Parshat Bo 5780: Moshe, Pharaoh and the Subtleties of Diplomacy

Shalom Friends;

This week, our Parshat HaShevua — Parshat Bo is being sponsored by Ayton and Ayelet Lefkowitz of Ramat Beit Shemesh dedicated Lilui Nishmas Ayton’s Grandmothers: Chana Michla bas Zeev Yitzchak and Miriam bas Avraham and his Grandfather Klonimus Yechezkel ben Yehuda. To Mishpochat Lefkowitz, many thanks for your sponsorship and your continued kindnesses.

You can celebrate a Simcha — a birth, a Bar/Bat Mitzvah, a Chassuna or other Simcha event in your life, or commemorate a Yahrtzeit of a loved one, or for whatever other reason by sponsoring a Parshat HaShevua.

Please forward to your relatives and friends and encourage them to sponsor a Parshat HaShevua. And please be in contact with me with any questions, or for further details.

Best Regards,

Moshe Burt
skype: mark.burt3

Parshat Bo 5780: Moshe, Pharaoh and the Subtleties of Diplomacy

by Moshe Burt

For this author, Parshat Bo annually relates to that nutty parody, composed by Guess Who, of a crazy tune which got a lot of radio play back “in the Old Country” a few decades ago, “Does Your Korbon Pesach Lose It’s Flavor Tied to the Bedpost Overnight?” (Actually, the real title to the song was “Does Your Chewing Gum Lose It’s Flavor on the Bedpost Overnight?”) Here’s hoping that subscribers to this Parshat HaShevua, especially newer subscribers will click on the above YouTube link for a bit of levity:

“And Hashem said to Moshe and Aaron in the land of Egypt [Mitzrayim], saying, ‘Speak to the entire assembly of Israel, saying: On the tenth of this month [Nissan] they shall take for themselves — each man — a lamb/kid for a father’s house, a lamb/kid for each household…. A perfect lamb/kid a male, within its first year…for you: from the sheep or from the goats… It shall be unto you for safekeeping until the fourteenth day of this month.'” (Rendered to English in The Sapirstein Edition, “The Torah: With Rashi’s Commentary” renders to English Sefer Shemos, Perek 12, posukim 1, 3, 5-6)

Over the years, this author’s nutty parody has cut right to the chase, to the very heart of our Parshat. The lamb was seen by the Mitzriyim as one of their myriads of “gods”. Therefore, Hashem mandated the Mitzvot of taking the Korbon Pesach, publicly, slaughtering it and applying the da’am on Jewish doorposts. The going up from Mitzrayim (Egypt), enroute to their ultimate goal “…a land flowing with milk and honey …” — the Yetziyat Mitzrayim is as relevant to the National entity (B’nei Yisrael) today, as it was then, as it relates to emunah (belief in) and yirat (fear of) Hashem.

Just a note here for historical perspective: from the point where Moshe experienced the revelation of the Burning Bush on the 15th of Nissan in the year 2447, to Moshe’s first approach to Pharaoh, through the ten plagues (the asseret makot), to the Jews’ liberation from the Egyptian slavery and oppression: there spanned exactly one year.

Over the past couple of years, this author has discussed a different aspect of the Yetziyot Mitzrayim — the Jews’ liberation from the Egyptian slavery and oppression — the tendency to find the smallest excuse to nitpick against, thereby to find fault or worse,with those who one, or a group disagree.

An idea, procedure, strategy or material item may have been conceived and work flawlessly, but someone, out of jealousy or opposition could come along and poke holes in the item, idea or concept over inconsequential minutia.

In light of events and news in recent years, this author deems it appropriate to revisit and expand further on the topic of faultfinding and credibility to include interpersonal as well as political and governmental diplomacy.

Rabbi Shmuel Goldin ponders the dialogue between Moshe and Pharaoh in his sefer “Unlocking the Torah Text” as the plagues (makkos) increase in intensity over Pharaoh’s refusal to permit the B’nei Yisrael their three-day “festival to Hashem” (Sefer Shemot, pages 69-70):

As the intensity of the afflictions increase over the course of the plagues, Pharaoh offers three compromise positions to Moshe and the B’nei Yisrael: worship your G’d in Egypt (Rabbi Goldin citing Sefer Shemos, Perek 8, posuk 21), depart Egypt temporarily with some of the people while others remain (Rabbi Goldin citing Sefer Shemos, Perek 10, posuk 10), depart Egypt temporarily with the entire nation but leave your cattle behind (Rabbi Goldin citing Sefer Shemos, Perek 10, posuk 24).

Moshe emphatically rejects each compromise in turn.

The second of these… compromises appears toward the beginning of Parshat Bo, in the following… conversation between Moshe and Pharaoh:

Pharaoh: “Go and worship your Lord! Who are they that shall go?”

Moshe: “With our young and with our old we will go! With our sons and with our daughters! With our sheep and with our cattle! For it is a festival of the Lord for us!” (Rabbi Goldin citing Sefer Shemos, Perek 10, posukim 8-9)

How can Pharaoh ask, after all that has taken place, “Who are they that shall go?” Hasn’t Hashem made it abundantly clear that He demands the release of the entire people?

Why… does Moshe answer Pharaoh in such a confrontational fashion? He could have simply said, We must all go. Why risk further antagonizing the king with the unnecessarily detailed proclamation “With our young and with our old we will go…”?

Much more is taking place in this conversation than immediately meets the eye. The negotiation between Moshe and Pharaoh overlays a monumental confrontation between two towering civilizations, as Pharaoh and his court begin to face, with growing understanding, the true nature of the new culture destined to cause Egypt’s downfall.

This author notes that Pharaoh, all the while, is feeling the heat of intense pressure from his political advisors to let the Jews go — to be rid of them, due to the pain, discomfort and destruction wreaked upon Egypt by the plagues to date. Ironically, it would seem that these could be the same advisors who, under one possible scenario, ousted Pharaoh from power in a coup d’état because he (Pharaoh) previously supported the Jews, with Pharaoh returning as a “new Pharaoh” who developed politically motivated amnesia “not remembering Yosef” in a lust to regain power.

Rabbi Goldin goes on to explain (ibid, page 70-71):

…Hashem did not instruct Moshe to demand complete freedom for the B’nei Yisrael. From the very outset, the appeal to the king was, instead, to be, “Let us go for a three-day journey into the wilderness that we may bring offerings to the Lord, our G’d.” (Rabbi Goldin citing Sefer Shemos, Perek 5, posuk 3)

In response… [Rabbi Goldin surmises Pharaoh’s response] Pharaoh now argues: All right, I give in! You have my permission to take a three-day holiday for… worshipping your Lord. Let us, however, speak honestly. Moshe, you and I both know that religious worship… remains the responsibility and the right of a select few. Priests, elders, sorcerers… in whose hands the ritual responsibility of the whole people are placed.

Therefore I ask you, “Who are they that shall go? Who from among you will represent the people in… this desert ritual? Let me know… and they will have my permission to leave.

Moshe’s emphatic response is now understandable…: [Rabbi Goldin surmises Moshe’s response to Pharaoh] You still don’t get it, Pharaoh. There’s a new world [being born] and we will no longer be bound by old rules. No longer will religious worship remain the purview of a chosen few… A nation is coming into existence that will teach the world that religious participation is open to all.

….No one and nothing is to be left behind; our “festival of the Lord” will only be complete if all are present and involved.

Torah records Moshe’s words to Pharaoh regarding the Plague of the Newborn (Mako HaBechorot):

“Moshe said, ‘So said Hashem, At about midnight I shall go out in the midst of Egypt. Every firstborn in the land of Egypt shall die from the firstborn of Pharaoh… to the firstborn of the maidservant…'” (Sefer Shemot, Perek 11, posukim 4-5, as rendered to English both in the Artscroll Stone Chumash and in Rabbi Zelig Pliskin’s Sefer “Growth Through Torah”, pages 162-163)

The Artscroll Stone Chumash provides a Rashi on Sefer Shemot, Perek 11, posuk 4 explaining Moshe’s words to Pharaoh “At about midnight” in this way:

Moshe did not say that the plague would occur exactly at midnight, because Pharaoh’s astrologers might miscalculate the time and think that the moment of the plague was somewhat before or after midnight. If so, they would claim that Moshe was a charlatan for predicting the wrong time.

R’ Bachya adds that since the third plague [the plague of lice], when the magicians were forced to admit that Hashem was at work in Egypt, their belief in Moshe’s veracity had been reinforced as the plagues progressed. Now, if Moshe were to “err” in predicting the exact time of the last plague, the Egyptian wise men would retroactively lose faith in Moshe.

The above Midrashic comment gives an insight into a less than savory aspect of human nature. Even though the firstborn were dying around them, the astrologers would snatch at the most miniscule straw to discredit Moshe.

Rabbi Zelig Pliskin’s adds in his Sefer “Growth Through Torah”, page 163):

There are people who take pleasure in finding fault with others. They are experts in finding inconsistencies in what people say and do. It is impossible to meet their standards….. Faultfinders use strong language to condemn and belittle their victims. They do this either because they are [or perceive themselves as] perfectionists or as a means of gaining power…. If a person does something that is basically right and proper, acknowledge this even if you do point out errors that still remain. Realize there is always the possibility that you are making a mistake.

The fallacy of faultfinding is that often the individual projects his own shortcomings onto another, particularly in atmospheres of polarization, where there is, or seems to be, no ability by parties for peaceable dialogue. It seems to this author that Moshe, by being vague as to the exact time — “At about midnight…” that the plague would ensue or by being explicit in his proclamation “With our young and with our old we will go…” epitomizes diplomacy par excellence within the parameters set by Hashem.

This author wonders what would have been the scenario had Hashem told Moshe to tell Pharaoh to “let My people go” totally and completely rather than for the “three day festival to Hashem.”

Among Israel’s top governmental leaders, we often hear bellicose rhetoric regarding military capability and threats of potential retaliatory actions against our adversaries, against murderous terrorist organizations. Strong words, yet weak, if any actions at all, with resultant harm to Israel’s military, diplomatic credibility.

Theodore Roosevelt, the 26th US president, was quoted from a speech he gave in 1903 saying, “Walk softly and carry a big stick.” And a certain athlete would often say, “If you’re gonna talk the talk, you better walk the walk.”

Israel’s governmental leaders need to learn and internalize the lessons of both Moshe’s explicit proclamation and his last words to Pharaoh: “At about midnight…” as well as the words of the abovementioned more contemporary personalities in our political, bureaucratic, military, academic and media spheres in order to gain or regain political, governmental and diplomatic credibility. And we Jews need to learn and internalize these lessons and minimize, if not eradicate the often splitting-hairs of polarizing divisiveness among ourselves — among our observant sectors.

May we, the B’nei Yisrael be zocha that our brethren — the refugee families from Gush Katif be permanently settled and be made totally whole — be totally restituted for all that was stolen from them and that the twice expelled families of Amona be restored to their rebuilt homes, at government expense; both due to alt-leftist-agendized, supreme court legalized Yassamnik gunpoint. May our dear brother Jonathan Pollard be liberated and truly free — which can only occur when he is home in Israel and carrying for his ill wife Esther Yocheved bat Rayzl Bracha, and that the MIAs be liberated alive and returned to us in ways befitting Al Kiddush Hashem — as with the return in April, 2019, via Russia, of the remains of Zachariah Baumel, as should the remains of the two chayalim from the Gaza War of five years ago. May we have the courage and strength to stand up and physically prevent the possibility of Chas V’Challila any future eviction of Jews from their homes and prevent Chas V’Challila the handing of Jewish land over to anyone, let alone to enemies sworn to Israel’s and Judaism’s destruction and eradication. May we fulfill Hashem’s blueprint of B’nai Yisrael as a Unique people — an Am Segula, not to be reckoned with as with “the nations” and may we be zocha to see the Moshiach, the Ge’ula Shlaima, as Dov Shurin sings; “Ki Karov Yom Hashem Al’Kol HaGoyim”, the Ultimate Redemption, bimhayrah b’yamainu — speedily, in our time”, — Achshav, Chik Chuk, Miyad, Etmol!!!

Chodesh Tov and Good Shabbos!
Moshe Burt, an Oleh, is a commentator on news and events in Israel and Founder and Director of The Sefer Torah Recycling Network. He lives in Ramat Beit Shemesh.