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Bo 5784   | Rabbi David Wolkenfeld

01/26/2024 10:27:20 AM


Say Little and Do Much

There are two great movie versions of the story of Yetziat Mitzraim, the exodus from Egypt: Steven Spielberg’s Prince of Egypt and Cecille B. Demille’s The Ten Commandments. Both draw heavily from midrashim to flesh out sparse details of the Torah’s own narrative. Both can be seen as a sort of modern midrash that reflects the concerns and priorities of the filmmakers and the times in which they lived and worked. And, not surprisingly, both movies leave out an element of Yetziat Mitzrayim that occupies quite a few verses in the Torah itself. Interestingly, our own efforts to remember Yetziat Mitzrayim, reenacted year after year at the Pesach Seder, also leaves out this very same element.

Had Pharoah agreed to the terms, as outlined in Moshe’ demands, we would have been bound to that agreement. Any public offer, made by the leadership of the Jewish people, is, ipso facto, an offer made in good faith and we are obligated to fulfill its conditions if the other side were to accept. 

We see one stage of the negotiations around this demand in the first verses of Parashat Bo. The dire warnings about the upcoming plague of locusts lead Pharaoh’s inner circle to beg him to negotiate with Moshe. And so Moshe is brought back to Pharaoh’s court:

וַיּוּשַׁ֞ב אֶת־מֹשֶׁ֤ה וְאֶֽת־אַהֲרֹן֙ אֶל־פַּרְעֹ֔ה וַיֹּ֣אמֶר אֲלֵהֶ֔ם לְכ֥וּ עִבְד֖וּ אֶת־ה אֱ-לֹהֵיכֶ֑ם מִ֥י וָמִ֖י הַהֹלְכִֽים׃

So Moses and Aaron were brought back to Pharaoh and he said to them, “Go, worship the LORD your God! Who are the ones to go?” 

A three day religious festival is a reasonable demand. But who needs to go and participate in a desert religious festival? And this is where this stage of Moshe and Pharaoh’s negotiations break down:

Moshe responds in righteous zeal:

וַיֹּ֣אמֶר מֹשֶׁ֔ה בִּנְעָרֵ֥ינוּ וּבִזְקֵנֵ֖ינוּ נֵלֵ֑ךְ בְּבָנֵ֨ינוּ וּבִבְנוֹתֵ֜נוּ בְּצֹאנֵ֤נוּ וּבִבְקָרֵ֙נוּ֙ נֵלֵ֔ךְ כִּ֥י חַג־ה’ לָֽנוּ׃ 

Moses replied, “We will all go, young and old: we will go with our sons and daughters, our flocks and herds; for we must observe the LORD’s festival.” 

A festival of the Lord requires everyone’s presence. Men and women and the elderly and children (and of course the animals that will be brought as sacrifices). 

Pharaoh thinks this is ridiculous:

לֹ֣א כֵ֗ן לְכֽוּ־נָ֤א הַגְּבָרִים֙ וְעִבְד֣וּ אֶת־ה כִּ֥י אֹתָ֖הּ אַתֶּ֣ם מְבַקְשִׁ֑ים וַיְגָ֣רֶשׁ אֹתָ֔ם מֵאֵ֖ת פְּנֵ֥י פַרְעֹֽה׃ 

No! You menfolk go and worship the LORD, since that is what you want.” And they were expelled from Pharaoh’s presence. 

Pharaoh knows something about old-time religion. Only adult men are needed to worship God. If Moshe was truly interested in worshiping God, he would have consented to a men’s retreat. A few verses later, the next stage of negotiations breaks down when Pharoah consents to men, women, and children leaving Egypt for this religious observance, but will not allow us to take all of our animals with us. Each religious festival has specific korbanot that are brought. There should be no need for every animal belonging to every Jewish household to attend a three day holiday.

But Moshe was not interested in a religious festival, he was a messenger for God’s plan, as articulated back in Parashat Shemot and Parashat Va’era, echoing God’s own promise to Avraham that after being subjugating in Egypt we would return to freedom in Eretz Yisrael. The “four languages of redemption around which the Passover Seder are organized make no mention of a three day festival:

וְגַ֣ם ׀ אֲנִ֣י שָׁמַ֗עְתִּי אֶֽת־נַאֲקַת֙ בְּנֵ֣י יִשְׂרָאֵ֔ל אֲשֶׁ֥ר מִצְרַ֖יִם מַעֲבִדִ֣ים אֹתָ֑ם וָאֶזְכֹּ֖ר אֶת־בְּרִיתִֽי׃

לָכֵ֞ן אֱמֹ֥ר לִבְנֵֽי־יִשְׂרָאֵל֮ אֲנִ֣י ה֒ וְהוֹצֵאתִ֣י אֶתְכֶ֗ם מִתַּ֙חַת֙ סִבְלֹ֣ת מִצְרַ֔יִם וְהִצַּלְתִּ֥י אֶתְכֶ֖ם מֵעֲבֹדָתָ֑ם וְגָאַלְתִּ֤י אֶתְכֶם֙ בִּזְר֣וֹעַ נְטוּיָ֔ה וּבִשְׁפָטִ֖ים גְּדֹלִֽים׃

וְלָקַחְתִּ֨י אֶתְכֶ֥ם לִי֙ לְעָ֔ם וְהָיִ֥יתִי לָכֶ֖ם לֵֽא-לֹהִ֑ים וִֽידַעְתֶּ֗ם כִּ֣י אֲנִ֤י ה֙ אֱ-לֹ֣הֵיכֶ֔ם הַמּוֹצִ֣יא אֶתְכֶ֔ם מִתַּ֖חַת סִבְל֥וֹת מִצְרָֽיִם׃

וְהֵבֵאתִ֤י אֶתְכֶם֙ אֶל־הָאָ֔רֶץ אֲשֶׁ֤ר נָשָׂ֙אתִי֙ אֶת־יָדִ֔י לָתֵ֣ת אֹתָ֔הּ לְאַבְרָהָ֥ם לְיִצְחָ֖ק וּֽלְיַעֲקֹ֑ב וְנָתַתִּ֨י אֹתָ֥הּ לָכֶ֛ם מוֹרָשָׁ֖ה אֲנִ֥י ה׃

I have now heard the moaning of the Israelites because the Egyptians are holding them in bondage, and I have remembered My covenant. 

Say, therefore, to the Israelite people: I am the LORD. I will free you from the labors of the Egyptians and deliver you from their bondage. I will redeem you with an outstretched arm and through extraordinary chastisements. 

And I will take you to be My people, and I will be your God. And you shall know that I, the LORD, am your God who freed you from the labors of the Egyptians. 

I will bring you into the land which I swore to give to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, and I will give it to you for a possession, I the LORD.”

Was Moshe negotiating in good faith? If the plan, from the outset, was for liberation, and that is what Moshe told the Israelites at the start of his mission, what purpose was Moshe’s request for no more than a three day vacation? Rabbi Menachem Liebtag, the Israeli Tanakh educator, has argued, based on the commentary of Rashbam, one of Rashi’s most illustrious grandchildren, that Moshe attempted to trick Pharoah into letting his enslaved Hebrew subjects leave Egypt by requesting the right to take just a three day holiday. This explains why, in next week’s parashah, Pharaoh has a sudden about-face and pursues the departing Hebrews into the sea. Pharaoh gives chase, Rabbi Liebtag argues, as soon as he realizes that the formerly enslaved Hebrews were not sticking to the original plan of a three day festival.

Why was this deceit necessary? Rabbi Liebtag suggests two answers. The first is that the way that the exodus unfolded showed that not only would God rescue us for the cause of liberation, but the Egyptians were told, again and again, that religious freedom alone, was a cause sufficient to merit God’s intervention in history on our behalf. The second, and most likely answer, and the one offered by Rashbam himself, is that this trick was necessary to convince Pharaoh to relent. Even after ten plagues, Pharaoh was only willing to allow a three day festival. God and Moshe had to trick Pharaoh on the way to our freedom.

Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik suggested a very different understanding of this facet of Yetziat Mitzraim. Yes, the goal of Yetziat Mitzraim was to fulfill God’s promise to Avraham that his descendants would return to Eretz Cana’an. And God surely knew, and explicitly told Moshe, that no argument would succeed in convincing Pharaoh to let his slaves free without his hands being forced by the plagues. And yet, Rav Soloveitchik wrote that any pledge made in public by a representative of the Jewish people is something we have to stand behind. 

Had Pharoah agreed to the terms, as outlined in Moshe’ demands, we would have been bound to that agreement. Any public offer, made by the leadership of the Jewish people, is, ipso facto, an offer made in good faith and we are obligated to fulfill its conditions if the other side were to accept. Perhaps for this reason God informs Moshe at the outset of his mission that the negotiations with Pharaoh will not succeed. Moshe was not merely lucky that Pharaoh rejected the generous terms of his offer. Moshe was smart and knew that no matter how reasonable he was, Pharaoh could not and would not get to yes.

There are contemporary ramifications of Rav Soloveitchik’s claim. The first is that Moshe’s description of a religious festival, even if made in order to fool Pharoah into allowing all of us to sneak out of Egypt with our families and with our animals, ends up being a blueprint for what it means for our community to worship God together. How does our community worship God together? By having the entire community, men and women, young and old, adult and child, praying together. 

Whenever people complain about the presence of young children disturbing decorum in shul, one response is to note that the children are necessary to fulfill Moshe’s description of a religious festival. On the contrary, not only do we need children, we also should have animals with us! The mitzvah of Hakhel at the tail end of the Torah, with its explicit call for young and old to travel to Yerushalayim together is our instantiation of the vision for a community united in prayer that Moshe describes so powerfully in the court of Pharaoh.  I would add that when the chatter got a bit leibedik at Ohev over recent weeks and I looked around the room to try to figure out where the noise was coming from, I did not notice that it was the children making noise.

Additionally, like every Orthodox shul we only recite certain prayers, like kedushah and kaddish, the so-called “devarim sh’b’kedushah” in the presence of ten men above the age of thirteen. Even so, we understand that for our community to unite in the worship of God…. the community has to unite in the worship of God. I have attended Shacharit here with only nine other men. And I’ve attended Shacharit here with twelve men, three women and two children. The experiences are not the same. And being in this room on Shabbat morning with 150 others all praying together is very different from occasions when there have been 90 or 100 participants. Each additional worshiper in shul adds their energy and their presence and their voice to our congregational prayer. 

This is why the weekday tefilah honor roll posted on the bulletin board thanks each participant by name and this is why I report back on the weekday tefilah Whatsapp group on, for example, the “number of siddurim in use at Maariv.” We learned from Moshe that Jewish religious celebrations, unlike Egyptian ones, require the participation of the entire community.

There are additional contemporary ramifications of Rav Soloveitchik’s understanding of Moshe and Pharaoh's negotiations. Rav Soloveitchik reminds us that any claim made in public in the name of the Jewish people is a declaration we are bound to uphold if called upon to do so. He wrote that this applied to the diplomatic sphere as well. My teacher, Rabbi Yehuda Amital z’l believed that the Israeli Declaration of Independence with its promise of equal rights under law to all citizens no matter their race, religion, sex, or nationality, had the halakhic status of a Neder, a binding obligation that we create through our words.  I would think the same would be true of a treaty or international agreement (just like Yehoshua’s promise to the Givonim in Joshua Chapter 9 which was an agreement entered into under false pretenses but was nonetheless binding). Whatever the provenance may have been of modern human rights and international commitments, once they became part of a public declaration, they became a collective halakhic obligation no less than any other Torah obligation.


 The sage Shamai taught us to “say little and do much.” Indeed. But let us mean what we say and do whatever we promise.

Mon, July 22 2024 16 Tammuz 5784