“Deceptions at the Behest of G-d”


by Rabbi Ephraim Z. Buchwald

In this week’s parasha, parashat Bo, we read of the final three plagues that strike the Egyptians and ultimately lead to the exodus of the Children of Israel from their enslavement in Egypt.

In Exodus 12:51, toward the conclusion of parashat Bo, we read the “official” announcement of the exodus: וַיְהִי, בְּעֶצֶם הַיּוֹם הַזֶּה:  הוֹצִיא ה׳ אֶת בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל, מֵאֶרֶץ מִצְרַיִם עַל צִבְאֹתָם , It happened on that very day: the L-rd took the Children of Israel out of the land of Egypt in their legions.

The exodus of the Israelites from the land of Egypt serves as a universal paradigm for the battle for freedom, not only for the Jewish people, but for all the nations of the world. Unjustly forced into servitude, the helpless and downtrodden Hebrews were redeemed from their backbreaking slavery by the intervention of G-d Al-mighty, and His chosen representatives, Moses and Aaron.

This Divine redemption was hardly an accident or coincidence. In fact, it was a fulfillment of a prophecy made 400 years earlier at the Brit Bayn HaB’tarim, the Covenant between the Pieces, where G-d promised Abram, Genesis 15:13-14, וַיֹּאמֶר לְאַבְרָם, יָדֹעַ תֵּדַע כִּי גֵר יִהְיֶה זַרְעֲךָ בְּאֶרֶץ לֹא לָהֶם, וַעֲבָדוּם, וְעִנּוּ אֹתָם אַרְבַּע מֵאוֹת שָׁנָה. וְגַם אֶת הַגּוֹי אֲשֶׁר יַעֲבֹדוּ, דָּן אָנֹכִי, וְאַחֲרֵי כֵן יֵצְאוּ בִּרְכֻשׁ גָּדוֹל , And G-d said to Abram, “Know with certainty that your offspring shall be aliens in the land not their own, they will serve them, and they will oppress them for 400 years. But also the nation that they shall serve, I shall judge, and afterwards they shall leave with great wealth.”

Despite the primacy of the Exodus story, something seems to be awry. Rabbi Dr. Hayyim Angel in his masterful collection of essays entitled A Synagogue Companion, points out that deception plays a significant role in this historic redemption.

Rabbi Angel lists the following deceptions:

1. Moses and Aaron repeatedly ask Pharaoh for a three day leave, when in fact they [the Israelites] intend to leave permanently.
2. The Israelites are instructed to ‘borrow’ the Egyptians’ vessels as they leave Egypt [but have no intention of returning them].
3. G-d tells Moses to take a circuitous route so that the Egyptians would think that the Israelites were lost and pursue them, resulting in the Egyptians drowning at the Red Sea. (Exodus 14:2-4).

Responding specifically to the charge that the Israelites stole the Egyptians’ vessels, Nehama Leibowitz points out that had the “theft” been a spontaneous action on the part of the downtrodden Israelites, who were enslaved and exploited for two centuries, no explanation of their actions would have been needed. After all, the Torah describes the generation of the wilderness as lacking faith, having a slave mentality and longing for the fleshpots. But, says Nehama Leibowitz, that is not what is related here.

The fact that the Israelites took the Egyptians’ vessels was not because of their frustration or their desire to get back at the Egyptians, but was in response to an explicit Divine command, transmitted through Moses. The Torah, in Exodus 11:2 says, דַּבֶּר נָא בְּאָזְנֵי הָעָם, וְיִשְׁאֲלוּ אִישׁ מֵאֵת רֵעֵהוּ וְאִשָּׁה מֵאֵת רְעוּתָהּ, כְּלֵי כֶסֶף וּכְלֵי זָהָב , Speak now in the ears of the people, and let every man ask of his neighbor, and every woman of her neighbor, jewels of silver and jewels of gold.

How could G-d order the Israelites to deceive the Egyptians and take their personal property?

Rabbi Angel points out that several commentators, Rabbi Yitzchak Arama the Abarbanel, as well as Nehama Leibowitz, adapt an apologetic approach.

Moses asks for a three day leave to test Pharaoh. If Pharaoh refuses to let them go, it would prove that he is truly hard- hearted. If he would let them go, the Israelites would have returned to Egypt and would have continued to negotiate until they achieved their total freedom.

While this might have been a test, it is obvious from the text that the Israelites were planning on leaving for good, never to return to Egypt.

Rabbi Angel therefore adopts an entirely different approach that is supported by both medieval and contemporary commentaries. The Ibn Ezra and The Ran, as well as contemporary scholar Rabbi Elhanan Samet adopt an unapologetic approach.

As demonstrated by the Midrash cited in Talmud Sanhedrin 91a, the Israelites deserved these vessels as payment for their more than 200 years of slavery. Furthermore, had the Israelites not asked for a three day leave, the Egyptians would never have given them the vessels. An additional purpose of taking the wealth out of Egypt was to lure the Egyptians to the Red Sea where Pharaoh and his hosts would drown. Rabbi Angel says, “They [the Egyptians] deserved to be punished for their enslavement and [the] murder of the Israelites.”

Rabbi Angel explains further that the negotiations between Moses and Pharaoh were contentious, and more indicative of war than diplomacy. As a result, it was considered entirely acceptable to deceive the enemy in order to defeat them, not unlike a military sneak attack or ambush.

The events in Egypt leading up to the Exodus were truly extreme, punctuated by the immorality of the Egyptians’ enslavement and murder of the Israelites. This was war, a war of self-defense, and as such, the Israelites were not only entitled to use deception, but required to do so. There was no need to apologize for their actions.

May you be blessed.