When we think of the actual process of the Exodus, we perceive the first step to be God commanding Moshe Rabbeinu to go to Pharaoh to demand of the king of Egypt to free the Jewish People. Why, though, was this the first move? Why the need for Pharaoh’s ‘permission’? Why not simply tell the Jews – obviously, under the protection of Hashem – to just leave?1 What is also perhaps further interesting is the language of Shemot 6:13 which seems to direct Moshe and Aharon to command the Jewish People and Pharaoh in regard to the Exodus.
The directive to Pharaoh would seem to be pretty clear but what was this command to the Jewish People as their role in the actual Exodus would seem to have been passive2
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Rashi, Shemot 6:13, thus, reads this verse as actually stating that God spoke to Moshe and Aharon commanding them, regarding the Jewish People and Pharaoh, in connection to the Exodus. The text then departs from continuing with the nature of this command, to present us with some background on Moshe and Aharon, before returning to this subject – the command of God to Moshe and Aharon regarding the Exodus, i.e. this first move. The challenge is that the more literal reading of the verse would seem to be that the verse is speaking of a command to the Jewish People, not simply one concerning the Jewish People. This, of course, again raises the above noted problem: what would be this command to the Jewish People?
Meshech Chochma presents an interesting possibility. It would seem that not every Jew was enslaved by Pharaoh3 and, as such, there were actually Jews who purchased other enslaved Jews from the Egyptians to be their slaves. The command to free the Jews was, thus, not solely voiced to Pharaoh but also to these Jews who had Jewish slaves. God, in this verse, was thus telling Moshe to also command these Jews to free their slaves.
A difficulty with this explanation may exist, though, in that the verse seems to imply that this command was for the entire Jewish nation, not simply the small minority which may have owned Jewish slaves. Nevertheless, this explanation does support an idea that this verse concerns a commandment to the nation and not, simply, concerning the nation.
The fact is that a reading of this verse as pertaining to a command to the nation is actually found in T.J. Rosh Hashanah 3:5. There, the gemara asks the obvious question: in what matter were the Jewish People commanded at this time? The answer is that this was when the nation was originally given the laws regarding the freeing of a Jewish slave at the end of seven years.4 A strangeness in this response is found, however, in that the verse seems to be speaking of a more immediate directive to the nation regarding the Exodus.
It is this argument that would seem to have propelled the Meshech Chochma to read the verse as applying to Jews needing to be freed by fellow Jews in Egypt.5 Nonetheless, the Yerushalmi supports its understanding with a reference to Yirmiyahu 34:13 which presents a covenant between Hashem and the Jewish People, formed on the day God took the nation out of Egypt, based on the freeing of a Jewish slave after seven years. It was actually due to neglect in the observance of this law, the gemara contends, that the nation ultimately again suffered the punishment of exile. It was, thus, this first command to free future slaves, given to the nation on the eve of their freedom, that actually entitled the Jewish People to be freed from Egypt.6
So, what was truly the first step in the actual process of the Exodus? From the Yerushalmi, it would seem to have contained two parts. One was the command to go to Pharaoh to order him to free the slaves. The second was this command for the future, presenting to the nation the laws regarding the future freeing of slaves. But how is this future command a first step in the Exodus process? It does, of course, provide a goal of which the Jewish People should be aware – that through their new status, they should also be committed to the freedom of others.
Yet, why would a recognition of this goal be such a necessity that its declaration to the people had to be a first step in the process? Rabbi Moshe Hochman, Morasha, Parshat Va’era, Shilu’ach Avadim even quotes Be’er Moshe questioning the very appropriateness of presenting this future law at this time, instructing individuals presently enslaved to free others.7 There may indeed be value in a recognition of this goal but the minds of the Jewish People must have been clearly on their own freedom. How did this direction to Klal Yisrael connect with this present mindset?
An answer may be found in the presentations of Rabbi Norman Lamm, Derashot Ledorot, Exodus, Va’era: The Meaning of Fear and Va’era: On Having a Heart. One of the objectives of the Exodus was clearly to free the Jewish People from slavery but there was also a major, other objective – one that was even more important than this freedom. This was to create a special Godly nation. The Exodus, as such, could not just be about freedom but it also had to sow the seeds for this national development. This second objective was actually of significant purpose in that the very method of the Exodus with its plagues not only verified the Existence of the One God but informed the world of His direct and continuous involvement in life, humanity and the universe. This lesson was not, though, just one of instruction and information.
This recognition of God demanded a response from humanity and, specifically, the Jewish People. The objective of the Exodus was thus to begin a process for the development of real Yirat Shomayim [literally, fear of Heaven]. But what truly is the nature of this state? In its early stages, it is more a fear of punishment in that God has this power. The further goal, though, is the development of awe of God or, as Rabbi Lamm describes it, Reverence. There is, however, an even higher level when Reverence leads one to positive action. This was the instruction that Moshe and Aharon were commanded to impart to the Jewish People. This was the goal that was necessary for the nation to fully understand as they were about to depart from Egypt. The Exodus was not simply about freedom but further concerned the development of Reverence in action – and this recognition had to be imparted to the nation in the very first step.
Rabbi Benjamin Hecht
1 Please further see Nishma Insight 5772-15, Setting Them Up for the Fall, available online at http://www.nishma.org/articles/insight/insight5772-15.htm. That Insight addresses these questions.
2 While there were mitzvot upon the nation in connection with the Exodus, such as the korban Pesach [the Paschal lamb], in regard to the actual process of departure, there would seem to have been no actual Divine command. (Regarding the issue of the gold, please see Rashi, Shemot 11:2.)
3 See Rashi, Shemot 5:4; Ramban, Shemot 1:10; and Nechama Leibowitz, Studies in Shemot, Shemot 1, From Serfdom to Redemption.
4 See Sefer HaChinuch, Mitzvah 42.
5 See, then, how the Meshech Chochma connects his explanation with the Yerushalmi.
6 See, further, Nechama Leibowitz, Studies in Shemot, Va’era 3, The “Commandment Given to Moses.
7 Reference is made to Mishlei 17:5.