Shemot: Let My People Go - A Hoax or a Mission?

This shiur provided courtesy of The Tanach Study Center In memory of Rabbi Abraham Leibtag

Was Moshe Rabeinu's plea of 'Let My People Go' just a HOAX?

As preposterous as this might sound, Rashbam claims that this is the only way to explain the story in Sefer Shemot!

In this week's shiur, we uncover the basis for this daring interpretation by Rashbam, while arriving ourselves at a very different conclusion.


From youth, we are so familiar with the story of the Exodus that we rarely pay attention to the Torah's detail of that story.  However, when one undertakes a careful reading of the first fourteen chapters of Sefer Shemot (as Rashbam does), the story that unfolds is quite different from what is commonly assumed.

In the first section of our shiur, we will review the story of the Exodus in the Bible to prove Rashbam's basic assertion - that Moshe never, not even once, asks Pharaoh to grant Bnei Yisrael freedom from slavery, or to emigrate to the land of Israel.  Instead, each time when Moshe goes to Pharaoh and demands 'Let My People Go’, he is only requesting permission to allow Bnei Yisrael a three-day journey to worship their God in the desert.

Afterward we must explain why Moshe never tells Pharaoh the 'whole truth', and why this was all part of God's master plan.

In the second section of the shiur, we will show how this analysis serves as the foundation for Rashbam's conclusion that this 'master plan' is merely a 'hoax'.

In the third section, we will question this conclusion, and offer a different approach that will help us better appreciate the theological significance of the entire process of the Exodus.

Part One

Freedom of Religion or Freedom from Slavery

It is quite understandable why the saying 'Let My People Go' is commonly understood as a plea for freedom from slavery.  After all, this was Moshe's recurring plea to Pharaoh just about every time they met.  Furthermore, the holiday of Passover, when we commemorate the events of the Exodus, is commonly associated with freedom from slavery [‘zman cheruteinu’].  Therefore, it only makes sense that people would understand Moshe's demand that Pharaoh 'let his people go' as a request for freedom.

However, when we undertake a careful analysis of the story of the Exodus in the Bible, it becomes quite clear that Moshe is making a totally different request, relating more to 'freedom of religion' than to 'freedom from slavery'.

The proof of this point is rather tedious but very straightforward.  All that we need to do is to follow the plot that unfolds in Sefer Shemot, tracing each time that Moshe Rabbeinu goes to Pharaoh to make demands on behalf of Bnei Yisrael.

Moshe's Request from Pharaoh

To be thorough, we begin our analysis by first examining God's original instruction to Moshe concerning his mission to Pharaoh, as explained to Moshe at the burning bush:

"...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 - we must embark upon a journey of a three day distance into the desert to offer sacrifices to our Lord" (see 3:18).

As you review this pasuk and its context, note how this demand to Pharaoh makes no mention of any request for freedom from slavery.  Instead, Moshe is instructed to demand that Pharaoh allow Bnei Yisrael the right to worship their God in the desert (at a site a three day distance from Egypt).

And this is precisely what Moshe does when he first goes to Pharaoh.  Let's take a careful look at the Torah's description of that first confrontation in chapter five:

"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 embark upon a journey of a three day distance 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)

Note once again that all we find is Moshe's request to allow Bnei Yisrael to worship God in the desert; no more - no less!

However, we must also pay attention to the implication of the final phrase of this pasuk - "lest he strike us with dever or cherev".  Moshe warns Pharaoh that should he not allow Bnei Yisrael this journey to worship their God in the desert, a severe Divine punishment will ensue and many people - Egyptians & Hebrews  - may die from ‘dever’ or ‘cherev’.  Hence, Moshe's demand implies that it may be in the 'best interests' of the Egyptian people - to allow Bnei Yisrael this 'short vacation' to worship their God in the desert.  [See Ibn Ezra & Chizkuni on 5:3.]

The outcome of this first encounter is disastrous for the people of Israel, for Pharaoh not only refuses this request, he is so angered by it that he doubles their workload (see 5:4-10).

Nonetheless, God commands Moshe once again to go to Pharaoh and demand once again that he grant them permission to worship Him in the desert.  This time, however, God will provide Moshe with some 'leverage' by performing miracles whose purpose will be to convince Pharaoh to take his warning seriously.

This background can help us appreciate God's explanation of the purpose of the Ten Plagues, when He speaks to Moshe in chapter seven.  As a response to Pharaoh's refusal statement of: "lo yada’ti et Hashem"  [I never heard of this God ] (see 5:2), God explains to Moshe that the purpose of the plagues will be to convince Pharaoh that the God of the Hebrews indeed exists and He will bring plagues if His people do not worship him:

"And Pharaoh will not listen to you, so I will put My Hand against Egypt, and I will take People out with great punishments - "ve-yad’u Mitzrayim ki Ani Hashem"  - so that Egypt will know that I am God” (see 7:4-5).

It will take ten Plagues to finally convince Pharaoh that it is in his best interest to allow Bnei Yisrael to worship their God; nevertheless, when Pharaoh finally allows Bnei Yisrael to leave (after the Tenth Plague), it was only in order to worship their God.  To our surprise, Pharaoh never granted Bnei Yisrael freedom from slavery, or permission to emigrate!  Nor did Bnei Yisrael ever ask for it.

To prove this interpretation, we need only note how Moshe prefaces each and every warning to Pharaoh before a plague begins.  For example, before the first plague, God instructs Moshe:

“Go meet Pharaoh in the morning... and say to him: Hashem, the God of the Ivrim has sent me to you demanding Let My People Go and worship Me in the desert, and behold you have yet to listen.  Thus says the Lord, with this (plague) you will know that I am God..." (see 7:14-17).

Then, in each successive plague we find an almost identical opening warning: "shlach et ami - Let My people go – ve-ya'avduni ba-midbar - so that they can worship Me in the desert", [or else ...]

See 7:16 (first plague); 7:26 (second plague); 8:16 (fourth plague); 9:1 (fifth plague); 9:13 (seventh plague); and 10:3 (eighth plague).    [Note that Plagues 3,6, and 9 don't have any pre-warning.]

As you review these pesukim and their context, you will also notice that this is all that Moshe requests.  Not even once does he ever even hint to Pharaoh that Bnei Yisrael plan to leave for good!

Negotiations & More Negotiations

This interpretation can also help us understand the various negotiations that take place between Moshe and Pharaoh during the Ten Plagues.  If you follow their conversations, you'll find that they focus ONLY on this issue of a three-day journey to worship God, and NEVER on 'emigration rights to Palestine’.

Let's cite several examples that show the progression of these negotiations.  Note how Pharaoh slowly acquiesces to Moshe's demand (to allow Bnei Yisrael to worship God in the desert).

Round One:

After ‘makkat arov’ (the fourth plague), Pharaoh finally budges.  He grants Bnei Yisrael permission to worship their God, but not in the desert, rather within the Land of Egypt (see 8:21-23).  But once again, pay careful attention to how Moshe rejects this proposal for technical reasons.  Moshe claims that if Bnei Yisrael would offer sacrifices in the land, the local population of Egypt would 'stone them'.  Therefore, Moshe insists that Bnei Yisrael can only worship God in the desert.

Pharaoh then agrees to allow 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..." (see 8:24).

However, once that plague ended, Pharaoh hardened his heart once again and reneged on his promise (see 8:25-28).  Even though Pharaoh is clearly worried about giving Bnei Yisrael permission to leave, he never accuses Moshe that he may be planning to run away!  Likewise, Moshe himself never mentions the possibility that they may not return.  [Later in the shiur we will discuss what Pharaoh is afraid of.]

Round Two:

Later, after Moshe warns of the impending plague of locusts, Pharaoh's own servants demand his concession to Moshe (see 10:7).  In response, Pharaoh enters into a new round of negotiations with Moshe that 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).

Again, note the reason for Moshe's insistence on allowing the women and children to join; not because they are leaving forever, but rather -  "for all family members need to worship God" (see 10:9). Never does he tell Pharaoh that everyone must go because the entire nation plans to migrate to  Eretz Canaan.  Moshe's various 'excuses' all imply that he plans to return.

Round Three:

Finally, after the ninth plague [‘choshech’], Pharaoh conducts one final round of negotiations.  This time, he is willing to grant permission even for the women & children to leave, but not their sheep and cattle (see 10:24-25).  Once again, Moshe counters with a 'technical reason', claiming that all the animals must come along, since they are not sure precisely which type of animals God will request for a sacrifice (see 10:26!).

In summary, at every stage of these negotiations, 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 states a suspicion that Bnei Yisrael may be leaving forever.

Even After the Tenth Plague!

In the Torah's account of the Exodus (in the aftermath of the Tenth Plague / see 12:29-36) we find conclusive proof for this interpretation.  Note Pharaoh's immediate reaction when he hears reports of the death of the Egyptian first born:

"... and he [Pharaoh] called to Moshe and Aharon at night and said: Get up and get out... and GO WORSHIP your God - "ke-daberchem" - as you (originally / in 5:3) requested!

Even your sheep and cattle take with you, as you requested (in 10:26), and BLESS ME AS WELL..."  (see 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.  Now, he finally gives in to the very last of Moshe's demands - allowing them to take their sheep and cattle with them on their journey to the desert.  (Recall that is where the last set of negotiations broke down.)

Not only does Pharaoh allow Bnei Yisrael a three-day journey to offer ‘korbanot’, he even requests that Moshe will pray there on his behalf (to make a MISHEBERACH for him - see 12:32 "u-berachtem gam oti")!

Clearly, even after the Tenth Plague, Pharaoh only grants Bnei Yisrael permission to worship God in the desert!  And for the very simple reason - that's all that Moshe ever asked for!

This also explains why the entire Egyptian nation urges Bnei Yisrael to leave as quickly as possible (see 12:33-35).  They want to make sure that Bnei Yisrael can sacrifice to their God as soon as possible - thereby bringing this horrifying plague to an end (see 12:33).  This explains beautifully why the Egyptians 'LEND' [‘va-yish’alu’] Bnei Yisrael their finest wares, to encourage them to leave as quickly as possible (see 12:35-36).  As Bnei Yisrael are only taking a 'holiday leave’ to worship their God, the Egyptians have every reason to assume they will return afterward  back to Egypt - and bring back what they 'borrowed’.

The Torah uses the word 'borrowed' to describe what Bnei Yisrael took from the Egyptians, for that's exactly what they did!

The Last 'Trick'

A final proof for this interpretation is found in Parshat Beshalach when Pharaoh is totally astonished when he finds out 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..." (see 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 he be shocked to hear that the people had 'run away'?

However, according to our interpretation, Pharaoh is shocked for the opposite reason - because Bnei Yisrael DID NOT travel into the desert.  This may sound a bit complicated, so let's explain by taking a careful look at these pesukim.

First of all, recall from 12:37 and 13:17-18 that Bnei Yisrael had left Egypt traveling toward the desert.  Then, in the middle of that journey, God suddenly commands Moshe to execute a 'turnaround' maneuver.

"And God told Moshe, tell Bnei Yisrael to TURN AROUND and set up camp... near the Red Sea.  [In order that] Pharaoh will say they are wandering in the land (of Egypt), for the desert has closed them in" (see 14:1-4)."

In other words, God commands Bnei Yisrael to turn around in order to convince Pharaoh that they are not going to the desert.  Had Bnei Yisrael continued on their journey towards the desert, Pharaoh would have had no reason to chase them.  After all, he wants them to go to the desert to worship their God, as they requested.  It is specifically because they DON'T go to worship God, but instead RETURN TO EGYPT and set up camp 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!" (see 14:5).

It is only now that Pharaoh realizes that Bnei Yisrael have left slavery.  What leads him to this conclusion?  The answer is quite simple.

Let's consider what Bnei Yisrael have done.  Clearly, they did not travel to the desert (as they had requested).  However, they also do not return to their homes in Goshen, i.e. to their slavery.  Nor do they travel towards Eretz Canaan.  Instead, they stay in Egypt, and set up camp by the sea.  So what are they up to?

Pharaoh reaches the obvious conclusion.  Bnei Yisrael have implicitly declared their independence - in the Land of Egypt!  Therefore, for the sake of his national security, Pharaoh must immediately declare war on this rebellious nation (see 14:6-10).  If he doesn't attack them first, they surely will soon attack him.  After all, they are numerous, and armed (see 13:18).

In fact, this was Egypt's greatest fear from the very beginning.  Recall that the enslavement began because Bnei Yisrael had become so numerous that Egypt feared that they would take over their own country (see 1:8-10, and Rasag, Rashi and Ibn Ezra on 1:10)!

Pharaoh's decision to attack ultimately leads to Bnei Yisrael's momentous salvation at the Red Sea.  [That topic will be discussed in detail in the shiur on Parshat Beshalach.]  It also explains why Bnei Yisrael can keep the various wares that they had 'borrowed' from the Egyptians.  After Egypt declared war on Bnei Yisrael, their 'bank accounts' are 'frozen'.

There can be no two ways about it.  This is the 'story of the Exodus' in the Bible.  Despite the numerous movie versions and the popular understanding that 'Let My People Go' is a request for 'freedom from slavery', in Chumash it is simply a request for the 'freedom to worship God in the desert'!

Surely, this interpretation raises many questions.

First of all, with the Ten Plagues 'up his sleeve [or staff]', Moshe is in a position to demand just about anything he wants from Pharaoh.  Why should he ask for a 'three day vacation' when he can ask for total freedom?

Furthermore, what does he gain by not telling the 'whole truth'?

In Part Two of our shiur, we will first discuss Rashbam's approach to this question, showing how the above analysis forms its basis.  Afterward, we will suggest an explanation of our own.

Part Two

In the introductory shiur to Sefer Shemot, we explained that God did not appear to Moshe (at the ‘sneh’) simply to provide him with some information, rather 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).

Note that at first, God instructs Moshe to take His nation out of Egypt, without providing even a clue concerning HOW to get the job done!

Mission Impossible

As we would expect, Moshe Rabbeinu is startled by God's commandment.  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?

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, - VE-CHI OTZI - and [HOW can I] take Bnei Yisrael out of Egypt?!" (See 3:11, read carefully.)

No matter how we translate the phrase ‘ve-chi otzi’ in this pasuk (its precise definition is a bit problematic), it certainly seems that Moshe is asking 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" (see 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!

Now there are two basic approaches to solve this problem. Either we can 'reinterpret' Moshe's question to fit God's answer [see Rashi & Seforno], or we can 'reinterpret' God's answer to fit Moshe's question [see Rashbam].

In our shiur we will deal primarily with the latter interpretation. But before we begin, let's take a quick glance at Rashi's approach. 

Rashi - 'For What Purpose'!

Rashi (on 3:12) deals with this difficulty by reinterpreting Moshe's question (in 3:11).  When Moshe asks ‘VE-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, Bnei Yisrael 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 will receive the Torah at Har Sinai!

Rashbam - 'How to Get the Job Done'!

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 & the two parts of Moshe's original question.  The following table maps out this parallelism in psukim 3:10-12:

The First Half of Each Sentence:

3:10 COMMAND:  Go, I have sent you to Pharaoh!
3:11 QUESTION: Who am I, that I can go to Pharaoh?
3:12 ANSWER: For I will be with you, and this [the sneh] is the sign that I have SENT you...

The Second Half of Each Sentence:

3:10 COMMAND:  Take Bnei Yisrael out of Egypt!
3:11 QUESTION: [HOW] can I take them out of Egypt?
3:12 ANSWER:  [In order to] take them out of Egypt, [tell Pharaoh that] this nation must worship their God on this mountain.

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 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!

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).

As we explained in Part One, Rashbam's approach is based on the above analysis that Moshe never asks for freedom, rather for a journey of a three day distance to worship God in the desert.  Considering that Moshe's true intention (as he tells Bnei Yisrael) is to take them to the Promised Land, the 'three day journey' request must be part of a 'master plan' to 'sneak' Bnei Yisrael out of Egypt.

Furthermore, the final phrase of 5:3: "lest he strike us with DEVER or CHEREV" - explains 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 (including Egyptians).

As we explained above, a careful analysis of the entire Exodus narrative renders Rashbam's explanation that God commands Moshe to employ 'trickery' as the simple ‘pshat’.

Even though we have referred to this plan as 'trickery', Rashbam does not call this 'lying' - he refers to it instead as ‘derech chochma’ - a wise scheme.  He brings a parallel example from Sefer Shmuel.  When God instructs Shmuel with the mission to anoint David as king, Shmuel expresses his fear that Shaul may find out and then kill him.  To solve this problem, God provides Shmuel with a 'cover up', telling him to claim that he is going to Bet-Lechem to offer a public sacrifice.  Once there, he will secretly anoint David as king.  [See Shmuel I/16:1-3!]

When you read this Rashbam inside, note the 'confident' style with which he begins his explanation:

"Anyone who would like to understand the primary ‘pshat’ of these pesukim should study my interpretation of this pasuk, for those who explained it before me did not understand it at all!"  [See Rashbam 3:11-12.]

Later on, Rashbam is so sure that his interpretation is correct that he concludes his commentary by stating:

"Anyone who explains these pesukim in any other manner is totally mistaken!"   [See end of peirush to 3:11-12.]

'Not So Fast...'

Despite the charm and appeal of Rashbam's explanation, there appears to be a major 'hole' in his theory.  Let's explain:

Recall that, in addition to his mission to Pharaoh, Moshe's mission also included that he tell Bnei Yisrael that God had now come to take them out of Egypt to the Promised Land (see 3:16-17).  And this is exactly what Moshe does in 4:29-31.

Is it possible to expect that over one million people know the 'real' plan, and Pharaoh won't find out?  Can it be expected that no one will leak the story?  Doesn't Pharaoh have his own CIA [KGB, Shin Bet... take your pick]?

Furthermore, it appears that Moshe has nothing to gain by not telling Pharaoh the whole truth?  Either way, 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?

Finally, 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? 

No Other Alternative

When we read the story of the Exodus, 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 alternative other than remain in Egypt.  Let's explain why:

Bnei Yisrael's population is over two million.  [The census included 600,000 men over the age of twenty.  Figure an equal amount of women, and considering the high birth rate figure as many children under twenty as adults over twenty, and you arrive at a figure of about two million!]

To provide food and water for this size population is not an easy task.  Egypt, thanks to the Nile River and Nile Delta, could provide their needs.  However, survival of a nation of this size in desert conditions, even for a few weeks, would be impossible.

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 - and that's a conclusion reached by people who had witnessed the miracles of Yetziat Mitzrayim!  [See Bamidbar chapters 13->14.]

Without anything less than a 'miracle', Bnei Yisrael have no option other than to remain in Eretz Mitzrayim.

Furthermore, Bnei Yisrael had been living in Egypt for (at least) the last two hundred years.  Certainly, in the eyes of the Egyptians (and most likely in their own eyes), even though they may be 'third class citizens', they remain a distinct ethnic group within Egyptian society and culture.

In fact, it is for this very reason that their enslavement begins when Bnei Yisrael become so numerous.  Egypt fears that they may soon take over!  Many dynasties in Egypt had been taken over by enemies from within or by foreign powers.  They now fear that Bnei Yisrael may soon become powerful enough to take over their own country or help others do so (see 1:8-10).

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 are an oppressed working class who desire a lighter workload and better living conditions; they are NOT yearning for Zion.

With this in mind, let's imagine what would have happened had Moshe presented Pharaoh with 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!

Furthermore, God can demand that Pharaoh grant religious freedom to an oppressed people, and hence punish him for not obeying; but He can't expect Pharaoh to act as 'an ardent supporter of Zionism' - allowing an entire nation to embark on a journey that would most certainly be suicidal!

Hence, there would no point for Moshe to demand that Pharaoh allow Bnei Yisrael to emigrate.  Instead, he demands that Pharaoh allow Bnei Yisrael the right to worship their God in the desert.  This is not a lie, for this is exactly where Bnei Yisrael first plan to go (to Har Sinai), and there they will offer korbanot (see Shemot 24:4-11).

This explains why Pharaoh never accuses Moshe (during the Plagues) that he may really be planning to take Bnei Yisrael to Eretz Canaan, for Pharaoh never considers this a realistic option!

So what is Pharaoh worried about?  Why is he so adamant not to allow them to worship their God in the desert for a few days?

The answer is quite simple, and it explains every problem that we have raised thus far.

Pharaoh has ONE fear, and only one fear: From the time that the enslavement began until the day of the Exodus, Pharaoh's only fear is that Bnei Yisrael may take-over his country.  That is exactly why he enslaved them in the first place (see 1:8-10), and this is exactly why he is reluctant to allow the entire nation to leave with all their belongings.

Pharaoh fears that should he let them free to worship their God, they will take advantage of the situation, and instead of returning to slavery, they will return and rebel; or join with other nations and attack.  By not allowing them to travel too far, and by leaving their women and children (or at least cattle) behind, Pharaoh remains with a clear advantage.  But should the entire nation leave to worship their God, nothing guarantees that Bnei Yisrael will return to their servitude.  Instead, they could take advantage of the situation and declare their independence when they return to Egypt, or possibly even attack Egypt.

And when Bnei Yisrael finally did leave Egypt, what Pharaoh feared most is exactly what happened.  Bnei Yisrael DON'T go to the desert.  Instead they march away 'armed' (see 13:18), with all of their own possessions, and with a significant amount of 'borrowed' Egyptian gold and silver - everything they need to declare independence!  As soon as Pharaoh realizes that they are not going to the desert, he concludes that he has a rebellion on hand, and he launches a preemptive strike before they attack him (see 14:1-6).

With this in mind, we can suggest an answer to our other questions as well.

Keeping a Secret

Even though Moshe had told Bnei Yisrael of God's promise to take them to Eretz Canaan, had the Egyptians heard this 'rumor', 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 Shemot 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 fizzled out (see 5:1-21).

Theological Significance

In addition to our explanation that God has no intention to fool Pharaoh, one could even suggest that there is a certain thematic value in the fact that Moshe's request from Pharaoh is specifically for 'religious freedom' and not the right to emigrate.

The story of the Exodus, and hence God mission to Moshe at the ‘sneh’, focuses on two independent issues:

  1. To redeem Bnei Yisrael from Egypt - to fulfill Brit  Avot
  2. To 'teach' Pharaoh and his country the lesson of 'ANI HASHEM' - that God of Israel exists.

In His 'hitgalut' to Moshe at the 'sneh', God charges Moshe with the responsibility of dealing with both issues.

Let's begin with the latter by asking a more basic question: why must Moshe confront Pharaoh in the first place?  If the entire purpose of Yetziat Mitzrayim is simply to fulfill 'brit Avot' and take Bnei Yisrael to Eretz Canaan, why involve Egypt in this process at all?  Surely God could create circumstances whereby Bnei Yisrael would emigrate without official Egyptian authorization.  For example, let God cause a sudden change in Egyptian policy, or make just one miracle where all the Egyptians would fall asleep for 48 hours, etc.

[See Ramban on 3:13 for an interesting perspective.]

Nonetheless, at the ‘sneh’ we see how God insists that Bnei Yisrael must receive Pharaoh's permission to leave.  Note how the pesukim 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 "ve-yad'u 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.]

Two Perspectives

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 - "ve-yad'u 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 that the Egyptians will ultimately internalize 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 the shiur on Parshat Vaera), 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. 

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 that 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 DIBUR and the principles of God's TEN Commandments.