One big puzzle strikes many people who read this week’s parasha – why does Moshe ask Paroh to let the Israelites go into the desert for three days? Isn’t that deceptive, since Moshe surely knows that he’s taking Bnei Yisrael out of
R’ Sokol brings three approaches from the meforshim.
1. The Ibn Ezra (12th century) in Bo gives a lawyerly interpretation. “Send my people out so they can worship me in the desert for three days.” He doesn’t say what the people will do after the end of three days. He leaves it to Paroh to assume they will return, but really he’s not saying anything actually untrue. Also, it allowed them to borrow the gold and silver vessels from the Egyptians – after all, it seems reasonable that they’d want to borrow nice things to use in their God-worship. And when they weren’t returned, it provided a nice pretext for the Egyptian soldiers to follow on, allowing them to be killed at the Sea. Nechama Leibowitz criticizes this approach, noting that deception is in the ear of the hearer, not in what is actually said. If it sounds deceptive, it probably is.
2. The Abarbanel (15th century) (and the Akeidas Yitzchak, R’ Isaac Arama) understand it more diplomatically. Moshe is testing the waters. He’ll ask for three days, if Paroh says yes, they have a basis for continuing discussions until Paroh agrees to full liberation. And if he refuses, well, he deserves all the punishment he’ll get. R’ Sokol’s problem with this is, why did Paroh have to fail the test a dozen times? After 4-5 repeated attempts to get him to let the Jews out failed, it should have been obvious that Paroh was never going to come around, and it was time for the big punishment and release.
3. Shada”l (Sammuele David Luzzatto, 19th century) suggests that since Paroh had enslaved the Jews, and embittered their lives, and tried to kill them, he had instigated a state of war. And in war, deception is permitted. R’ Sokol doesn’t like this approach either, because while that may work for a human leader, like Moshe, this was God setting the plan, so why is God mandating untruths?
R’ Sokol resolves the issue by changing the way we conceptualize God’s role. Instead of God as war-leader, or political leader, we should look at God as pedagogue. God is not in this case acting against the Egyptians, but acting on Moshe, to teach him a lesson. After all, Moshe’s attribute is Truth. Moshe Emet veTorato Emet.
Look at how he approaches things. The first incident after he leaves the palace, he sees an Egyptian hitting a Jew. Justice demanded that he kill the Egyptian. A few days later, he sees a Jew hitting a Jew, and justice demands that he try to intervene and stop him. At the Golden Calf, he comes down from the mountain full of righteous anger, grinds up the Calf, makes a potion and forces thousands to drink it, killing them, in the name of Truth, Justice [and the
Aaron, on the other hand, is all about compromise. He temporizes on the Golden Calf, tries to direct the feeling in a proper way, delays making it, etc. Aaron’s attribute is Peace. He knows you sometimes have to act deceptively to achieve peaceful resolution of tense situations. This is sometimes necessary in running a civil society. Sometimes one needs to act deceptively for the greater good. Hashem was trying to tell Moshe this lesson, by pushing him to deceive Paroh.
There are two types of people – those who have trouble telling the truth, and those who have trouble telling lies. Moshe clearly fell into the latter category, but sometimes one needs to deceive for the greater good, in running a real political system.
[Sermon delivered by R’ Moshe Sokol, Yavneh Minyan, Shabbat Parshat Va’era 5768. Summarized by Jonathan Baker].