Bo – Truth and Lies?

There is a striking disparity between God’s stated goal and Moshe’s demand to Pharaoh. Already at the burning bush, God declared his intention to bring the Jewish people to the Land of Israel. And yet, Moshe only asks Pharaoh for permission for a three day religious festival in the desert, with an implied return to slavery upon its conclusion (Exodus 8:23). Indeed, this request was not made at Moshe’s own discretion, but at God’s command (Exodus 7:13)!

At first glance, this may be some kind of ruse, a simple ploy. Get permission for the Jews to leave Egypt proper, even if for only three days, and then make a run for it. In fact, Pharaoh seems to be wise to this possibility, only wishing to permit the adults to leave, and then only the people, but at least for the cattle to remain behind. While making a misleading statement or an outright lie would normally be considered unseemly, it becomes completely appropriate in the fight against barbarity. Here, the end justifies the means.

Another explanation considers the festival request as actually being sincere. The Avrahamic prophecy of servitude in Egypt envisioned a 400 year enslavement. However, at this point only 210 years had elapsed. Some explain this discrepancy by asserting that the count curiously began with the birth of Avraham’s son Yitzhak. Alternatively, maybe the Exodus actually occurred ahead of schedule. The midrash describes the religious decline of the Jews in Egypt, to the extent that only a fraction merited to participate in the redemption. Without some kind of intervention perhaps all would have been lost to Egypt’s pagan ways. The desert festival may have been an attempted solution. The potential religious revival of that experience could have reawakened Jewish identification enough to preserve the people until the 400 years concluded. However, Pharaoh’s obstinance left God with no choice but to speed up the timeline and redeem the people immediately.

Perhaps, though, the goal of the request was to bring about Egypt’s downfall. God tells Moshe that he will harden Pharaoh’s heart, letting all know Who is truly in control. God wants to bring the plagues, bringing a new one each time Pharaoh refuses. So Moshe begins with the limited request of three days, to which Pharoah refuses. When he finally does acquiesce, Moshe makes an additional stipulation, prompting Pharaoh’s consternation and refusal, and hence another plague. Indeed, this ratcheting up occurs over and over again, until all know without a doubt that God, and not Pharoah, is the King of the universe.

The Jewish attitude towards deceit is complex. On the one hand, the Torah states that one should distance oneself from falsehood (Exodus 23:7), while the Talmud adds that one may lie for the sake of peace (Yevamot 65b). As it does in so many areas, Judaism does not deal in absolutes, but in nuanced and delicate treatments of moral conundrums. Instead of making blanket statements, the Torah demonstrates the complexities of the question through the activity of our religious role models. Judaism demands of us to not take the simple or superficial road of life, but the one lined with variation and sophistication. On the surface it may at times look contradictory, but at its core it is the way of pleasantness and truth (Proverbs 3:17).

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