Bo: Mission Accomplished

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Art Gallery
29 Jan 2009

Chaim was on a tour of Paris’ Louvre. On the tour was an elderly American woman, whose appreciation for art must have begun and ended with her grandchildren’s works which hung proudly on her refrigerator. As the guide passed the Mona Lisa, the oohs and ahs of the crowd were drowned out by the cynicism of the woman.

“Is she smiling or not smiling? Can’t DiVinci make up his mind?” she kvetched. The Rembrandts and Rubens did not forego her criticisms either.

When the guide began to explain the distinction in painting style, the differences of oils and brushstrokes and a host of other amazing facts and analysis, the woman let out a sigh of impatience. “I really don’t see what is so wonderful about these pictures! My gr…” The guide cut her short. In perfect English with a French accent, he began.

“My dear madam, when you go to the Louvre you must realize the paintings are no longer on trial. They have already been scrutinized and analyzed by those who have spent their entire lives studying art. Every stroke of the brush has been praised and critiqued. What hangs here are the standard bearers for every generation of artists to come.

“No my dear,” he continued, “at the Louvre, the paintings are not on trial. It is you who are on trial. The paintings have passed the test. It is you who have failed.”

In the big picture of geulat mitzrayim (Egyptian redemption), the aesthetically challenged run the risk of failing to notice the brilliant strokes, hidden textures and subtle hues that emanate from the Divine Artist. As a card carrying member of that group, one who cannot really figure out the Mona Lisa’s gadlut (other than following the smile), I find solace and hope by engaging the services of our resident artists, our classical commentators who help us uncover the Torah’s richness.

Consider the fascinating subplot of the Moshe – Pharaoh relationship. In its most basic format, it is surely adversarial. And yet it is far more complex. The careful reader savors the subtle power shift that sees paranoid, megalomaniac Pharaoh commence with mocking Moshe (your Jews have too much time on their hands and who is God?), and conclude with groveling and desperation, demanding mercy on his black night of death. In a fitting conclusion served with a supreme ironic twist, Moshe ultimately does not ask for freedom; Pharaoh compels it (1).

[Pharaoh] called for Moshe and Aharon that night and said, “Set out and Get out from among my people, both you and the B’nei Yisrael. Go worship Hashem as you have requested.

In between, one sees Pharaoh slowly yielding ground moving from absolute refusal, to you may go without the children, to take the kids and leave behind some of the cattle, to ultimate and total capitulation (2).

One would expect a lack of etiquette to characterize the Moshe-Pharaoh dialogue and yet civility and respect permeate their conversations. Time and time again (3), our Rabbis indicate that Moshe is bound to treat Pharaoh, the most powerful leader in the world, with respect. On the verse (4)

Hashem [then] spoke to Moshe and Aharon, commanding them regarding [the B’nei Yisrael and] Pharaoh, king of Egypt, …

Rashi teaches:

He commanded them regarding him (Pharaoh) to treat him with respect when speaking [to him]

Over a course of over seven conversations, harsh but respectful words are exchanged. After the locust warning however, one detects a mood shift; Moshe refuses Pharaoh’s offer to let Bnei Yisrael serve God in the desert sans children and is driven out of the palace.

Two plagues later – post darkness, Pharaoh abruptly ends the dialogue (5) :

Pharaoh said to him [Moshe] “Leave my presence. Beware! Do not see my face again; for on the day you see my face you will die.”

Moshe responds in agreement,

As you say. I will not see your face again.

leaving us to ponder:

  1. Why did Pharaoh break it off specifically now?
  2. How could Pharaoh speak with such certitude?
  3. Why does Moshe respond with agreement – perhaps Hashem wants him to see Pharaoh again?

As Moshe walk out for the last time, warning Pharaoh of the impending makat bechorot (plague of the firstborn), the Torah records (6):

He [Moshe] then left Pharaoh in great anger.

For the first time, we encounter Moshe’s anger, which seems so inexplicable in light of his success. Rashi (7) explains:

Because he (Pharaoh) had said to him, “Do not see my face again!” (v. 28).

Netziv and Rav Schwab both question Rashi, for if Moshe is angry from Pharaoh’s earlier slight, how did Moshe receive the prophetic interlude [informing of makkot bechorot]? Prophecy, we know, must come from a place of joy. It also seems somewhat parochial that a personal slight should bother Moshe Rabbeinu?!

Rav Schwab teaches: Moshe’s agenda is surely to liberate the Jews and bring them to Torah. It is also to teach the entire civilization about God’s guidance, interest and interaction with His world. The plagues served as the seminar and his students were the Egyptians. In a remarkable verse, after introducing makkot bechorot (and the wealth imperative) the Torah states:

Moshe too was very great in the land of Egypt, in the eyes of Pharaoh’s servants and in the eyes of the nation.

Which nation – Jews or Egyptians? Ramban (in one approach) teaches that it refers to Egyptians; the verse therefore indicates, that even after all those plagues, the Egyptians not only harbored no enmity against Moshe, but loved him – for they understood Moshe, his Torah and God were true. Moshe’s agenda was being met.

And yet Moshe understood that Pharaoh was the key, for in Pharaoh’s admission lies world impact. If only the monarch would openly declare the oneness and truth of Hashem. He thus treats Pharaoh with respect, for as long as Pharaoh is willing to dialogue, there is a chance. Over the course of several conversations, Moshe makes headway. Suddenly, Pharaoh breaks off the dialogue (for reasons beyond our scope), effectively shutting the door on Moshe’s mission. Once Moshe realizes it is over, [Ohr Hachaim and Ibn Ezra teach that] Moshe assents to Pharaoh’s chutzpadik statement that they shall never meet again – for it is time to move on and out.

One more item remains: Moshe’s anger. Neither personal wrath, nor self righteous ire moves Moshe. His fury is directed at Pharaoh who by throwing Moshe out (8), conclusively fails to respond to Hashem’s manifest presence – thus perpetrating massive chillul Hashem (defamation of God) in the world. Moshe responds in great anger, as monarchical respect yields to Divine imperative. Moshe models for us a lesson well worth internalizing that when God’s name is defamed, we must feel sadness and anger. A stunning Talmudic comment teaches just how:

Irony of ironies: After their final dialogue, in the heat of that aforementioned night, when Pharaoh comes running to Moshe and Aharon forcing them to leave, he slips in a most incredulous request (9):

Take your sheep and cattle too, as you have said and go; bless me too.

Pharaoh demands a bracha from his Rebbe Moshe, a bracha for prosperity. The dialogue may have ended, but Moshe’s mission is accomplished. Even Pharaoh gets it (10), (for at least a short while) – a prophetic harbinger of the Messianic era (11) when the earth shall be full of the knowledge of the Lord, as the waters cover the sea… a banner of the people; to it shall the nations seek;

May it happen speedily in our days.

Good Shabbos, Asher Brander


1. Shemos, 12:31 – Cf. S’forno who makes this point with several other examples as well.
2. Cf. Rashi ibid, s.v. U’lechu
3. Cf Rashi 5:13 and 11:8
4. Shemos, 6:13, Rashi ibid
5. Shemos, 10:28-29
6. Shemos, 11:8
7. Cf Rashi who explains that Moshe was angry that Pharaoh cut him off
8. Rashi’s words, in light of R. Schwab’s explanation, show that Moshe’s anger is evoked by the Chillul Hashem, not the personal slight.
9. Shemos, 12:32 – cf. Ramban
10. Bringing to mind the midrash that states that Pharaoh resurfaces as the King of Nineveh and responds to Yonah’s short speech by effecting a massive Teshuva movement
11. Yeshayahu 11:9-10

Rabbi Asher Brander is the Rabbi of the Westwood Kehilla, Founder/Dean of LINK (Los Angeles Intercommunity Kollel) and is a Rebbe at Yeshiva University High Schools of Los Angeles

The words of this author reflect his/her own opinions and do not necessarily represent the official position of the Orthodox Union.