Parashat Shemot

  • Rav Menachem Leibtag

The Israel Koschitzky Virtual Beit Midrash

Special Holiday Shiur
Yeshivat Har Etzion


By Menachem Leibtag **************************************************************

"Let My People Go" - Moshe's recurring plea to Pharaoh - is just a HOAX! So contends the Rashbam. He explains that Moshe's request to allow Bnei Yisrael to worship their God in the desert is a trick. Once Pharaoh permits their departure, Moshe instead plans to take Bnei Yisrael to the Promised Land instead. Although this interpretation may at first sound a bit preposterous, a careful examination of the Exodus story clearly supports this explanation. In this week's shiur, while we focus on the "shlichut" (mission) that Moshe receives from God at the burning bush, we will uncover the reason for thisdaring interpretation by Rashbam. Nevertheless, we shall arrive at a very different conclusion.

THE MISSION AND ITS PURPOSE When God appears to Moshe at the burning bush (3:1-4), He first identifies himself: "I am the God of your fathers, the God of Avraham, the God of Yitzchak, and the God of Yaakov..." (3:6)

This pasuk alludes to the primary goal of Moshe's mission: the fulfillment of God's various promises to the Avot, i.e. to take Bnei Yisrael out of Egypt and bring them to the Promised Land (3:7-8). To accomplish this goal, Moshe is instructed: "And now come, and I will send you to Pharaoh, and you will take my people, Bnei Yisrael, out of Egypt" (3:10)

Since God is not very specific as to how He intends to be accomplish this mission, Moshe promptly inquires: "Who am I that I can go to Pharaoh, and take Bnei Yisrael out of Egypt?" (3:11)

Rashi and Rashbam argue in their explanation of these psukim. Rashbam divides Moshe's question into two parts: 1) Who am I, to confront Pharaoh? AND 2) HOW am I supposed to take Bnei Yisrael out of Egypt?

These two questions relate to both parts of God's previous command (see 3:10): 1) I am sending you to Pharaoh; AND 2) You shall take Bnei Yisrael out of Egypt.

[Note how the "taamei mikra" support this division. The two parts of these questions and answers follow the "etnachta" in each pasuk from 3:10-12.]

God's response to Moshe's question is even more difficult to comprehend: [Take special note of this pasuk, for we shall return to it several times during the shiur.] "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" (3:12)

How does this answer Moshe's question? Moshe needs to know NOW what to do. What meaning is there to God's response that AFTER he takes them out, Bnei Yisrael will worship Elokim on this mountain?

Rashi deals with this difficulty by reinterpreting Moshe's question (3:11): Why am I (and/or Bnei Yisrael) WORTHY of being taken out of Egypt? God responds: Because after they go out, they are to worship Me and receive the Torah on this mountain. [See Rashi 3:12.]

RASHBAM'S EXPLANATION Unlike Rashi, Rashbam is not willing to reinterpret the question. Instead, he divides God's answer into two parts as he does with Moshe's original question: PART I - Q. Moshe's question (3:11) - "Who am I to go Pharaoh?" i.e. Who am I that Pharaoh will allow me to enter his palace? [Moshe is not an official leader of Bnei Yisrael, why would he be allowed entry to speak to Pharaoh?]

A. Hashem's answer (3:12) [according to Rashbam]: "[Do not worry, you will be allowed to enter] for I will be with you, and this [THE BURNING BUSH] is the sign that I have sent you [and therefore, you need not worry]."

PART II - Q. Moshe's question (3:11) - Even if I am allowed entry, HOW can I possibly convince Pharaoh to let them free? A. Hashem's answer (3:12) - TRICK HIM, by requesting to: "take them [for a short time] out of Egypt, in order that they can worship their God on this mountain"!

In other words, God instructs Moshe to deceive Pharaoh: Request permission to worship their God in the desert. Once you are allowed to leave, lead them to the Promised Land.

To fit his interpretation into this ambiguous pasuk, Rashbam adds several details which the pasuk itself does not state. Why does (and how can) he make these radical assumptions?

By examining the details in 5:3 of how Moshe actually fulfilled God's directive, we can understand His original commandment to him in 3:12! [Here we have a very important methodological point: in order to explain an ambiguous pasuk, one should examine other instances when that pasuk is referred to.]

The complete details of God's command appear when Moshe actually confronts Pharaoh for the first time: "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 'Ivrim' has called upon us to take a three day journey into the desert in order that we may sacrifice to our God, LEST HE STRIKE US WITH 'DEVVER' (pestilence) OR 'CHERREV' (sword)." (5:1-3)

This final phrase - "lest he strike us with 'dever' or 'cherev'" - is the key towards understanding God's intention in 3:12. The plan is rather simple. Moshe claims that if Pharaoh does not allow Bnei Yisrael to journey into the desert and worship their God, a severe Divine punishment will ensue. This punishment might not be confined to Bnei Yisrael alone - indeed it might also involve the Egyptians! Therefore, Moshe claims, it is in the best interest of both Pharaoh and the Egyptian people that they allow Bnei Yisrael a 'short vacation' during which they can worship their God in the desert. Likewise, during the ten plagues, each plague begins with Moshe's demand: "shlach et ami v'yaavduni" [ 'Let My People Go' and worship God (in the desert)], and follows with the threat to bring upon Mitzraim yet another plague. Throughout the Ten Plagues, the negotiations which take place between Moshe and Pharaoh relate ONLY to the journey to worship God, NOT to emigration. For example: Where they can sacrifice their "korbanot"? Pharaoh initially offers to allow them to sacrifice within the Land of Egypt. Eventually, he agrees to one day's distance into the desert. (See 8:21-24) Who can go? What they can take? Pharaoh initially agrees only to the men (10:7-11). Eventually, he allows also women and children, but not the sheep and cattle (10:24-25).

Moshe consistently rejects any concession, insisting that EVERYONE must go. Still, Moshe NEVER mentions that they are leaving for good. Pharaoh NEVER suspects!

The Torah's account of "makkat bchorot" (12:29-36) provides additional proof. Pharaoh realizes that Moshe's original warning that God will bring "devver o' cherrev" (5:3) has actually come true. He agrees to allow Bnei Yisrael to journey into the desert AS THEY REQUESTED ("k'daberchem" /12:31), i.e. to offer "korbanot" (as explained in 5:3). Pharaoh even requests that they pray there on his behalf ("u'bay'rachtem gam oti"- 12:32). Likewise, the entire Egyptian nation encourages Bnei Yisrael to hurry up and leave (12:33) IN ORDER that Bnei Yisrael can sacrifice to their God and stop this terrible plague! They even LEND Bnei Yisrael their finest wares so that they will leave as quickly as possible (12:35-36). After all, they assume, Bnei Yisrael will soon return. Pharaoh's total astonishment when he is told several days after the Exodus that Bnei Yisrael have 'run away' (see 14:5) provides final proof that he was unaware of the true plan.

Therefore, based on a careful examination of the entire Exodus narrative, the Rashbam's explanation that God commands Moshe to employ trickery emerges as simple "pshat". [Note the style with which the Rashbam begins AND ENDS his explanation 3:11-12. He seems rather confident that he is indeed correct!]

'NOT SO FAST ...' Despite the charm of Rashbam's explanation, two questions arise which make it quite difficult to accept his conclusion:

1) Why can't Moshe tell Pharaoh the whole truth? Why does he need to hide behind half a story? [Is God not mighty enough to bring plagues that will convince Pharaoh to allow them total freedom?]

Furthermore, the implication of Rashbam's conclusion is rather disturbing. How could it be that God would instruct Moshe to lie, or at least deceive, Pharaoh? Are we to learn from this shlichut that it is proper to tell half-truths and mislead people as long as it is for a Divine purpose? [as unfortunately, many people do.]

2) Is it feasible that this plot could be kept secret from the Egyptians? After all, when God commanded Moshe to go to Pharaoh, he commanded him at the same time to gather Bnei Yisrael and inform them of the true plan, i.e, that he is taking them out of Egypt to the Promised Land (see 3:16-17, 4:29-31)! Can it be expected that no one will leak the story?

With regard to the first question, Rashbam answers that this was "derech chochmah", wise counsel. He cites a similar example from Shmuel I 16:2-3, where God tells Shmuel to fabricate a story that he is going to offer sacrifices at the House of Yishai, even though Shmuel's true intention is to anoint David as King of Israel. However, this answer only strengthens our first question. Our second question is not even raised, let alone answered, by Rashbam.

To answer both questions, we must take into consideration the realities of Bnei Yisrael's settlement in Egypt. While doing so, we must be careful not allow our 20/20 hindsight to confuse us.

WHO'S FOOLING WHOM? It is commonly assumed that the tyranny of Pharaoh had prevented Bnei Yisrael from returning to Eretz Canaan. However, even if Pharaoh had been willing to allow Bnei Yisrael to leave, the very idea that some two million people could migrate en-masse and conquer Eretz Canaan with its walled cities and formidable enemies is ludicrous. Thus, before God appeared to Moshe at the "sneh", no practical alternative existed other than staying in Egypt, despite the hardships of their enslavement.

With this in mind, the answer is simple: In the "hitgalut" to Moshe at the burning bush, God has no intention to fool Pharaoh. Had Moshe mentioned a plan of an en- masse emigration to Eretz Canaan, Pharaoh 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 [see Further Iyun]. 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! Hence, our first question has been answered.

Likewise, this explanation also answers our second question. Had the Egyptians heard a rumor that some messianic leader was offering to take Bnei Yisrael out of Egypt to some Promised Land, they would have scoffed at the very thought. Could a multitude of slaves possibly organize themselves into a independent nation? Could they survive the journey through the desert? Could they conquer the kings of Canaan? 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 the Bnei Yisrael did? Throughout Sefer Shmot and Bamidbar, we find that the people consistently want to return to Egypt. As the "mraglim" (spies) themselves later conclude, it is the only logical alternative. Even though this plan received immediate endorsement when Moshe first presented it to the elders and performed the "otot" (see 4:29-31), only a short while later, after their workload was doubled, these hopes quickly fizzled out (see 5:1-21). Moshe has received his Divine mission: he must present Pharaoh with a reasonable request. At the same time, he must inform Bnei Yisrael of their forthcoming redemption.

WHY MUST PHARAOH BE INVOLVED? Even though we have managed to answer all the remaining questions by taking into account the realities of the situation of Bnei Yisrael in Egypt, we have neglected a fundamental question concerning Moshe's "shlichut". In God's opening statement (3:6-9) to Moshe that the goal of his mission is to take Bnei Yisrael to Eretz Canaan, there is no apparent reason why He also commands him to confront Pharaoh. Surely God could create circumstances whereby Bnei Yisrael could emigrate without official Egyptian authorization. Yet God insists that Bnei Yisrael must receive permission to worship Him on Har Chorev specifically from Pharaoh. The psukim even emphasize this point: "Now go, I have sent you to PHARAOH..." (3:10) Moshe responds: "Who am I that I should go to PHAROH?..." (3:11)

Furthermore, as Rashi points out, it is God's true intention that Bnei Yisrael offer "korbanot" there and receive the Torah on this mountain. Worshiping God in the desert is not merely an excuse, it is an integral part of Bnei Yisrael's redemption! The process of Yetziat Mitzraim seems to be a matter between Bnei Yisrael and God. So, why must Pharaoh be involved?

A DOUBLE PURPOSE As we explained, God is not telling Moshe to trick Pharaoh, he is lodging a reasonable request. The confrontation between Moshe and Pharaoh is over a fundamental right of religious freedom - the basic right of any people, especially an oppressed one, to worship God. The fact that Pharaoh, the king of Egypt - the powerful center of ancient civilization - rejects this request shows that he considers himself divine. He acts as though he himself is a god. The natural resources of Egypt, especially the mighty Nile river, granted power to the Egyptian people. This power not only allowed their monarch to feel divine, it also led Egypt to believe that they had the right to oppress other nations - to act as though they were gods. God has an important lesson to teach Pharaoh and his nation.

Therefore, God's intention, as revealed to Moshe at the burning bush, is that Yetziat Mitzraim serve a double purpose:

1) From a universalistic perspective, its primary goal is that Egypt - the center of ancient civilization - realize that God is above all Man - "v'yadu mitzraim ki ani Hashem" (7:5 & many others). This message to the Egyptian people must be delivered, in God's Name, by Moshe to Pharaoh (as explained in 3:10-12, 18-20).

2) From Am Yisrael's perspective, the purpose of Yitziat Mitzraim is the fulfillment of God's covenant with the Avot to return their descendants to Eretz Canaan. This proclamation must be delivered by Moshe, in God's name, to Bnei Yisrael (as explained in 3:7-9, 13-17). This dual Divine purpose for Yetziat Mitzrayim introduces the theme of Sefer Shmot. Over the coming weeks, we will attempt to reveal this theme by tracing Yetziat Mitzraim in light of its dual purpose.


In conclusion, it is interesting to note the inter- relationship between these two aspects of the Exodus. As we explained in Sefer Breishit, the ultimate purpose of the Nation of Israel is to bring all mankind to the recognition of God and the establishment of a just society. At the very same time when Israel becomes a nation, through the process of Yetziat Mitzraim , Egypt - the center of ancient civilization and the epitome of a society that rejects God - comes to recognize Him. Initially, this Divine goal is achieved through force, by the "mateh" (staff) which kindles the Ten Plagues. Ultimately, when Israel becomes a nation in its own land, this very same goal will be achieved through 'peaceful' means - as long as Bnei Yisrael follow the principles of the Ten Commandments given to Moshe on Har Chorev.

shabbat shalom menachem



A. See theother commentaries on 3:10-12, especially Ramban. Attempt to explain them based on the analysis in the above shiur.

B. Consider the structure of the established leadership of Bnei Yisrael and their relationship with Pharaoh. There were "zkeinim" (elders of the tribes) who gathered to make formal decisions (3:16). There were also "shotrim" (Hebrew taskmasters), and "m'yaldot" (Hebrew midwives), who are permitted to petition, and possibly negotiate with Pharaoh himself! [Read carefully 1:18, 3:18, and 5:15.] 1. How does this enhance our answer to the question why Moshe could not have possibly suggested to Pharaoh that he was planning to take them out for good?

C. We noted in the shiur that the introduction to God's "hitgalut" to Moshe (3:3-6) associates the forthcoming revelation to Moshe with God's previous revelations to the Avot in Sefer Breishit. 1. Return to the parallel between these psukim and Breishit 46:1-4, as explained in our shiur on Parshat Vayigash, and use that parallel to fully appreciate this introduction. 2. Read carefully 3:7-8, 16-17, and 19-22, then compare them carefully to the language of Brit Bein Ha'btarim (Br. 15:13-21) and Brit Milah (17:7-8), as well as 46:1-3 and 50:24-25. Which brit has God come to fulfill?

D. Based on the above (C) - read 3:13 carefully. 1. Why does Moshe expect Bnei Yisrael to ask what Name of God appeared to him? Relate this to C. above! [Were the traditions of these covenants passed down by the Avot to their offspring?] 2. What should God's answer be to Moshe's question. What is his answer? 3. Look up the Rashbam on this pasuk! He 'codes' his answer in "at-bash". Decode it, and decide what his answer is, and how it relates to Question C above!

E. Aside from serving as an 'attention grabber', there is symbolism to the 'burning bush'. 1. Read Dvarim 5:19-24 and its context. How does the burning bush model what transpires at Matan Torah? Note that both took place at the same site. 2. How does this relate to the purpose of "hitgalut"?

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