INSIGHT
5773 - #15

Va’era 

SETTING THEM UP FOR THE FALL

 

             In reading about Yetziat Mitzrayim, the Exodus from Egypt, and the events that led up to this miraculous event, I have always wondered about why Moshe is instructed by God to go to Pharaoh to request permission to leave. Why did God not just simply instruct Klal Yisrael to leave Egypt? Why the need for, what I would term, the whole game of going before Pharaoh and asking for permission to leave, especially when, in the end, the completion of the departure of the Jews from Egypt was, anyway, against the will of Pharaoh and his people?1 After all, at Kriat Yam Suf, the splitting of the Reed Sea, the Jewish People entered the sea, completing their exodus, simply upon the command from Hashem.2

            Moshe’s statement in Shemot 8:22 raises a similar question for me. In response to the plague of Areiv, Wild Beasts, Pharaoh summons Moshe to tell him that Klal Yisrael could go do their sacrifices to their God but in the land which, as Rashi explains, means in their place, refusing them permission to go to the desert. Moshe responds that this would be inappropriate for two reasons. First, since the sacrifices would be with sheep which the Egyptians considered a deity, it would be improper to perform these sacrifices in Egypt, directly before the populace. Second, there is also the strong possibility that some of the Egyptian people, if they saw this practice, would be offended by this killing of their holy sheep and attack the Jewish People. Pharaoh accepts Moshe’s arguments and includes permission to go to the desert in this promise (which he will later recant). The issue for me, of course, is the original Korban Pesach, when the Jews were not only told to offer lambs as sacrifices right there in Egypt but were additionally told to take these sheep four days in advance almost to reinforce the point that they were going to sacrifice these Egyptian gods right there in Egypt in front of the Egyptians.3 What is Moshe’s argument? it’s inappropriate? we’re afraid? They eventually did it anyway

            I have always felt that, perhaps, Moshe’s requests for permission were made to increase the intensity of the lesson that was eventually to be learned from these events. Each time Moshe Rabbeinu came before Pharaoh to request his permission, especially as the severity of the plagues increased, imagine how Pharaoh still looked at himself; here was this powerful God still seeking his permission. At Yam Suf, Pharaoh saw that God could have taken Klal Yisrael out at any time, with or without his permission. From his mirage of grandeur, he fell to the reality of who he really was before Hashem. And it was thereby that he truly recognized Who Hashem really is.3 I had similar thoughts concerning Moshe’s statement to Pharaoh that the Jews could not offer their sacrifices in Egypt. Imagine the further intensity of the lesson to the Egyptians when Klal Yisrael took the Korban Pesach. The Egyptians were led to believe that Klal Yisrael had some type of respect for the Egyptian idolatry and that the Jews were, furthermore, also afraid of an Egyptian reprisal in response to their killing of sheep. Imagine, after being set up that way, how the Egyptians felt when they saw the truth.  

            From the words of Chatam Sofer, Torat Moshe, Parshat Va’era, Va’yomer Moshe and Malbim, Shemot 8:22,4 however, there would seem to be a problem with this approach. Both these commentators seem to present Moshe as honestly stating that it would be improper for the Jews to act so disrespectfully towards the Egyptians and their religion. While this would be a remarkable Torah source in support of the concept of freedom of religion, it truly seems to contradict the whole tenor of the text. The very point of Yetziat Mitzrayim was to establish the truth of Hashem and clearly, in His goal to accomplish this result, God, as evidenced by the Korban Pesach and Kriat Yum Suf, wanted to mock the Egyptians, their mores and their faith. It even seems that this derision was essential to God’s purpose. Yet, Moshe, at an earlier stage in this line of events, declares such behaviour wrong?

            The key to understanding this apparent contradiction may be this very fact that Moshe Rabbeinu was speaking at an earlier point in this time line. One’s response to incorrect behaviour, even such inappropriate actions as existed in ancient Egypt, cannot be standardized and uniform. The words of Mishlei 22:6Chanoch l’naar al pi darcho, Teach the child pursuant to his ways – ring true in any educational endeavour, at any age, in any place. The goal in Egypt was to educate, to convey knowledge of God. Education must respond to the nature and circumstances of the students, in this case the Egyptian populace. Early in the time line of the plagues, the Egyptian People must have begun to wonder about their beliefs and whether there may be some truth to this One God Who the Jews worshipped yet there still may have been room for them to question. As such, actions of mockery, which are usually looked upon negatively, could have actually resulted in a greater resistance to these teachings about Hashem. When, though, later in this time line, when the reality of Hashem was clearly apparent, resistance could  no longer be deemed a result of honest questioning or doubt but reflected a vindictive spirit of denial. In such a case, mockery may even be most appropriate.  

            Throughout the Torah, we see little patience for idolatry. Yet, it would seem from the words of Moshe Rabbeinu that, in normative circumstances, it is still proper for us to be concerned about openly mocking another’s faith. In the vast majority of cases, the ethical calling is still to be respectful even to the idolater. We, furthermore, can only share our ideas about God if we are seen to be respectful.                                                                                                Rabbi Benjamin Hecht

 


Footnotes

1 One could possibly contend that the Jews did still leave with permission for Pharaoh permitted them to leave after the tenth plague. With the pursuit afterwards to the Reed Sea, Pharaoh was, thus, contradicting his own words and it was only then that God instructed the nation to simply go. With such a position, one could maintain that God did only wish the Jews to depart Egypt with Pharaoh’s permission, although we would be left with the study task of trying to determine why God wanted this. The problem with this approach, though, is that Pharaoh’s permission was only to go to sacrifice in the desert. There was no permission to permanently leave Egypt and, as such, the nation did leave without permission. Why, thus, the game of Moshe going before Pharaoh to gain permission?

2 Shemot 14:14.

3 See Shemot 7:8 and 6:3. It could be contended that as long as God requested Pharaoh’s permission, He was indicating that He, although obviously All-Powerful, was still subject to the ethical strictures of this society. At Yum Suf, with the command to the Jewish nation to simply go, God showed that He was truly mimaleh min hatevah, above nature, including these constructs of morality. (While such an in-depth study would be clearly beyond the parameters of this Insight, we would encourage individuals to further investigate this issue, the relationship of God to morality. A starting point for such a study may be Parshat Vayera, the stories of S’dom and the Akeida.)

3 See, further, Yalkut Me’am Lo’ez, Shemot 12:7.

3 See, also, Ntziv, Ha’Emek Davar, Shemot 8:22.  It is possible, though, to understand the Ntziv, as Moshe saying to Pharaoh (almost advising him) that it is beneath Pharaoh’s honour to let the Jews sacrifice sheep in the land.

Nishma 2011

 

   


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