Shemos – National Suicide

This week’s Torah portion of Shemos begins the second of the five books of the Torah. The Jews are enslaved in Egypt, and Hashem appoints Moshe as the fearless leader to redeem the Jewish people from Egyptian exile. Aharon, Moshe’s older brother, accompanies Moshe to speak to Pharaoh for the first time: “And afterwards Moshe and Aharon come and they say to Pharaoh, ‘This is what Hashem, Elokay Yisrael says, send out My nation so that they will make a holiday for Me in the desert. Pharaoh said, ‘Who is Hashem that I should listen to His voice to send out the Jews, I do not know Hashem and the Jews I will not send out.’ They said, Elokay HaIvrim called out to us that we should please go on a three day journey in the desert and give offerings to Hashem Elokeinu lest we will be smitten by disease or by the sword’” (Shemos 5:1-3).
The shortened version of the Ibn Ezra on this parsha mentions that the holiday they were to celebrate was either Pesach or the giving of the Torah. The longer version of the Ibn Ezra elaborates that after Aharon showed the signs [of the redemption to the Jewish people], both Moshe and Aharon came to Pharaoh and said: ‘This is what Hashem said,’ but Pharaoh never heard of that name of G-D before. They therefore added Elokay Yisrael but not Elokay Yaakov, to include the entire Jewish people. Pharaoh then asked who is this Hashem who is also Elokim (obviously not understanding who Moshe and Aharon were referring to). They answered that this Hashem is Elokay HaIvrim, which the Egyptians did know about, for Avraham was called an Ivri as well as Yitzhak his son, and Yaakov and his sons. They also explained why the Jewish people needed to  leave to celebrate a holiday, which was in order not to have a disease or the sword upon them (both the Jews and Egyptians). Later, when Pharaoh saw the wild beasts come and consume many Egyptians, he told them to go and give offerings to your G-D in our land. But Moshe replied that it would not be right to do that in this land; rather, they must travel three days in the desert, which was the distance to Har Sinai. Again, when the plague of locust struck, Pharaoh gave permission for some of the Jewish people to leave and offer their offerings. A third time, by the plague of darkness, he agreed to let everyone leave, on condition that their sheep would not go with them. Only when death struck the firstborns did Moshe’s words of “lest we will be smitten by disease” became clear to them. If they did not accede to Moshe’s demands, then they would all die (See later on 12:33). So the Egyptians banished them out of their land, to make their sacrifices, even lending them goods on their way out. (Click here, here, and here for Hebrew text.)
The Ibn Ezra is clearly indicating that Pharaoh and the Egyptians knew who Hashem was. He was the G-D of Yosef and the Jewish people, who accurately predicted and sent forth the seven years of famine and of plenty. Still in all Pharaoh was unfazed by Moshe and Aharon’s request.  When the plagues began striking the Egyptians, and when wild beasts started eating up many Egyptians, Pharaoh began to stir, but still he played games, and refused to completely agree to their wishes. The plagues continued, locust came, and then darkness, and Pharaoh was still playing games. He did not take Moshe and Aharon seriously even though the warning was clear that disease or the sword could come at any moment, affecting not only the Jews but the entire Egyptians people, Pharaoh included. Hashem, out of His benevolence and mercy sent many signs of the forth coming doom, but Pharaoh and the Egyptians refused to fully acquiesce, and refused to accept that Hashem really meant business, until a disease wiped out all the firstborn.  If Pharaoh and the Egyptians knew of Hashem and His abilities and saw them first hand, why did they not give in to His demands sooner? Were they in denial? And if they were, how could they remain in denial to the brink of national suicide?

It would seem that it is tremendously hard to give in to a request if it goes against everything you stand for or agree with. Whether for ideological reason, out of habit, or just because of the comfort state that one lives in, it is hard to make big changes or allow something to be done which you are in disagreement with. This extends even to the point where one knows who the petitioner is, the abilities He has and is starting to send warning signs of the impending doom but still they will not change until the brink of national suicide.

However the Ibn Ezra takes this one step further. He said: “But when they saw disease come and strike the firstborn then Moshe’s words of ‘lest we will be smitten by disease’ was clear to them and they said we will all die.” Meaning, their refusal to change was not simply denial; it reached the point where they were able to lose sight  of the clear and present danger they were actually in, even though they knew  and saw what they were potentially up against. And this continued until the danger was staring them straight in their face and it was almost too late. That is how far one’s stubbornness to not change can blind a person, and even a nation!