In this week’s Parsha we read of the climax of the battle of wills between Moshe and Pharaoh, which ultimately leads to Bnei Yisrael’s redemption from Egypt. Tucked away in the Parsha is the eleventh perek of Sefer Shemot, one of the shortest perakim in all of Tananch. All of ten passukim, this chapter seems a bit puzzling, in that it doesn’t appear to teach us anything new.
A quick perusal of the perek shows that it contains three basic elements. Firstly, the warning of Makkat Bechorot, along with the command to ask to “borrow” the wealth of Mitzrayim (1-3). The Torah then describes Am Yisrael’s and Moshe’s towering status in Egypt, apparently to demonstrate why the Egyptians would acquiesce to such a request. The second element is the warning delivered to Pharaoh of the impending doom hovering over his and his subjects’ heads (4-8). Finally, the third element is Hashem’s message to Moshe, asserting that for one last time Pharoah will disregard the warning, despite the fact that Moshe and Aharon had already demonstrated their ability to bring about all they had claimed. This, of course, was due to the fact that Hashem had hardened Paraoah’s heart (9-10).
What is striking is that all three of these elements reveal little, if anything, new. The message of Makkat Bechorot, as well as the command to despoil Egypt, had already been given to Moshe while still in Midyan (see 4:23 and 3:22, respectively). The warning to Pharaoh hardly seems to merit its own perek, and the description of Moshe and Aharon bringing various signs on Egypt, and Pharaoh’s reaction can already be found in other places (see, for example, the beginning of perek 7).
Of course, our perek can not be divorced from its context. At the end of perek 10, we read of the aborted negotiations between Pharaoh and Moshe, which end in acrimonious recriminations, with Pharaoh accusing Moshe of negotiating in bad faith and threatening to kill Moshe. Moshe refuses to back down, and sardonically agrees that, as Pharaoh wishes, he will no longer see him. (Talk about a “pitzutz” in masaah u’matan!) It is against this backdrop that Moshe receives the nevua about Makkat Bechorot.
Or is it? Virtually all the meforshim note that the first three pessukim in our perek seem to be misplaced, and that it would have seemed to make more sense for our perek to have begun with the fourth passuk, the warning about Makkat Bechorot. These three pessukim were inserted to show the source of that warning namely the nevua of Makkat bechorot. When was this nevua given? There are two basic schools of thought amongst the meforshim. One group, with the Ibn Ezrah and Ralbag most prominent amongst them, believes that there is no new nevua here, and that the Torah is merely inserting a rewording of the original nevua received by Moshe in Midyan. What is important here is the context that the source of the message being given to Pharaoh is quoted. This approach is fueled by two elements. Firstly, why would it be necessary for Hashem to repeat this particular prophecy? Secondly, we have already seen that according to the midrash, Moshe refused to daven to Hashem and Hashem did not communicate with Moshe within the precincts of Egyptian cities (see for example 9:29). If we assume that this particular nevua was already given to Moshe in Midyan, then the problem is avoided.
The second school of thought, most forcefully argued by the Ramban, is that the nevua was in fact given now, as Moshe stood before Pharaoh. That this happened is in fact a b’dieved. Moshe, when replying to Pharaoh and telling him Pharaoh would not see him again, as Pharaoh had asked, has in fact forced Hashem’s hand. While the original plan might have been that nevua would have been delivered outside the city limits, and then delivered to Pharaoh at a different time, this is no longer an option. Instead, Hashem must give the nevua to Moshe here and now, for he will not again visit Pharaoh. (It should be noted that there is a midrash which tries to squre the circle claiming that Hashem removed Moshe to give the nevua, and then returned him to his original place. See the Chizkuni).
This assertion on the part of the Ramban is startling, both in what it says about Moshe’s stature and what it says about Hashem’s willingness to support his Navi. Moshe has progressed from an individual who had to be literally coerced into accepting the mission of confronting Pharaoh and leading AmYisrael out of Mitzrayim into a person who confidentally stares down Pharaoh in his own palace, and forces Hashem to break protocol to support him. That Hashem is willing to do so is no less surprising. Clearly, Hashem could have stuck with the original plan, and had Moshe return to Pharaoh to deliver the message. No harm would have come to Moshe, at least physically. But there would have been loss of face, and that would be unacceptable.
When we first reviewed the perek, we suggested that the Torah describes the stature of Moshe in order to explain why the Egyptians would be willing to give their valuables to Bnei Yisrael. I would, however, like to suggest that there is far more to it than that. The Torah tells us that “Moshe was very great in the land of Egypt. In the eyes of the servants of Pharaoh and in the eyes of the nation” (3). To which nation does the passuk refer? There are two possibilities, both quoted by the Ramban. The first is that it is referring to Bnei Yisrael themselves. Moshe is not the only one who has come far. Bnei Yisrael, which once regarded Moshe with suspicion (see the end of perek 5 and the beginning of perek 6) are now fully on the band wagon. Moshe has demonstrated himself to be a Navi Hashem and Bnei Yisrael fully accept his leadership. The second possibility is that the nation in question is Egypt. (This is the position of the Ibn Ezra as well). Of course, the two approaches are not contradictory, and it is possible that Moshe has earned the respect of both groups. But how has this respect been earned? On the one hand, he has shown himself to be a faithful prophet of Hashem. But more than that, he has shown himself to be fearless in his advocacy of his mission, his people and his G-d. (See the Ralbag in his unusually short list of messages from perek 10-11). In facing down Pharaoh, Moshe has demonstrated a steadfastness that is the highest form of Kiddush HaShem. No wonder that Bnei Yisrael follow him and the Mitzrim respect him. When confronted by this, Pharaoh quails. Thus, Moshe forces Hashem’s hand, for to force him to return to Pharaoh after this last encounter would be to undo everything that Hashem has demanded that Moshe do, and to replace Kiddush HaShem with Chillul HaShem.
The message here could hardly be more powerful. When we stand up for what we believe in, when the concept of Kiddush HaShem embodies all of our actions, then even Hashem is forced, k’viyachol, to stand aside and support us.