No, don’t “let my people go”
No, don’t “let my people go”

Last Shabbat, Parashat Shemot covered the slightly-more-than two centuries from the original descent to Egypt until the beginning of Moshe’s mission to redeem the Children of Israel from Egyptian slavery.

Parashat Va’eira continues with the next several months of Jewish history – from G-d’s third direct address to Moshe after the Burning Bush and until the immediate aftermath of the seventh Plague (Exodus 6:2-9:35).

Recapping briefly to set the scene: –

Jacob and his sons came down to Egypt, and lived very comfortable lives there. Only after that entire first generation died did the pleasant exile begin to degenerate into discrimination, then oppression, and finally outright slavery and attempted genocide.

After 210 years of Egyptian exile, of which the final century or so was exacerbated by increasingly-harsh slavery, Moshe, the Egyptian prince who had been absent from Egypt for some 60 years, suddenly burst back onto the scene, stood before Pharaoh, and demanded freedom for his people.

And the immediate result?

– Pharaoh increased the burdens of his Hebrew slaves:

“Pharaoh commanded, on that day, the slave-drivers and task-masters of the nation, saying: Don’t give any more straw to the nation to make the bricks, as you have done in the past; let them go to get their own straw! But force them to produce the same amount of bricks as they did in the past – you shall not reduce it... Make the men’s work-load heavier, and make them do it, and let them not believe in false words” (Exodus 5:6-9).

The Hebrew taskmasters were understandably furious with Moshe: “They encountered Moshe and Aaron standing opposite them...and they said to them: Let Hashem see you and judge...” (v. 21).

Moshe, equally understandably, was distraught at the response to his attempt at redeeming his people:

“Moshe returned to Hashem, and he said: My Lord – why have You done evil to this nation? Why did You send me? And since I came to Pharaoh to speak in Your Name, he did evil to this nation! And You certainly haven’t saved Your nation!” (vs. 22-23).

Moshe’s anguish is veritably palpable in his words to G-d. And G-d’s immediate response to Moshe is: “Now you will see what I will do to Pharaoh, because with a powerful hand he will send them away, and with a powerful hand he will expel them from his country” (6:1).

And with this promise of God’s, Parashat Shemot concludes.

Parashat Va’eira opens with the continuation of G-d’s promise of salvation:

“I am Hashem... I have heard the groan of the Children of Israel...and I will remember My Covenant... I will take you out from under the burdens of Egypt, and I will save you from their enslavement, and I will redeem you with outstretched arm and with great judgements, and I will take you as My nation and I will be your G-d...and I will bring you to the Land over which I raise My hand to give it to Abraham, to Isaac, and to Jacob, and I will give it to you as a heritage; I am Hashem” (vs. 2-8).

Moshe brought this message and promise of imminent redemption to the Children of Israel; “but they did not listen to Moshe from shortness of breath and hard labour” (v. 9).

Now the Rashbam (Rabbi Shmu’el ben Meir, c1080-c.1160), a grandson and close student of Rashi notes that their problem was not lack of faith:

“‘They did not listen to Moshe’ now, even though they had believed from the start, as it says ‘the nation believed’ (Exodus 4:31). But they had hoped for respite from the hard labour – and behold, now it had become even harder” (commentary to Exodus 6:9).

It is a most incisive insight into the soul of a slave-nation. The Jews had been so thoroughly dehumanised by Egyptian slavery that they could not even conceive of freedom. Their greatest hope was for a lightening of their work-load. Maybe to have an extra slice of bread every day, or a few minutes’ break for a brief rest in the middle of the day – or even simply to return to the “good old days” when their straw would be provided.

This is the ultimate curse of slavery: the slave who is so degraded that he has utterly capitulated to his status as a slave. The slave who can no longer even dream of freedom. The slave who can conceive of no higher hope than to have marginally better conditions as a slave. The slave who has surrendered his humanity to his masters.

And this was the curse of slavery which Moshe had to understand. Moshe may well have hoped for immediate greatness from the Children of Israel – but he was only too painfully aware of the limitations of human nature.

G-d’s first words, as He sent Moshe on his mission (at the end of last week’s parashah), were His promise that “with a powerful hand he [Pharaoh] will send them [the Children of Israel] away, and with a powerful hand he will expel them from his country” (Exodus 6:1), on which Rashi makes a most incisive comment:

“Against Israel’s will he will expel them, and they will not have enough time to prepare food for themselves; and indeed it says, ‘Egypt was powerful against the nation, to hasten to drive them out’ (Exodus 12:33)”. (Rashi’s grandson, the Rashbam, makes the same comment almost verbatim.)

Again, this demonstrates the utter degradation of the slave, the violation of his basic humanity: the slave prefers the known suffering of continued slavery to the exhilaration of unknown freedom. The Jews in Egypt had become so addicted to slavery, that Pharaoh would have to force them, against their own will, to leave the land of their enslavement.

This is the reason that G-d instructed Moshe, over and over again, to order Pharaoh: שַׁלַּח אֶת עַמִּי, “Send out My nation” (Exodus 5:1, 7:16, 7:26, 8:16, 9:1, 9:13, 10:3). This phrase is generally mistranslated, “Let my people go!” – but this translation is totally wrong, it misses the point entirely.

“Let my people go” implies Pharaoh merely opening the gates of Egypt, allowing the Jewish erstwhile slaves the freedom to choose to stay or to leave. But (as subsequent history showed), even while experiencing G-d’s power during the ten plagues, fully four-fifths of the Jews preferred to stay in Egypt – and those were the four-fifths of the Jewish nation who died in the ninth plague, the plague of darkness [1].

“Let my people go” would have been a recipe for failure. Instead, G-d instructed Moshe to use the phrase שַׁלַּח אֶת עַמִּי, “send out My nation”. Moshe used the verb שַׁלַּח, the pi’el form of שלח, “send”. The pi’el form, a more intensive form of the verb. Not merely “send”, but more forceful: impossible to render precisely into English, but something like “drive out” or “expel”.

When Pharaoh finally capitulated, he indeed had to drive the Jews out of Egypt – otherwise most of them would have chosen to remain.

And then, there is another reason that Pharaoh had to not merely let the Israelites go, but actually expel them:

Immediately after all the first-born of Egypt died in the tenth and final plague, Pharaoh “called to Moshe and to Aaron by night, and he said: Get up, get out from the midst of my nation – both you and the Children of Israel....and Egypt was powerful against the nation, to hasten to drive them out” (Exodus 12:31-33).

And at this moment, as the Midrash records, Moshe and Aaron turned the tables on Pharaoh, suddenly refusing to leave:

“Moshe said to him [Pharaoh]: We have been adjured to leave only in a blaze of publicity, as it says, ‘And not one of you will leave the entrance of his house until the morning’ (Exodus 12:22)” (Mekhilta de-Rabbi Yishma’el, Pis’cha 13).

And as another Midrash states: “G-d said to him [Moshe]: By night you take out My sons?!  You will not take out My sons by night; rather, they will go out with their heads held high at midday” (Shemot Rabbah 18:10).

And, to drive the point home, when Pharaoh called Moshe and Aaron at midnight, demanding that they take their nation and leave Egypt, Moshe defied Pharaoh by exclaiming, “Are we then thieves, that we should sneak out by night?!  We will only leave with a high hand, in the sight of all Egypt” (Tanchuma, Bo 7).

Our leaving Egypt had to be one final act of defiance against Pharaoh. And the only way for that to happen was for Pharaoh and the Egyptians to order us to leave, to drive us out – so that, at this most critical juncture of history, we could refuse his order and leave in our time, according to our schedule, and not in Pharaoh’s time and according to Pharaoh’s schedule.

Hence G-d’s charge to Moshe to order Pharaoh, שַׁלַּח אֶת עַמִּי, “expel My nation”: If you merely let them go, allow them to leave, then their remaining in Egypt till the morning will be no defiance whatsoever.

But also, שַׁלַּח אֶת עַמִּי, “expel My nation”: If you don’t actually drive them out, they’ll prefer to remain in Egypt.

Does this sound strange? Unconvincing? Why in the world would any Jew prefer to remain in Egypt, the slave-house, instead of leaving for national liberation and sovereign independence in Israel?

– We come back to our earlier observations on slave mentality. A slave who has spent his entire life as a slave cannot even conceive of personal freedom; certainly not of nation freedom and sovereign independence. A slave will prefer the known security of slavery – and that is the ultimate slavery, the slavery which has permeated not only the slave’s body, but also subjugated his mind and his soul.

The ultimate slavery is a slavery in which the slave is so degraded that he no longer recognises the fact of being a slave. This is the slave who cannot be freed, because for him, his slavery has become so natural to him that even when his fetters are released and the door is open, he will not walk away.

And as with slavery, so with exile. The ultimate exile is the exile in which the Jewish exile is so degraded that he no longer recognises the fact of being an exile, a stranger in a foreign land, isolated from his natural homeland. This is the exile who cannot be redeemed, because for him, his exile has become so natural to him that even when his fetters are released and the door is open, he will not return home.

And as with Egyptian exile and slavery, so with today’s final exile. Many – distressingly many – Jews today are so comfortable in exile that they no longer even feel themselves to be in exile.

Few Jews remain in the world’s oppressive dictatorships: Iran, where fewer than 10,000 Jews remain, is the world’s sole dictatorship with a sizable Jewish population. For the more-than-one-half of the Jewish nation in exile, leaving and coming home is easier than it has ever been in the past.

The Jewish Agency and Nefesh be-Nefesh have made Aliyah a very smooth process. The Internet, social media, and instant global communication have made planning Aliyah simpler than ever before.

And yet, after almost three-quarters of a century of Jewish independence in Israel, more than half of all the world’s Jews chose to remain in exile.

Yes, there are Jews who have objectively valid reasons not to be able to make Aliyah. But the threats of anti-Semitism and assimilation should provide an enormous impetus to the vast majority to make Aliyah.

The Talmud (Megillah 14a) notes a puzzling disparity: “A great many prophets arose in Israel – double the number of those who left Egypt”, yet only the prophecies of 48 prophets [2] and seven prophetesses [3] are recorded in the Tanach.

And the Talmud explains that only those prophecies which had messages for all generations were recorded. The others were directed solely to their specific times.

So too with the Torah: everything that the Torah records carries a message for all generations. The exile in Egypt, and the subsequent Exodus from there, was not merely a once-upon-a-time event millennia ago. It carries a message for all generations:

Too many Jews – distressingly many Jews – would prefer to remain in exile. But when G-d decrees that the for redemption comes, then the redemption comes. Redemption is a force which no Jew can resist and survive.

Exile is drawing to its end. The process is slow, it is painful – and it is inexorable. As with the end of Egyptian exile, so with the end of today’s exile.


[1] Parashat Beshallach records that “the Children of Israel ascended armed from Egypt” (Exodus 13:18). However, the Midrash noted a grammatical peculiarity in the word that the Torah uses here for “armed”, חֲמֻשִׁים: the word should be vowellised חֲמֻשִּׁים, with a dagesh (a dot) in the ש. The Midrash therefore homiletically understands the word חֲמֻשִׁים not only to mean “armed”, but also to be a cognate of חָמֵשׁ, five. Hence only one in five of the Children of Israel left Egypt (Shemot Rabbah 14:3; Mechilta de-Rabbi Yishma’el, Pis’cha 13; Tanhuma, Va’eira 14 and Beshallach 1; Yalkut Shimoni, Bo 208 et al.).

[2] Rashi (commentary ad. loc.) cites Hilchot Gedolot, who enumerates 46 of the 48 prophets: Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Aaron, Joshua, Pinchas, Elkanah, Eli, Samuel, Gad, Natan, King David, King Solomon, Ido, Michayahu (in the days of King Ahab), Obadiah, Achiyah the Shilonite, Yehu ben Chanani (in the days of King Asa), Azariah ben Oded, Chaziel the Levite, Eliezer ben Dodo, Hoshea, Amos, Micah, Amotz, Elijah, Elisha, Jonah, Isaiah, Joel, Nahum, Habakkuk, Zephaniah, Uriah from  Kiryat Ye’arim, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, Daniel, Baruch, Neriah, Seraiah, Machasiyah, Haggai, Zachariah, Malachi, Mordechai, and Shema’yah. And Rashi concludes by conceding that he does not know who the other two prophets were.

[3] The Talmud (ibid.) lists the seven prophetesses as Sarah, Miriam, Deborah, Hannah, Abigail, Huldah, and Esther.