea. (Exodus 15:19). Here is Pharaoh, his horse and his chariot, the one he so energetically harnessed himself!
It should noted that not all Torah commentaries view things in this way. The Ibn Ezra, most famous among the pursuers of pshat often regards incidental details as just that, incidental details, carrying no particular import. But this approach deprives the Torah of much of its subtle wisdom and beauty. Rashi and Ramban were both acutely aware of the significance of detail in Torah narrative and sought to interpret its meaning.