Rabbi Reuven Mann
Beshalach described a glorious event in Jewish history, the exodus from Egypt. Pharaoh was a powerful and unyielding leader who refused to surrender to Hashem even under the pressure of the Makkot (plagues).
However, the Night of Terror unleashed by the slaying of the firstborn proved too much to bear and he couldn’t scurry quickly enough to get the Jews out of his land.
It should be noted that in the time of Egypt’s suffering the Jews behaved with exemplary dignity and forbearance. On the night of the final Makka they did not even leave their houses to witness, firsthand, the agony of their former masters. Indeed, it was an evening of Divine service as Jewish families observed the commandment of the Passover Sacrifice. There is no evidence that they even rejoiced at the downfall of their enemies.
But the exit of the Jews did not terminate their relationship with Pharaoh. “It was told to the King of Egypt that the people had fled; and the heart of Pharaoh and his servants became transformed regarding the people, and they said, ‘What is this that we have done that we have sent away Israel from serving us?”
At first glance it is difficult to understand the concern of Pharaoh. Moshe had never said that the Jews were leaving for good. It is commonly understood that Moshe fought for the Jews freedom. But in his dealings with Pharaoh he only requested that they be given a brief furlough in order to serve Hashem in the Wilderness. The clear implication was that having completed their religious obligations they would return to Egypt and resume their labors.
But that does not seem to have been the plan of Moshe. In fact the Jews left Egypt with no thought of ever returning. Should we then conclude that Moshe used subterfuge in persuading Pharaoh to release the People for just a short time all the while having no intention of coming back?
This requires that we have a clearer understanding of the 10 Makkot. In my opinion there was a qualitative difference between the final plague and all the others. Only the final one was intended as a punishment. The first 9 were to be illustrations of Hashem’s supreme power over all aspects of nature. This can be seen from what Hashem told Moshe before departing from Midian to assume his responsibilities as the leader of Israel. Hashem said; “When you go to return to Egypt, see all the wonders that I have put in your hand and perform them before Pharaoh; but I shall harden his heart and he will not send out the people. You shall say to Pharaoh, ‘So said Hashem, My firstborn son is Israel. So I say to you, Send out My son that he may serve Me— but you have refused to send him out; behold, I shall kill your firstborn son.”
Hashem is here telling Moshe that he is bringing the plagues on Egypt not as a punishment but as demonstrations of His supreme might. Pharaoh and all Egypt are supposed to take their message to heart, recognize the existence of the Creator and yield to His Will. However, if Pharaoh should refuse then he would be punished with the slaying of the first born. According to the Sforno this would be “measure for measure” because Israel is to be regarded as Hashem’s “firstborn”.
It is in this context that we have to understand Moshe’s negotiations with Pharaoh. His position was that Pharaoh should acknowledge Hashem and honor His demand that the Jews be given leave to serve Him in the Wilderness. Had Pharaoh come to the proper decision out of his own free will and allowed the slaves to go and worship Hashem then Moshe would have been bound to return them to resume their labors.
But this did not happen. Pharaoh experienced 9 plagues and remained stubborn and recalcitrant. Additionally, he terminated the negotiations with Moshe warning that if he attempted to engage him again he would be killed. The option of a short interlude to serve Hashem in the Wilderness was then taken off the table. At that point Pharaoh was in fulfillment of the stipulation, “if you refuse to send them out I will kill your firstborn.”
Pharaoh was crippled by that devastating blow. He sought out Moshe on that very night and implored him to leave, not just temporarily but permanently. In informing Moshe about the final plague Hashem had said; “One more plague shall I bring upon Pharaoh and upon Egypt; after that he shall send you forth from here. When he sends forth, it shall be complete— he shall drive you out of here.” There were no conditions attached to the exodus. Pharaoh never wanted to see the Jews again.
But the wicked ruler had a change of heart. After the Egyptians buried their dead he realized that he had been totally defeated and no longer had a vast supply of cheap labor at his disposal. He could not bear the blow to his ego and he and his servants completely regretted that they had sent the Jews away.
Pharaoh then organized a vast expeditionary force and personally lead the mission to recapture the fleeing Jews. He did not realize that this confrontation had been arranged by Hashem so that “...I will be glorified through Pharaoh and his entire army, and Egypt will know that I am Hashem.”
The sanctification of Hashem’s Name in the world is the greatest commandment. In general this exalted Mitzva is fulfilled through righteous people who act in a noble fashion. Ironically, G-d’s Name can also be magnified through the criminal behavior of evil people who seek to destroy Hashem’s true servants. When Hashem intervenes and utterly annihilates the “Armies of Evil” He is recognized and praised by all.
May we strive to live by the high standards of wisdom and compassion which will elicit the admiration of all, gentile and Jew alike, and inspire them to emulate the “Way of Hashem.” Shabbat Shalom.