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As the intensity of the afflictions increases over the course of the plagues, Pharaoh offers three compromise positions to Moshe and the Israelites: worship your God in Egypt, depart Egypt temporarily with some of the people while others remain, depart Egypt temporarily with the entire nation but leave your cattle behind.
Moshe emphatically rejects each compromise in turn.
The second of these potential compromises appears towards the beginning of Parshat Bo, in the following puzzling 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!”
How can Pharaoh ask, after all that has taken place, “Who are they that shall go?” Hasn’t God made it abundantly clear that He demands the release of the entire people?
Why, in addition, does Moshe answer Pharaoh in such confrontational fashion? He could simply have said, We all must 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 initially 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.
Pharaoh is, in reality, being neither deliberately obtuse nor intentionally confrontational when he raises the question “Who are they that shall go?” His response to Moshe is, in fact, abundantly reasonable in light of Moshe’s original request of the king.
As we have already noted, God did not instruct Moshe to demand complete freedom for the Israelites. 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 God.” (See Shmot 4.)
In response to that request Pharaoh now argues: All right, I give in! You have my permission to take a three-day holiday for the purpose of worshipping your Lord. Let us, however, speak honestly. Moshe, you and I both know that religious worship in any community remains the responsibility and the right of a select few. Priests, elders, sorcerers – they are the ones 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 the performance of this desert ritual? Let me know, provide me with the list and they will have my permission to leave.
Moshe’s emphatic response is now understandable, as well: You still don’t get it, Pharaoh. There is a new world a-borning and we will no longer be bound by the old rules. No longer will religious worship remain the purview of a few chosen elect. A nation is coming into existence that will teach the world that religious participation is open to all.
“With our young and with our old we will go, with our sons and with our daughters….” No one and nothing is to be left behind; our “festival of the Lord” will only be complete if all are present and involved.
Moshe’s ringing proclamation reminds us that the Exodus narrative chronicles not only a people’s bid for freedom, but the beginning of a new chapter in the relationship between God and man. Step by step, a nation is forged that will be based upon personal observance, study and spiritual quest – a nation that will teach the world of every human being’s right and responsibility to actively relate to his Creator.
With the Exodus and the subsequent Revelation at Sinai, the rules will change forever. The birth of Judaism will open religious worship and practice to all.