4 Shevat 5772 / Jan. 27 - 28, 2012
This week’s Torah portion, Bo, deals with plagues 8, 9 and 10: locusts, darkness, and death of the first-born. Between each plague, Moses and Aaron approach Pharaoh and use those famous words, “Let my people go!”
These words, which have so defined the Exodus in our collective mentalities, seem a simple, striking point, proclaiming God’s demand to a resistant Pharaoh.
But are these really the words that were said? Are they being placed in the appropriate context? Are the images of Charlton Heston and Yul Brynner ingrained in our minds destined to be our only understanding of the encounter?
God tells Moses at their first meeting, at the burning bush: “Go and I will send you to Pharaoh, and you will take out my nation, the children of Israel, from Egypt.”
God then expounds and tells Moses that he should tell the Children of Israel he is going to bring them to a land flowing with milk and honey.
It seems pretty clear that God’s intention was the end of Israelite slavery, and that Moses’s fundamental task would be to take the Children of Israel out Egypt for good.
And yet, in the following verse, God tells Moses that once he has gained the support of the people, he is to go before the king of Egypt and say to him: “Hashem, the God of the Hebrews happened upon us. And now, please let us go on a three day journey in the Wilderness, and we shall bring offerings to Hashem, our God.”
This is a very different story than that being told to the Israelite people!
When Moses and Aaron first come to Pharaoh it is the request of a three day journey into the wilderness they share with Pharaoh – and it is certainly not a demand! They use the world please! “Let us please now go on a three day journey…” Does this sound like “Let my people go!” to you?
Fast forward to this week’s portion, where we are already encountering the 8th plague.
Believe it or not, Pharaoh’s tune has already changed significantly! There wasn’t just a blind “No I will not let your people go” as the movie would have us think. After the 8th plague, Pharaoh actually says: “Let the men go now; serve Hashem, for that is what you request.” What a change! The men of the Children of Israel had been given a chance to leave! But not without Pharaoh maintaining certain collateral – being their wives, children, and property.
After the 9th plague, Pharaoh makes a further concession, saying: “Go – serve
Hashem, only your flock and your cattle shall stay put; even your children may go with you.”
How is it that such an offer could be refused? Pharaoh had essentially given in to allow every single Israelite to leave Egypt, unsupervised, on a three day journey, accompanying celebration and service to God (the time period of which we do not know), and a return three day journey. If you were an Israelite, would you have felt confident in your leadership telling you that even though your collective freedom had effectively been granted after hundreds of years of slavery, the plan was to stick around awhile longer and work just to make sure that your flocks and cattle could come with you? Not to mention the sticky point of how exactly it was possible that people supposedly enslaved for hundreds of years still owned flocks and cattle…
Pharaoh had offered the chance to escape, and it was turned down.
Does this imply an extreme faith in God and Moses by the Israelites?
Did Moses and Aaron share with the people the offers made by Pharaoh?
Did they have any obligation to?
Constantly in life, when striving towards a certain goal, we’re presented with outs or easier alternatives. Compromise is often presented as a means for both sides to come away ahead of the game, and thus is viewed favorably, and often pushed – apparently both in contemporary and ancient societies. But are there ideals that we as the Jewish people hold that we are not, and cannot be, willing to compromise on?
Moses, the ultimate Jewish prophet, was not willing to leave “a single hoof behind” in Egypt, ultimately expressing that the right to freedom and self-determination (which includes possessions) are not open for discussion.
What are those values, Jewish and otherwise, that you are unwilling to compromise on?