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Is 'Let My People Go' just a hoax?
As preposterous as this might sound, Rashbam claims that it's "pshat!" He explains that each time Moshe commands Pharaoh to 'let My people go,' he requests permission merely to allow Bnei Yisrael a three-day journey to worship their God in the desert. Yet never do we find Moshe telling Pharaoh the 'whole truth,' that he in fact intends to lead Bnei Yisrael out of slavery to the Promised Land.
Is Moshe telling a lie?!
In this week's shiur, we uncover the basis for this daring interpretation by Rashbam, while arriving ourselves at a much different conclusion.
In our introductory shiur we explained that God's "hitgalut" [revelation] to Moshe at the burning bush introduces the primary theme of Sefer Shmot - God's fulfillment of His covenant with the Avot. This is reflected already in God's opening message to Moshe Rabbeinu at the "sneh":
"I am the God of your forefathers, the God of Avraham, Yitzchak and Yaakov ... I have seen the affliction of My people in Egypt ... I have come down now to save them and bring them to a good land..." (3:6-9; note how 3:1-5 is just an intro.][Note both the conceptual and textual connection between these psukim and Brit Bein HaB'tarim (see Breishit 15:13-21). Note as well how 3:16-22 completes this parallel. See Board #1.]
However, God does not appear to Moshe simply to provide him with some information. God charges Moshe with a mission:
"And now go for I am sending you to Pharaoh - and take My people the children of Israel out of Egypt." (3:10)Moshe has been commissioned to serve as God's agent to bring about His divine plan. But the question arises, what is that plan? How does God plan to take Bnei Yisrael out of Egypt? Why does He need an agent? Why must there be makkot? Why all the 'theatrics,' the 'pomp and circumstance?' This week's shiur as well as those in the weeks to follow will attempt to explain the underlying purpose behind God's master plan. But first, we must determine what that plan is. As we shall see, it's not what most people think!
As we would expect, Moshe Rabbeinu is startled by God's commandment that he take Bnei Yisrael out of Egypt. Considering his having been a fugitive from Egypt for many years, why should Pharaoh even allow him an audience? Furthermore, Moshe has been away from his people for most of his adult life. [Recall that he ran away at a rather young age and returns only at age eighty!] How could they possibly accept him as their official leader?
Furthermore, God simply tells Moshe to take His nation out of Egypt, without providing even a clue concerning how to get the job done! Therefore, Moshe's immediate response to this command is quite understandable:
"And Moshe said to God: who am I that I can go to Pharaoh, 'v'chi otzi' - and [how can I] take Bnei Yisrael out of Egypt?!" (3:11; read this pasuk carefully.)However we translate "v'chi otzi" in this pasuk (its precise definition is a bit problematic), Moshe certainly appears to ask how he is supposed to take Bnei Yisrael out. However, God's answer to his question does not seem to address this issue at all:
"And He said: For I will be with you, and this is the sign that I have sent you - when you take the Nation out of Egypt, you shall worship Elokim on this mountain." (3:12)How does this answer Moshe's question? Moshe asks how he is supposed to take them out, and God tells him what to do after he takes them out! What Moshe asks - God never answers, and what God answers - Moshe never asked!
There are two basic approaches to solve this problem. Either we can 'reinterpret' Moshe's question to fit God's answer [see Rashi and Seforno], or we can 'reinterpret' God's answer to fit Moshe's question [see Rashbam].
In our shiur we will adopt the latter, as it is crucial for our understanding of God's plan for Yetziat Mitzrayim. But before we begin, let's take a quick glance at Rashi's approach.
Rashi (on 3:12) deals with this difficulty by reinterpreting Moshe's question (in 3:11). When Moshe asks "v'chi otzi," he asks not how to take them out, but rather why am I (and/or Bnei Yisrael) worthy of being taken out of Egypt? To this God responds that after they leave Egypt they are to worship Him and receive the Torah on this mountain. This merit alone renders them worthy of Yetziat Mitzrayim. In other words, God here explains the purpose of Yetziat Mitzrayim - that Bnei Yisrael receive the Torah at Har Sinai!
Unlike Rashi, Rashbam refuses to reinterpret the question. Instead, he reinterprets God's answer. He accomplishes this by dividing God's answer into two parts, corresponding to both the two parts of God's original command and the two parts of Moshe's original question. Board #2 maps out this parallelism in psukim 3:10-12.
Rashbam's interpretation of 3:12 is very creative. He claims that Moshe asks (in 3:11) that even if he is allowed to speak to Pharaoh, how can he possibly convince Pharaoh to let them free? God answers Moshe by telling him to 'trick' Pharaoh - "Tell Pharaoh that you must take Bnei Yisrael [for a short time] out of Egypt, in order that they can worship their God on this mountain."
In other words, Rashbam claims that God instructs Moshe to deceive Pharaoh by requesting permission to worship God in the desert. Once they leave, Moshe will lead Bnei Yisrael to the Promised Land, where they will live forever, never again to return to Egypt!
[Note that Rashbam does not call this 'lying' - he refers to it instead as "derech chochmah" - a wise plan. We'll deal with this issue later on in the shiur.]
Rashbam clearly reads into this pasuk much more than is written. In fact, Rashbam himself admits to doing so! However, he explains that he bases this interpretation on a later pasuk in this "hitgalut" - where God issues more specific instructions to Moshe regarding his meeting with Pharaoh:
"...Then you and the elders shall go to the King of Egypt and tell him: The God of the Hebrews had come and told us that we must go for a three-day journey into the desert [to Har Chorev] to offer sacrifices to our Lord." (3:18)Rashbam could have brought additional proof from chapter five, where the Torah records the actual details of Moshe's initial confrontation with Pharaoh:
"Afterward, Moshe and Aharon came and said to Pharaoh: Thus said the God of Israel, let My People go and worship Me in the desert. [Pharaoh refuses.] And they answered: the God of the Hebrews has called upon us to take a three-day journey into the desert in order that we may sacrifice to our God, lest he strike us with 'dever' (pestilence) or 'cherev' (sword)." (5:1-3)This final phrase - "lest he strike us with dever or cherev" - is the key to understanding God's intention in 3:12. The plan is rather simple. Moshe warns Pharaoh that if he does not allow Bnei Yisrael to journey into the desert and worship their God, a severe Divine punishment will ensue and many people will die. Furthermore, this impending punishment may not be confined to Bnei Yisrael alone - it might involve the Egyptians as well! Moshe argues that in the 'best interests' of both Pharaoh and the Egyptian people, they should allow Bnei Yisrael a 'short vacation' for them to worship their God in the desert.
To our amazement, Rashbam's interpretation may be easily proven correct. Before each of the Ten Plagues, Moshe asks permission for Bnei Yisrael to do nothing more than worship their God in the desert. Each time he requests, "Shlach et ami - Let My people go - v'ya'avduni ba'midbar - so that they can worship Me in the desert" (see 7:16; 7:26; 8:16; 9:1; 9:13; and 10:3). Never - not even once (despite many opportunities to do so) - does Moshe even hint to Pharaoh that Bnei Yisrael plan to leave for good!
Furthermore, if we follow the various negotiations conducted during the Ten Plagues, we find that they focus only on the issue of a three-day journey to worship God, never on 'emigration rights to Palestine.'
Negotiations and More Negotiations
Let's cite several examples that show the progression of these negotiations. After "makkat arov," Pharaoh finally grants them permission to worship their God, only not in the desert - they must remain within the Land of Egypt (see 8:21-23). After Moshe rejects this proposal (for technical reasons). Pharaoh agrees to a short journey into the desert, but not a three-day distance:
"And Pharaoh said, I will send you out so that you can worship your God in the desert, but don't go too far away..." (8:24)However, once that plague ended, Pharaoh hardened his heart and reneged on his promise (see 8:25-28).
Later, after Moshe warns of the impending plague of locusts, Pharaoh's servants demand Pharaoh's concession to Moshe (see 10:7). In response, Pharaoh enters into a new round of talks with Moshe, which eventually reach an impasse over the issue of who can leave. Moshe insists that even the women and children come along, while Pharaoh allows only the men to leave (see 10:7-11). But note the reason for Moshe's insistence on allowing the women and children to join - "for all family members need to worship God" (see 10:9). Never does he tell Pharaoh that everyone must go because the nation plans a mass, nationwide migration to Eretz Canaan.
Similarly, after the ninth plague ["choshech"], Pharaoh conducts one final round of negotiations. This time, he is willing to grant permission even to the women and children, but not their sheep and cattle (10:24-25). Once again, Moshe counters with a 'technical reason' (see 10:26!).
At every stage, Moshe consistently rejects any concession or compromise, insisting that everyone must go. Still, despite numerous opportunities, he never even suggests that they plan to leave for good. Likewise, no matter how resolutely Pharaoh sticks to his hard line, he never suspects that Bnei Yisrael have no intention of returning!
Conclusive proof is found after "makkat bchorot," when Pharaoh finally grants Bnei Yisrael permission to leave (see 12:29-36). Believe it or not, Pharaoh permits them only to worship God in the desert! After all, that's all Moshe ever asked for. Let's take a careful look at those psukim (in Parshat Bo):
"...and he called to Moshe and Aharon at night and said: Get up and get out ... and go worship God - "k'daberchem" - as you (originally - in 5:3) requested! Even your sheep and cattle take with you [that's where the last negotiations broke off - see 10:24], as you requested (in 10:26), and bless me as well..." (12:31-33)The tenth plague awakens Pharaoh to the realization that Moshe's original warning of "dever" or "cherev" (see 5:3) has actually come true. Not only does he agree to allow Bnei Yisrael a three-day journey to offer "korbanot," he even requests that they make a mi shebeyrach for him - to pray on his behalf ("u'bay'rachtem gam oti" - see 12:32)!
Likewise, the entire Egyptian nation urges Bnei Yisrael to leave as quickly as possible in order that Bnei Yisrael sacrifice to their God ASAP and thereby bring this horrifying plague to an end (see 12:33). This explains beautifully why they lend ["va'yishalu"] Bnei Yisrael their finest wares, to encourage them to leave as quickly as possible (see 12:35-36). After all, since Bnei Yisrael are only taking 'holiday leave,' the Egyptians assume that their slaves will soon return to Egypt and bring back what they 'borrowed.'
A New Independent State - In Egypt!
A final proof for Rashbam's interpretation (that Pharaoh was totally unaware of Moshe's true plan) is Pharaoh's total astonishment upon hearing after the Exodus that Bnei Yisrael had 'run away':
"And it was told to the King of Egypt - 'ki barach ha'am' - that the people had run away..." (14:5)Now, this pasuk makes sense only if Pharaoh had not granted them total freedom, but only a permit to temporarily worship God in the desert. Had he actually set them free, why would it be suddenly reported as a shocking headline that the people had run away?
Furthermore, Pharaoh reaches the conclusion that Bnei Yisrael had run away specifically because they don't go to the desert. Instead, Bnei Yisrael perform a 180 degree maneuver and return toward Egypt, after their original departure (see 13:18) in the direction of the desert:
"And God told Moshe, tell Bnei Yisrael to turn around and set up camp ... near the Red Sea..." (14:1-4)Had Bnei Yisrael continued on their journey towards the desert, Pharaoh would have had no reason to chase them. It is specifically because they don't go to worship God, but instead return to Egypt and establish a 'new settlement' by the Red Sea, that Pharaoh concludes:
"...what have we done [we've been tricked!], for we have set Bnei Yisrael free from their slave labor!" (14:5)When Bnei Yisrael don't go to the desert, Pharaoh concludes that he has been duped and now fears that Bnei Yisrael have declared their independence within the land of Egypt. After all, if they neither go to the desert nor return home, what else are they up to? Therefore, Pharaoh immediately declares war on this rebellious nation of slaves (see 14:6-10).
[God plots this intentionally to create a momentous salvation at Yam Suf, but that topic will be discussed in our shiur on Parshat B'shalach.]
Recall as well from Shmot 1:8-10 that this was Pharaoh's original concern - that Bnei Yisrael may one day rebel and attempt to take over his own country (see Rashi on 1:10). It was to prevent this potential disaster that he enslaved them in the first place. Now that Bnei Yisrael have set up their own camp within Egypt, it appears that this Egyptian 'nightmare' has come true!
Thus, a careful analysis of the entire Exodus narrative renders Rashbam's explanation that God commands Moshe to employ 'trickery' as the simple and in fact only "pshat."
[Note the 'confident' style with which the Rashbam begins and ends his explanation to 3:11-12. He seems pretty sure that he is indeed correct! I recommend that you read his commentary inside.]
'Not So Fast...'
Despite the charm and appeal of Rashbam's explanation, two problems call into serious question his conclusion that God commanded Moshe to deceive Pharaoh, to tell what we would call a 'white lie.'
First of all, why can't Moshe simply tell Pharaoh the whole truth? Is God not powerful enough to bring plagues capable of forcing Pharaoh to grant Bnei Yisrael total freedom? Is it better to deceive Pharaoh rather than tell him the truth? Furthermore, God tells Moshe that Pharaoh won't listen in any event (see 3:19), so why not tell Pharaoh the whole truth in the first place?!
Secondly, could Moshe's actual plan have realistically been kept secret from the Egyptians? After all, when God commanded Moshe to go to Pharaoh, he also instructed him to gather Bnei Yisrael and inform them of the true plan, that they are on their way to the Promised Land (see 3:16-17, 4:29-31)! Can it be expected that no one will leak the story? Doesn't Pharaoh have his own CIA [KGB, Shin Bet... take your pick]?
With regard to the first question, Rashbam answers that this tactic constituted not a lie, but rather "derech chochmah" - wise counsel. He cites a similar example from Shmuel I 16:2-3, where God tells Shmuel to 'fabricate' a story that he must go offer sacrifices at the House of Yishai, even though Shmuel actually intends to anoint David as King of Israel.
Technically speaking, this may solve our problem, as Bnei Yisrael indeed do embark on a three-day journey to worship Hashem at Har Sinai. Moshe never really 'lies'; he simply omits any reference to the next stage, after the three-day vacation.
However, even if this answers our first question, Rashbam never raises - let alone answers - our second question.
To solve both problems, we must take into consideration the realities of Bnei Yisrael's situation in Egypt. While doing so, we must be careful not to allow our 20/20 hindsight to confuse us.
No Other Alternative
It is commonly assumed that the only obstacle preventing Bnei Yisrael's return to Eretz Canaan was their enslavement to Egypt. However, if we consider their condition more realistically, we realize that Bnei Yisrael had no other alternative other than remain in Egypt. Even if Pharaoh had granted them permission to emigrate, could a nation of some two million people [ex-slaves] survive the lengthy, arduous journey through the desert? And even if they could make it to Canaan, could they conquer the land with its walled cities and formidable, armed enemies? As the "meraglim" themselves concluded, such a plan would be suicidal! (See Bamidbar 14:1-4.)
Thus, despite the hardships of their enslavement, [without some sort of miraculous, divine intervention] Bnei Yisrael had no realistic alternative other than staying in Egypt. When Bnei Yisrael cry out for salvation in 2:23-25, they desire only a lighter workload and a little taste of freedom; they do not yearn for Zion.
With this in mind, we can suggest an answer to both our questions: God has no intention to fool Pharaoh. He is concerned with two independent issues:
[See Ramban on 3:13 for an interesting perspective.]
Nonetheless, at the "sneh" we find God insisting upon Bnei Yisrael's receiving Pharaoh's permission to leave. Note how the psukim emphasize this point:
"Now go, I have sent you to Pharaoh..." (3:10)and Moshe responds:
"Who am I that I should go to Pharaoh?" (3:11)Moshe's confrontation with Pharaoh constitutes a critical element of God's plan. God does not tell Moshe to 'trick' Pharaoh. Rather, Moshe must confront Pharaoh over the fundamental issue of religious freedom - the basic right of any people, especially an oppressed nation, to worship God. The fact that Pharaoh, the king of Egypt - the world superpower and center of ancient civilization - rejects this request shows that he considers himself above his fellow man. He acts as though he himself is a god; God must therefore teach him (and any future Pharaoh/monarch) the lesson of "v'yadu Mitzrayim ki ani Hashem" (see 7:5, 9:16, 11:9, 14:4).
[One could suggest that the natural resources of Egypt, especially the inestimable Nile river, granted power to the Egyptian people. [See Yechezkel 29:1-3.] This power not only allowed their monarch to claim divine power and authority, but also led Egypt to their self-proclaimed privilege to oppress other nations - to act as though they were gods. It is not by chance that the first plague strikes specifically the Nile River.]
Therefore, from a universalistic perspective, the primary goal of Yetziat Mitzrayim is that Egypt - the center of ancient civilization - realize that God is above all Man - "v'yadu Mitzrayim ki ani Hashem." Moshe must deliver this message to the Egyptian people, in God's Name, directly to Pharaoh (as explained in 3:10-12,18-20). The makkot ensure the Egyptians' understanding of this message.
Hence, when Moshe is commanded to go to Pharaoh and demand Bnei Yisrael's right to worship their God, it's not a 'trick,' but rather a basic, human demand.
On the other hand, from Am Yisrael's perspective, the central purpose of Yetziat Mitzrayim relates to the fulfillment of God's covenant with the Avot, that Bnei Yisrael return to Eretz Canaan in order to become God's special nation. As Bnei Yisrael must prepare themselves for this redemption (as we will explain in next week's shiur), Moshe must convey this message to them (see 3:7-9,13-17). Ultimately, this redemption will take place in wake of the events that unfold once Pharaoh allows Bnei Yisrael to leave after the Ten Plagues.
[Furthermore, had Moshe mentioned this plan of an en-masse emigration to Eretz Canaan, Pharaoh most probably would have dismissed him as insane! Moshe would have lost all credibility in the eyes of Pharaoh as a responsible leader of the Hebrew Nation. Instead, God instructs Moshe to make a fairly reasonable request - to allow his afflicted brethren to worship their God. Moshe does not lie to Pharaoh, nor does he deceive him. He simply claims the legitimate right of religious freedom for an oppressed people! Basically, God can demand that Pharaoh grant religious freedom to an oppressed people, but He can't expect him to act as an ardent supporter of Zionism.]
Keeping a Secret
The basic principle that Bnei Yisrael have no realistic alternative other than remain in Egypt answers our second question as well. Had the Egyptians heard a rumor that some messianic leader offered to take Bnei Yisrael out of Egypt to some Promised Land, they would have scoffed at the very thought. Could a multitude of slaves possibly organize themselves into an independent nation? Could they survive the journey through the desert? Could they conquer the kings of Canaan? Are there any neighboring lands as good as Egypt?
No one was keeping any secrets. Even the majority of Bnei Yisrael felt that this idea would lead to national suicide (see 14:12!). Why should the Egyptians believe this 'rumor' any more than Bnei Yisrael did? Throughout Sefer Shmot and Sefer Bamidbar, we find the people time and time again expressing their desire to return to Egypt. As the "meraglim" (spies) themselves later conclude, it is the only logical alternative (see Bamidbar 14:1-4).
[Although God's promise of a land flowing with milk and honey (see 3:8,17) was originally endorsed by the elders (see 4:29-31), only a short while later, after their workload was doubled, these hopes presumably fizzled quite quickly (see 5:1-21).]
From Makkot to Dibrot
In conclusion, it is interesting to note the inter-relationship between these two aspects of the Exodus.
As we explained in Sefer Breishit, an ultimate goal of the Nation of Israel is to establish a model society which can bring all mankind to recognize God. At Yetziat Mitzrayim - when Israel becomes a nation - it is significant that Egypt - the center of ancient civilization and the epitome of a society that rejects God - must recognize God, specifically at the moment when Am Yisrael becomes a nation.
Initially (and unfortunately), this goal must first be achieved through force, by Moshe's mateh and God's ten Plagues. Ultimately, when Israel becomes a nation in its own land, this very same goal can be achieved in a more 'peaceful' manner - i.e. through education - should Bnei Yisrael integrate the message of Moshe's dibbur and the principles of God's ten Commandments.