In this week’s parsha the Exodus from Egypt reaches its climax with the splitting of the Red Sea. One of the issues that have concerned all learners of Torah, starting already with Chazal in the Talmud, following through generations of commentators, is the deception that was employed by Hashem through Moshe in the process of the exodus.
There were basically four deceptions:
1. When Hashem appears to Moshe at the Burning Bush he commands him to go to Pharaoh, but contrary to the Hollywood version of “let my people go”, he is told to ask Pharaoh to let Bnei Yisrael go on a three day journey to sacrifice to Hashem. This is an ongoing request that never changes, despite the fact that they were evidently not intending to return after three days.
2. As well, at the Burning Bush, Moshe is commanded to tell Bnei Yisrael to “borrow” from the Egyptians vessels of silver and gold and garments before they leave Egypt, although the vessels and garments were never returned.
3. In this week’s parsha, Moshe and Bnei Yisrael maneuvered while traveling in order to deceive Pharaoh into thinking they were either lost, confused or trying to escape, which caused Pharaoh to pursue them and ultimately bring to their, the Egyptians, drowning in the sea.
4. The last and possibly the most famous of all is the hardening of the heart of Pharaoh. Even before Moshe goes to Pharaoh for the first time he is told by Hashem that He will harden Pharaoh’s heart so that Pharaoh will refuse to let the people go. This deception, taken on face value, seems to render the whole narrative of the Exodus one big hoax. If Pharaoh’s heart was hardened from beginning till the end then the whole account of negotiations and warnings seems like a show.
These deceptions are well known, and as mentioned, have been discussed by many commentators through the ages. In the framework of this Dvar Torah I will not review the different approaches as they are many. For interesting articles on these issues which both summarize and offer new thoughts on the issue, see http://www.vbm-torah.org/shemot.htm .
What is common to all the explanations of these deceptions is that they are separate issues. The lying to Pharaoh had to do with presenting a realistic request to Pharaoh (Rashbam) or to show his stubbornness (Abarbanel). The borrowing of the vessels is to fulfill the promise to Avraham in Brit ben Ha’betarim (Rashi) or to exact payment from the Egyptians for their slavery (Chizkuni). The confusing of Pharaoh at the sea was in order to punish the Egyptians (Ibn Ezra), or to show Bnei Yisrael that they were dead (Rav Yoel Bin Nun). The hardening of the heart of Pharaoh was either to deny him free will (Rashi, Rambam) or to assure him free will (Sforno, Ramban)! This is just a rough collection of ideas which shows the lack of connection between the deceptions and also suggests that there were quite a few issues going on in Egypt besides the exodus of Bnei Yisrael.
I would like to suggest that all these deceptions are connected to the primary, if not the only theme of Yetziat Mitzrayim – the Exodus of the Jewish people from Egypt.
The beginning of the explanation can be found in our Parsha. When Bnei Yisrael realize the situation they are in after leaving Mitzrayim, the Egyptians in pursuit of them from behind and the sea in front of them, they respond:
“As Pharaoh came close, the Israelites looked up. They saw the Egyptians marching at their rear, and the people became very frightened. The Israelites cried out to God.
They said to Moses, ‘Weren’t there enough graves in Egypt? Why did you have to bring us out here to die in the desert? How could you do such a thing to us, bringing us out of Egypt?
Didn’t we tell you in Egypt to leave us alone and let us work for the Egyptians? It would have been better to be slaves in Egypt than to die [here] in the desert!’“
The commentators wonder when exactly Bnei Yisrael said the words “Didn’t we tell you in Egypt to leave us alone and let us work for the Egyptians“. The Ibn Ezra explains that, although we cannot find this exact expression previously in the text, evidently it was said by Bnei Yisrael. He refers us back to when, after Pharaoh increased the work load on Bnei Yisrael, they came to complain to Moshe. Moshe then went back to Hashem to complain and Hashem responds with the opening address of Parshat Va’eira which outlines the history and future of the redemption of Bnei Yisrael. However, despite the richness of the words and depth of their implications, the response of Bnei Yisrael to it all is: “Moses related this to the Israelites, but because of their disappointment and hard work, they would no longer listen to him.”
From this moment onwards, Bnei Yisrael themselves seem to disappear from the narrative of the exodus. Obviously it is all about them, but they are no longer part of the process. From now on everything is between Moshe and Pharaoh.
Since Bnei Yisrael had lost their faith in Moshe and the redemption, how was Moshe going to get them out of Egypt? The deceptions cited above were the solution.
The three day journey idea, more than a way to get to Pharaoh, was a way to get Bnei Yisrael to agree to follow Moshe at all. The Ramban claims that Moshe had argued at the burning bush that Bnei Yisrael would not choose to leave Egypt in order to take on the mighty kings of Canaan, and in response to this Hashem told him to ask only for a three day expedition.
The hardening of Pharaoh’s heart was necessary to drive Pharaoh to a certain point. Getting Pharaoh to agree to let Bnei Yisrael go simply would not have sufficed as Bnei Yisrael were not going anywhere. Pharaoh had to be pushed to the point that he forced them out and did not ask whether or not they would like to go.
“Pharaoh sent for Moses and Aaron during the night. ‘Get moving!’ he said. ‘Get out from among my people – you and the Israelites! Go! Worship God just as you demanded!
Take your sheep and cattle, just as you said! Go! Bless me too!’
The Egyptians were also urging the people to hurry and leave the land. ‘We are all dead men!’ they were saying“.
When Bnei Yisrael see the Egyptians pursuing them they seem to do two contradictory things. On the one hand they cry out to Hashem: “As Pharaoh came close, the Israelites looked up. They saw the Egyptians marching at their rear, and the people became very frightened. The Israelites cried out to God.“ Then, immediately thereafter they turn to Moshe and say: “Weren’t there enough graves in Egypt? Why did you have to bring us out here to die in the desert? How could you do such a thing to us, bringing us out of Egypt?“
This contradiction can be explained, as Bnei Yisrael accused Moshe of taking them out of Egypt against their will, and turning to Hashem to save them, not only from Pharaoh, but from Moshe as well.
The natural thing to expect next is for Bnei Yisrael to lift up their hands, surrender and go back to Egypt. Why didn’t they? To prevent this possibility, Bnei Yisrael were told to “borrow” vessels from the Egyptians and maneuver in the desert in a way which made it appear to Pharaoh that they were escaping permanently. They had therefore become slaves that had stolen and tried to escape from their masters giving them no option of return, except to face death.
The deception was complete. Bnei Yisrael were forced out of Egypt and the option of return was closed in front of them.
There is much to be learnt from the story of Yetziat Mitzrayim about the greatness of Hashem and the miracles He performs for us. There is also much to be learnt about the way to respond to redemption and become a partner to Hashem in it. Have we learned this lesson?
For the sake of brevity I have not quoted the relevant versus to show all of the following deceptions in the text. They are well known and may also be seen presented by Rabbi Samet at the following link: http://www.vbm-torah.org/parsha.63/15bo.htm .
See Shmot 6:2-8.