Why Pharaoh Got Angry
Rabbi Reuven Mann
This week’s Parsha, Bo, describes the remaining Makkot (blows) that Hashem visited on Pharaoh and his country. Amazingly, the same Pharaoh who had been chastened by the devastating Barad (Hail) Arbeh (Locust) and Choshech (Darkness), to the extent that he was willing to grant concessions from his hard-line stance, still returned to a policy of unyielding stubbornness once the blows were gone. How quickly attitudes can change.
But all procrastination ceased when Makkot Bechorot (Slaying of Firstborn) suddenly broke out at midnight for, “there was no house in which there was no dead.” At that point, everything changed, and now the Egyptians could not move quickly enough to get the Jews out of their land.
A seemingly strange element of the narrative is the apparent immunity which Moshe enjoyed from the retaliation of Pharaoh. Moshe came and went from the palace as he pleased, and none of Pharaoh’s ministers sought to harm or even belittle him. In fact, he enjoyed significant esteem among the entourage of Pharaoh, who viewed him as a great man. Rather, it was Moshe who rebuked them and their king for their failure to obey Hashem.
Yet, in the final meeting with Pharaoh after Moshe warned about the imminent advent of Makkot Bechorot suddenly, and seemingly out of nowhere, Pharaoh declared, “Go from me, and watch out for yourself. Never see my face again! For on the day you see my face, you shall die” (Shemot 10:28).
It should be noted that this outburst was very uncharacteristic of the atmosphere in which Moshe and Pharaoh interacted. Thus, the question arises, what caused Pharaoh to suddenly lose his calm demeanor and treat Moshe like a hated enemy?
I would like to suggest a possible explanation. In the course of his admonitions to Pharaoh, Moshe said, “You, too, will send with us sacrifices and burnt-offerings, and we shall offer them to the Lord our G-d” (Shemot 10:25). At first glance, these words are difficult to comprehend. If they were intended as a prediction that this would actually happen, it must be noted that when the Jews left Egypt, no word is recorded of Pharaoh sending along sacrifices on his behalf. So why would Moshe say such a thing?
Interestingly, the Ibn Ezra interprets the words of Moshe in the following manner; “You too are obligated to place in our hands sacrifices and burnt-offerings to offer on your behalf.” In my opinion, it was these words of Moshe which triggered Pharaoh’s harsh outburst.
For, until this point, Moshe had not sought to impose the Jewish religion on Egypt. He had simply demanded, in the name of G-d, that Pharaoh respect the religious rights of the Jews and allow them to sacrifice to Hashem. But now Moshe was going further and saying, in effect, that our G-d is not just for us but is the King of Kings whom the entire world must recognize and worship. Thus, the implied message was that Egypt should renounce its idolatrous practices and worship only the Creator of Heaven and Earth.
This, I believe, is what exacerbated Pharaoh and prompted his threat against Moshe. His kingship was very much rooted in Egypt’s religious system and if that were to be undermined by Moshe’s call to worship Hashem, his position would be in grave jeopardy. Pharaoh felt threatened by this new endeavor of Moshe and needed to put a halt to it.
But he was in a bit of a dilemma. He couldn’t slay Moshe outright because his ministers were in awe of him and, also, he feared the retaliation of Hashem. So he endeavored to deter Moshe from further evangelical pursuits by threatening him with death if he should persist. Moshe, however, could not leave the impression that he was intimidated by Pharaoh’s threats. He said, “You have spoken correctly. I will no longer see your face.”
Moshe thus agreed that, yes, we will not meet again, but that is because I have finished my business with you and I have nothing more to say to you. And that is why you will not see me again.
Why did Moshe take it upon himself to tell Pharaoh what he had to do? Why wasn’t he content to stay focused on the need of the Jews to worship Hashem? Why meddle into Egypt's religious affairs and risk the ire of its ruler?
I believe that Moshe acted in accordance with the religious program of Avraham Avinu. After Avraham discovered the existence of the true G-d, he made it his mission to instruct all mankind in the knowledge of the Creator and His Ways of justice and compassion. In doing so, Avraham did not resort to religious coercion, but to the force of reason and rational argument.
According to the Rambam, Avraham believed that one who truly loves Hashem must strive to make His Existence recognized by all people. Moshe followed in the footsteps of Avraham. He taught Pharaoh about the existence of Hashem and His absolute control over nature by performing the miraculous “signs and wonders” with which he had been provided.
He instructed Pharaoh that Hashem is a G-d of justice who condemns his terrible mistreatment of the Jews. And Moshe told Pharaoh that he needed to repent for his sins by offering sacrifices to Him which the Jews would be more than happy to bring, on his behalf.
Moshe thus acted according to the example of Avraham Avinu who sought to sanctify G-d’s Name in the world. This is the eternal mission of we, his descendants, the Jewish People. May we merit to fulfill it.
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—Rabbi Reuven Mann