Getting the Jews Out of Egypt-–Two Views

by Rabbi Ephraim Z. Buchwald

In this week’s parasha, parashat Shemot, we read of the enslavement of the Jews in Egypt by Pharaoh, as well as the birth of Moses and G-d’s selection of Moses to lead the people out of Egyptian bondage.

The story seems straightforward, although there are a few bumps along the way. G-d tells Moses at the Burning Bush that he will lead the people out of Egypt, and that Pharaoh will not let the people go until the Al-mighty performs a series of wonders. After that, Pharaoh and the Egyptians will expel the Israelites and even chase them out of Egypt.

Rabbi Ben-Zion Firer, through a subtle textual analysis, shows that Moses and G-d had different approaches regarding the process of redeeming the Jews.

Because of his special relationship with Pharaoh, Moses had hoped that he, as an adopted Egyptian, would be able to convince the Egyptian sovereign to let the Hebrew people go. G-d, however, felt that it must not be Moses the Egyptian, but Moses the strong and proud Jew, who would lead His children out of bondage.

Because of the rapidly increasing Jewish birthrate, the new king of Egypt, who did not know Joseph, thought that the Children of Israel were growing too numerous and too strong and had become a security threat to his people. Rabbi Firer suggests that Pharaoh’s strategy was to make life so miserable for the Hebrews, that they would willingly flee Egypt. Pharaoh therefore says to his nation, Exodus 1:10, הָבָה נִתְחַכְּמָה לוֹ,  פֶּן יִרְבֶּה, וְהָיָה כִּי תִקְרֶאנָה מִלְחָמָה וְנוֹסַף גַּם הוּא עַל שֹׂנְאֵינוּ, וְנִלְחַם בָּנוּ, וְעָלָה מִן הָאָרֶץ , “Come, let us deal wisely with them, lest they become numerous, and it may be, that if war will occur, they too may join our enemies and wage war against us, and go up from the land.”

The literal meaning of this verse seems to be that Pharaoh was fearful that if a foreign army would invade, the increasingly numerous Israelites would help the enemy army defeat Egypt and then leave the country.

Rabbi Firer offers a fascinating alternative interpretation. Pharaoh said, “Let us deal with them wisely, so that the Israelites will go up from the land, and leave and not be a threat to Egypt.” However, when Moses approached Pharaoh in G-d’s name and said, “Let my people go,” Pharaoh had a sudden change of heart, which is the typical experience of Jewish history. When Jews wish to live in peace in a non-Jewish land, the local non-Jewish residents make life so difficult for them, hoping that they will leave. But when Jews want to leave a country, suddenly they are locked in ghettos, and are not permitted to leave.

When the daughter of Pharaoh went down to bathe in the river, she opened up the ark and saw a little boy crying, and had compassion for him. She immediately identified the child as one of the Jewish children. She said, Exodus 2:6, מִיַּלְדֵי הָעִבְרִים זֶה , “This is one of the Hebrew boys.”

These words played a decisive role in Jewish destiny. Had Moses not been identified as a Jew, but rather as a child found in the river, he would have grown up as an Egyptian and could have easily convinced Pharaoh that it was in Pharaoh’s own interest and to Egypt’s benefit to rid the country of the Israelites. It would not have been necessary for Pharaoh to “deal with them wisely.” But, now that Moses has been identified as a Jew, the Egyptians will pay no heed to his suggestion.

Moses grows up and goes out to his brothers and sees their suffering. He sees an Egyptian beating one of his brothers, a Hebrew. He turns one way and the other, to make certain that no one is watching, kills the Egyptian and buries him in the sand. Moses was concerned that no one would witness his deed, because he still hoped to pass as an Egyptian. But, once he kills an Egyptian who was beating a Jew, he could never get away with pretending that he was Egyptian.

That is exactly what happens the next day. When Moses sees two Jews fighting, he intervenes, condemning the fighters. One of them said, Exodus 2:14, “Who made you an officer and judge over us? Do you want to kill us like you killed the Egyptian?” Moses knew that the thing was now known, and was afraid.

If Moses was fearful, why didn’t he run at that moment?

Only afterward, when Pharaoh heard of the incident, and sought to kill him (Exodus 2:15), did Moses flee, because now, he was certain that the jig was up, and that he could never again pass as an Egyptian.

According to Rabbi Firer, after all this, Moses still hoped that he could pass as an Egyptian. He flees to Midian and meets Jethro’s daughters at the well. When they return, the daughters tell their father, Exodus 2:19, אִישׁ מִצְרִי הִצִּילָנוּ מִיַּד הָרֹעִים , “an Egyptian man saved us from the hands of the shepherds.” It seems likely that even in Midian, Moses sought to maintain his Egyptian identity, because he hoped that, as an Egyptian, he would one day be in a position to save the Jewish people back in Egypt.

That is why, according to Rabbi Firer, Moses refused, again and again, to accept the mission of G-d, to take the Jewish people out of Egypt. His notion was to save the Jewish people as an Egyptian. He hoped to one day return to Egypt, where he would advise Pharaoh to expel the Jews from Egypt.

When Moses says to G-d, in Exodus 3:11, מִי אָנֹכִי כִּי אֵלֵךְ אֶל פַּרְעֹה, וְכִי אוֹצִיא אֶת בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל מִמִּצְרָיִם , “Who am I that I should go to Pharaoh that I should take the Children of Israel out of Egypt?” Rabbi Firer interprets this as if Moses is asking G-d, whether he should go as an Egyptian or as a Jew? G-d tells him that even though it will cause additional hardship for the Jewish people, and Pharaoh will refuse, he must go as a Jew.

Why didn’t G-d allow Moses to approach Pharaoh as an Egyptian, which might perhaps result in accelerating the exodus?

Apparently, G-d felt that it was necessary to harden Pharaoh’s heart, so that he would experience the ten plagues. It was necessary for G-d to punish the Egyptians, because they had gone beyond the “call of duty,” of enslaving and oppressing the Jewish people. Once they started murdering the Jewish children by throwing them into the river, it was necessary for G-d to exact full retribution. That could not have happened had Moses petitioned Pharaoh to let the people go, and Pharaoh would have responded, “You are welcome to leave.”

As the Psalmist says (Psalms 33:11), עֲצַת השׁם, לְעוֹלָם תַּעֲמֹד , G-d’s scheme always prevails.

May you be blessed.