Let My People Go!

Rabbi Reuven Mann

Moshe Rabbenu, also known as Moses, is regarded as one of history's greatest leaders by people of all races and religions.  His popularity is based upon his reputation for being the great emancipator who confronted the mighty Pharaoh and proclaimed G-d's command to "Let my people Go!"  The popular image of Moshe as a freedom fighter has inspired many downtrodden people throughout history.  It has been immortalized in moving Negro spirituals which galvanized  and uplifted those who fought to abolish slavery in America.  It would seem, however, that mankind's image of Moses is not grounded in fact.  A careful study of the opening parshas of Shemot indicate that Moshe never demanded that Pharaoh release the Jews from slavery.  Indeed, the request made of him was very modest.  He was commanded to "send forth my people that they may celebrate unto me in the wilderness."  There was no stipulation that the Jews should be released from bondage.  The implication was that after the worship of G-d was completed the Jews would return to their labors in Egypt.  It was only because of Pharaoh's stubborn refusal to grant this seemingly small request that Hashem brought upon him the plague of the first born which crippled his resolve and impelled him to drive the Jews out of his land.  We obtained our freedom not because Moshe demanded it but because G-d overpowered Pharaoh and forced him to release the slaves against his will.

The question arises: what was the design behind the mission of Moshe?  Why was it limited to asking only for permission for the Jews to serve G-d and not to demanding that they be completely released from bondage?  There is much that we can learn from the confrontation of Moshe and Pharaoh.  The purpose of Moshe's negotiations was not merely to benefit the Jews.  Hashem is concerned for all His creatures.  Thus in explaining the objective of the plagues G-d told Moshe "and all Egypt will know that I am Hashem..."  G-d wants all of mankind to recognize and serve Him.  The foundation of all morality and ethical conduct is the awareness of G-d and the awe that man must sense for his Creator.  The source of the wickedness of Pharaoh and Egypt was their immersion in primitive idolatry in which man created deities in his own image and "worshipped" them in order to obtain his lustful desires and assuage his conscience.  Paganism is a religious system whose purpose is to provide license for man to pamper himself and oppress others.  Moshe was sent by Hashem to redeem the world from its enslavement to blind "religious" instinctualism.  The greatest prophet was sent by Hashem to instruct Pharaoh about the G-d of reality, the Creator of Heaven and Earth whom man was created to serve.  He taught Pharaoh that man must subordinate his desires and act according to the Divine will.  Had Pharaoh accepted this and transformed himself into a servant of Hashem there would have been no need for the fearsome plagues which decimated Egypt.  Of his own accord Pharaoh would have realized the evil of enslaving others and would have voluntarily granted the Jews their freedom.  Pharaoh's stubbornness brought untold suffering upon his people.  All of Hashem's ways are just but human folly is responsible for the evils that befall mankind.  The supreme arrogance of Pharaoh, who "hardened his heart and would not listen" to Hashem should shock us out of our own stubbornness and complacency.  We can now better understand the supreme importance of the mitzvah of mila and the injunction "and you shall circumsize the foreskin of your hearts and your neck will no longer be stiff."  May we merit to obtain a "heart of wisdom and understanding."

Shabbat Shalom