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Who do you think gave Moshe more trouble in his efforts to extract the Israelites from Egypt – Pharaoh or the Israelites themselves? Our instinct is to say Pharaoh, but that’s not the picture we get in today’s parsha. It’s totally possible that the Israelites were as much an obstacle to overcome as Pharaoh.
From Pharaoh’s view, Moshe is trying to incite the slaves and upset the efficient conduct of the country’s activities. Without slaves, who will do the building and all the dirty work needed to keep a country running?
Of course, Moshe made the affront more personal by insisting it was the God of the Israelites who demanded a break for His people. But Pharaoh was the local deity. This, by the way, may explain Pharaoh’s twists and turns in accepting and then rejecting the conditions laid down by this foreign God through Moshe. On the rational, political level, Pharaoh probably could have acquiesced to a few days off for the slaves (given proper measures to prevent long-term fallout) but on the personal, emotional level, how could he give another God sovereignty over him, Pharaoh the god?
Moshe’s problems with the Israelites were no less complicated. The fact is, the people’s first reaction had been better than expected. Belying Moshe’s fear, as expressed to God at the burning bush, the people actually believed God had spoken to him and had promised to redeem them from slavery.
But Pharaoh was a masterful manipulator who knew how to make one group hate another. By increasing the workload and blaming it on the people’s demand for time off, he basically turned Moshe and Aharon into the villains. By disgracing God’s emissaries, Pharaoh was able to make the people accept once and for all that Pharaoh owned them, and that he and only he could make their lives hell (as he was doing).
Pharaoh was banking on people’s tendency to prefer the devil they know. The Israelites knew Pharaoh. They knew that if you just let him do his thing, he would work them hard but not kill them. Then Moshe and Aharon interfered, all hell broke loose and they were in danger of being beaten to death.
So Moshe had to overcome two negative factors among the Israelites. One was their lost belief in imminent redemption by God. The other was the strong belief that a Pharaoh left alone was better for them.
This must have had an interesting effect on the meetings between Moshe and Pharaoh, who undoubtedly knew the Israelites’ state of mind. We don’t read it in the Torah’s descriptions of the meetings, but it must have been there, an off the record subtext.
I can imagine Pharaoh telling Moshe, “Why are you nagging me? Why don’t you persuade your own people first? I bet you I could allow them to go – and they won’t go because they don’t trust you and your so-called god and they know what’ll happen when they come back.”
Actually, Moshe’s plan was to convince the people that their God could be trusted. SHOULD be trusted. Looking at it logically, why wasn’t the last plague – the killing of the firstborns – the first one? Kill off all the firstborns, Pharaoh will throw the whole kit and caboodle out of Egypt, and there’s no need for all the pyrotechnics of the other nine plagues!
A number of commentators pick up on this and note that the purpose of the plagues was two-fold. They were intended to weaken Pharaoh’s will but just as importantly, they meant to gradually but totally undermine the strength of the local deities and powers, including Pharaoh, among the Israelites.
The Nile is a god? Turn it red. Fill it with frogs. The animals are gods? Afflict them with pestilence and boils. The sun is a god? Blacken it for three days. All the elements that share deification are helpless when the God of the Israelites goes to war with them. So perhaps you, dear Israelites, should reconsider which side you want to be on.
Moshe, at God’s instructions, adds another embarrassment to Pharaoh. Every three plagues we read that Moshe goes to meet Pharaoh at the water, where he relieving himself of body wastes. This is something the Egyptians do not see. Because Pharaoh doesn’t want them to see. A god, having to defecate like any other human? Unthinkable. But there’s Moshe. A guy can’t even relieve himself in peace when he’s around!
In today’s parsha we don’t read how the Israelites react to all this humiliation of Pharaoh and Egypt. We have to assume that after the first two or three plagues, when no repercussions were felt for the whupping Pharaoh receives, their hopes begin to grow, albeit slowly and cautiously.
So Moshe, with God’s help of course, uses the same tactic to overcome both Pharaoh and his own people’s misgivings and hesitations. In doing so, he and God demonstrate again that things change, powers wax and wane. Those in power, and people in general, should remember that no empire, no dictatorship, no regime ever lasts forever. The ball is round, what’s up may soon be down. A little humility and perspective, for self-preservation, are in order. Pharaoh learned that the hard way.