Judaism: Shmot: Redemption, Kiddush Hashem and Justice
“Moses and Aaron came and said to Pharaoh: Thus says Hashem, G-d of Israel: Send forth My people, for them to celebrate to Me in the desert. And Pharaoh said: Who is Hashem, that I should hearken to His voice, to send out Israel? I do not know Hashem, neither will I send Israel forth” (Exodus 5:1-2).
When Moses and Aaron approached Pharaoh demanding in the Name of “Hashem, G-d of Israel” that he send forth his Jewish slaves, they were obeying G-d’s instructions (in Exodus 3:18) precisely.
But Moses and Aaron’s approach to Pharaoh was doomed to failure. It was obvious that Pharaoh would refuse a demand made in the name of the G-d of the Hebrews. Had they demanded emancipation of the slaves in the name of Ra, or Ptah, or Anubis, or Horus, or any other Egyptian deity, they just might have got Pharaoh’s attention.
But speaking in the name of Hashem, the G-d of the Hebrews? Imagine Nat Turner approaching President Andrew Jackson in 1835 with the demand: “In the name of Yemoja and Oshun, the gods whom we worship, free the black slaves!” Obviously, any national leader thus confronted will kick the petitioners out.
Why, then, did Moses and Aharon choose to confront Pharaoh in a way that virtually guaranteed that he would refuse their demands?
I suggest two reasons, which complement and resonate with each other.
The first reason is that the fundamental purpose of the redemption of the nation of slaves was Kiddush Hashem – sanctification of the Name of G-d. Therefore it inevitably had to be wrought in the name of Hashem, G-d of the Hebrews. True, G-d could easily have freed the slaves in a seemingly natural manner: a foreign power could have invaded Egypt and thrown open the borders; Pharaoh could have died and his successor could have had a more liberal policy; the Jews in Egypt could have mounted an armed insurrection; Moses himself, according to Midrash Divrei ha-Yamim de-Moses, had become king of Midian in the decades that he had lived there – he could have raised an army and freed the Jewish slaves.
Alternatively, Moses and Aaron could have appealed to Pharaoh in the name of natural justice. They could convincingly have argued that during the reign of an earlier Pharaoh, Joseph had saved Egypt from famine, had indeed built Egypt up into the world’s mightiest economic superpower by warning that earlier Pharaoh of the impending famine and advising him how to steer the country through it. They could have continued by reminding this Pharaoh that his predecessor had invited the Hebrew family to come to Egypt as his honoured guests.
And these historical facts proved the Jews’ loyalty to Egypt, demonstrated that Pharaoh’s fears that the Jews might ally themselves with Egypt’s enemies were unfounded, and also how unjust it was now to enslave the nation which had saved Egypt and which was in Egypt as invited guests.
But none of these would have sanctified the name of Hashem, G-d of Israel. Though the Jews might have been redeemed, the purpose of that redemption would not thereby have been fulfilled.
Hence Moses and Aaron’s words, “Thus says Hashem, G-d of Israel: Send forth My people…”.
The second reason that Pharaoh had to hear the demand to free the Hebrew slaves in the Name of Hashem, the G-d of the Hebrews, was simple justice. Four hundred and thirty years earlier, G-d had forged His covenant with Abraham, promising him: “Know for sure that your seed will be a stranger in a land that is not theirs; they will serve them, and they will oppress them for four hundred years. And also the nation that they will serve, I shall judge. And after this, they will go out with great property” (Genesis 15:13-14).
G-d’s precise words are important here: not “the nation that they will serve, I shall punish” but “the nation that they will serve, I shall judge” – they will be judged for good or for bad.
As the Ramban (commentary to Genesis 15:14) expresses it: “Even though I decreed upon your seed to be strangers in a land that is not theirs, that they will serve them and they will oppress them, nevertheless I will bring the nation that they will serve to justice for what they will do to them. And they will not be acquitted by reason of having done My will”.
The Ramban goes on to explain that the Egyptians were eventually punished because they went way beyond what G-d had decreed: oppression did not include murdering all the baby boys; their cunning and duplicity in preventing the Jews from multiplying (Exodus 1:10) was not part of G-d’s plan. “The meaning of the phrase ‘I shall judge’ is that I will judge whether they did according to what was decreed upon them, or if they committed additional evil” (Ramban, ibid.).
It is possible that even with the additional evil that the Egyptians added on their own initiative, the fact that the very slavery was Divinely pre-ordained might have been a mitigating factor. For this reason, Pharaoh and all Egypt had to be given a fair chance of acquitting themselves before G-d judged them.
“Thus says Hashem, G-d of Israel: Send out My people”. Pharaoh and Egypt could have decided at that moment that they would, indeed, heed the word of Hashem, the G-d of Israel, and send the Jews back to Israel; after all, the same G-d Who had decreed slavery upon them, now decreed that the time had come to end the slavery that He had decreed. The Egyptians could also have looked at the conclusion of the prophecy – “after this, they will go out with great property” – and fulfilled their end of the bargain by paying us for the generations of slave labour.
Had they done so, they might indeed have been judged and exonerated – or at least, condemned to a lesser punishment than what they actually received.
But Pharaoh’s response was “Who is Hashem, that I should hearken to His voice, to send out Israel? I do not know Hashem”. This was not only monumental arrogance; it was also the death sentence for him and his nation. It was his arrogant declaration that “I do not know Hashem” that ensured that upon being judged, they would be found guilty. After this confession, there was no way that Pharaoh and the Egyptians could ever claim that they were persecuting the Jews in order to fulfil the decree of Hashem.
And the result was slow, painful destruction – a destruction so complete that Egypt would sink into obscurity for the next five hundred years: we would not hear anything else from Egypt until King Solomon would forge an alliance with the rebuilt Egypt by marrying the daughter of a much later Pharaoh (1 Kings 3:1).
The second redemption, the redemption from Babylon, followed the same paradigm (albeit far less impressively). That began with King Koresh (Cyrus) of Persia proclaiming: “Hashem, G-d of the Heavens, has given me all the kingdoms of the earth, and He has commanded me to build a Temple for Him in Jerusalem which is in Judah; whoever is among you of His entire nation – Hashem his G-d be with him when he goes up” (Ezra 1:4, 2 Chronicles 36:23).
Then too, the purpose of the redemption was Kiddush Hashem, and therefore had to be wrought in the Name of Hashem, the G-d of Israel.
And since the redemption from Egypt is the paradigm for all future redemptions, it is eminently appropriate to apply Moses’s and Aaron’s demand to Pharaoh to the final redemption, the redemption through which we are currently living.
For sure, the return of the Jewish nation to its ancestral homeland after millennia of exile is an awesome Kiddush Hashem. And the corollary is that we have to build our homeland in the Name of Hashem, the G-d of Israel. Establishing an independent State of Israel in the name of UN Resolution 181, or in the name of justice for a nation that had barely survived the Holocaust, or in the name of the same universal national liberation ideology which confers independence upon Kazakhstan and Armenia, renders Israel almost irrelevant.
Just as Israel’s redemption from Egyptian slavery was perforce wrought in the Name of Hashem, the G-d of Israel, even though that demand inevitably delayed the process by guaranteeing that Pharaoh would refuse Moses’s and Aaron’s demand, so too must our current redemption be wrought in the Name of Hashem, the G-d of Israel.
Only thus does it become relevant to history, only in the Name of Hashem, the G-d of Israel does the establishment of an independent State of Israel become the awesome Kiddush Hashem that ushers in the final redemption of Israel, the Nation of G-d.