Rabbi Reuven Mann
There seems to be a dichotomy between the goal of the Exodus–which was to extricate the Jews from the enslavement in Egypt, and bring them to the promised land–and the request to Pharaoh, that he allow the people to serve Hashem in the Wilderness.
All that Moshe asked for, was that the Jews be permitted some time off, to observe a Festival to Hashem. The clear implication was, that they would then return to Egypt and resume their labors. But how would that have achieved the objectives of Hashem’s intervention, which He had laid out for Moshe at the Burning Bush?
Was this all an elaborate ruse, designed to fool Pharaoh into releasing the slaves on the (false) assumption that they were going to come back, something which the Jews had no intention of doing? This would imply, that the Jews had been compelled to resort to deception, in order to achieve their freedom. From a moral standpoint, this would be justified, as the Egyptians had no right to forcefully enslave the Hebrews. But what kind of impression would this make on the Egyptians who were, as a result of the “signs and wonders”, supposed to recognize Hashem and serve Him?
Hashem could have instructed Moshe, to demand absolute freedom for the Jews from Pharaoh, who, of course, would have been compelled to comply. So why did He restrict Moshe to a very modest request?
It should be noted that the issue of deception is raised by the commentators, with regard to the matter of the “gifts” of clothing and jewelry which the Egyptians heaped upon the departing slaves. If they were borrowed items weren’t the Jews obligated to return them?
All the great commentators, are compelled to explain why the people had every right to keep the items given to them, by their Egyptian neighbors. Most compelling is the explanation of Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch, who demonstrates that the term “VeShaalah” used in this context, does not mean “to borrow” but to request as a gift.
But the general principle under which the Mefarshim are operating, is that the Jews acted with justice and honesty, in their last dealings with their oppressors. How then are we to understand Moshe’s petition, that Pharaoh only grant them time to worship Hashem in the wilderness?
In conjunction with this, there are other issues that arise pertaining to Moshe’s mission. Hashem tells Moshe that He will harden Pharaoh’s heart and, as a result, he will not let the Jews go. But why would Hashem do something which would seem to counteract the effect of the Makkot, He was planning to bring upon Egypt?
We must also challenge the “negotiating style” of Moshe. Whenever the plague was too painful for Pharaoh to bear, he summoned Moshe and pleaded with him to remove it, promising that he would then comply with Moshe’s demands. This occurred during the plagues of Tzefardeim (Frogs), Arov (Wild Beasts), Dever (Plague), Barad (Hail), and Arbeh (Locust). In each of these cases, Moshe simply removed the affliction without demanding that Pharaoh release the Jews simultaneously.
Predictably, after the pressure was relaxed, Pharaoh reneged on his agreement. But Moshe had all the leverage at his disposal to bring Pharaoh to his knees. How are we to understand this strange negotiating technique?
To answer these questions, we must understand the true nature and purpose of the Makkot, that Hashem rained down upon Pharaoh. They were not intended to crush him into surrender. They were essentially “Ohtote UMoftim” (signs and wonders) whose purpose was to demonstrate Hashem’s absolute control of the universe.
The goal of all Moshe’s endeavors was that “Egypt will know that I am Hashem”. He sought to educate Pharaoh and his entire court, about the Existence and Will of G-d.
This required that Pharaoh retain his freedom of choice. He could not be forced into believing in Hashem. Thus, in his first meeting with Pharaoh, Moshe performed no miracles, but instead sought to reason with him, alone. When that failed, Moshe performed the sign of the Serpent, in which the staff of Aaron consumed the Serpents of the magicians; but no pain was inflicted on anyone in this demonstration.
However, when Moshe’s initial overtures to Pharaoh failed to achieve their purpose, the plagues became necessary. Their goal was educational; but in order to hold the attention of the Egyptians and force them to consider their implications, it was essential that they involve pain and suffering. Without the suffering, the Egyptians would simply have ignored the miraculous phenomena. So blows became necessary.
When the pain was too much for Pharaoh, and he implored Moshe to remove its source, Moshe complied immediately. He did not want Pharaoh to release the Jews because of the pressure of the plagues, for that would not have constituted a Free-Willed choice.
And this explains why G-d hardened the heart of Pharaoh. According to the renowned Biblical commentator, Seforno, this was not to remove Pharaoh’s Free-Will, but, on the contrary, to preserve it.
For as the Makot increased in severity, they would have broken the King’s spirit, and caused him to give in out of fear. Hashem, therefore, provided him with the psychological fortitude to withstand the emotional terror of the calamities, and enable him to consider things calmly.
The narrative of the Ten Plagues is also the story of Pharaoh’s internal conflict. He clearly had been deeply affected by the devastation that Moshe brought upon his land. He desperately wanted to get things back to normal, even if this meant he must make certain concessions. But his ego invariably got in the way.
Pharaoh always came up with potential dealbreakers. Stay and worship Hashem in the land. Go, but don’t take the children with you. Okay, you can take the kids, but you must leave your livestock behind. He had to demonstrate that he was in control, and refused to surrender unconditionally to Hashem.
Had Pharaoh won the battle with his inner resistances, and freely chosen to fulfill the command of Hashem, the Jews would have kept their side of the bargain, and returned to Mitzrayim after their Holiday. Had he overcome his Yeitzer Hara (Evil Inclination), Pharaoh would have been a different person, and it wouldn’t have been long before he would have recognized that the entire enslavement was wicked, and he would have readily freed the Jews. In fact, he would have initiated a religious transformation in his country, featuring the abolition of animal worship and the glorification of Hashem.
Pharaoh was given numerous opportunities to come to his senses, and acknowledge Hashem as the Master of the Universe, to whose Will all people must accede. However, after the plague of Choshech (Darkness), he suddenly got angry at Moshe and ordered him to leave the palace. This seems to have been a reaction to Moshes’s admonition; “You too must give us sacrifices and burnt-offerings that we should offer them to Hashem our G-d. (Even Ezra Shemot 10:25)” This statement of Moshe, proves that the ultimate goal of his mission to Pharaoh, was for the Egyptian ruler to recognize Hashem and lead his nation in renouncing idolatry.
But Pharaoh’s stubbornness carried the day. He summarily dismissed Moshe–threatening him with death–if he should endeavor to visit him again. The negotiations with Pharaoh were thus terminated, and now would come the terror of the final plague. This time, Pharaoh would release the Jews not because of Free-Will, but because the pain was too great; he had no choice but to do the Will of Hashem.
The Jews were now under no obligation to return to Egypt. They would have been, had Pharaoh acted because he freely recognized Hashem, and decided to do His Bidding. But as we have seen, that was not the case.
When Pharaoh sent out the Jews, he drove them out never to return again. “And G-d said unto Moshe: Yet one more plague will I bring upon Pharaoh and over Egypt, after that, he will send you away from here; when he does send you away, he will drive you out completely, drive you out forcibly. (Shemot 11:1)” Upon which Rabbi Hirsch comments, “This does not mean that Pharaoh will let you go to serve your G-d, but will send you from here, never to return.”
It is thus clear, that Moshe and the Jews used no deception in obtaining their freedom from Pharaoh. To the contrary, the story demonstrates the infinite mercy which Hashem displayed to Pharaoh and Egypt and the extraordinary extent He went to, in order to bring them back to teshuva. This story is a tragedy of missed opportunities.
Let us learn the lessons of this narrative, and apply them to our own lives. Let us put aside ego and stubbornness, and acknowledge the Will of Hashem our G-d, with a full and joyous heart.
Shabbat Shalom VeChag Kasher VeSameiach.
My newest book, Eternally Yours: G-d’s Greatest Gift To Mankind on VaYikra is now available at: https://www.amazon.com/dp/B09SHRXS3Q
I hope that my essays will enhance your reading and study of the Book of VaYikra and would greatly appreciate a brief review on Amazon.com.
—Rabbi Reuven Mann