A Three Day Journey/2/en
Commentators disagree regarding whether any deception was involved in the request for merely a three day journey. Some suggest that Moshe did not mislead Paroh. According to HaKetav VeHaKabbalah, upon Paroh's denial of the original request, Moshe demanded complete freedom, and thus Paroh was fully cognizant from a very early stage that he was being asked to emancipate the nation. In contrast, the Netziv proposes that the change in plans occurred only after the unworthy among the Hebrews perished in the Plague of Darkness, as it was only then that the rest of the nation merited complete redemption. Finally, R"Y Bekhor Shor suggests that had the Egyptians not drowned in Yam Suf, the Israelites would have in fact returned to Egypt as promised, and apparently the Exodus would have occurred in stages.
Most exegetes, though, think that the request was indeed a ruse, and a necessary one. They argue that had Moshe requested permanent freedom (an outrageous request by the moral standards of that era), Paroh would not have granted the Israelites even temporary leave, the Egyptians would not have loaned their valuables, and the process which ended with the Egyptians drowning at Yam Suf would not have been triggered. Additionally, the full extent of Paroh's intransigence would not have been displayed, and Moshe himself might have even been beheaded. Ramban also agrees that there was intent to deceive, but he proposes that the primary target of the deception was the Children of Israel themselves, who were not yet mentally prepared to leave Egypt permanently to go and conquer Canaan.
The differing positions are influenced by their views on a number of related issues. Under what circumstances or for what purposes is deception and/or lying permitted? How inflexible was Paroh? What is the meaning of "דֶּרֶךְ שְׁלֹשֶׁת יָמִים"? What was Paroh thinking when he finally let the nation go, and why did he give chase so soon after?
Some commentators explain that Hashem did not mislead Paroh, and that although Moshe's original request was for only a three day journey, changing circumstances caused the ultimate departure to be a permanent one. The variations of this possibility differ regarding the cause and timing of this change:
Upfront from the Start
Only the initial request was for a three day holiday, and after Paroh rejected it, Moshe upped the ante and demanded permanent freedom for the Israelites. There was thus no deception because Paroh knew of the plans all along.
Switch Prior to the Exodus
The original request and subsequent negotiations related only to a three day journey. However, the situation changed after the Plague of Darkness, and when Paroh ultimately granted permission, it was to leave forever.
Always Planned to Return
Even after the Exodus, the Israelites were still planning on returning to Egypt after their three day journey, as Moshe had promised Paroh.19 Once Paroh and the Egyptians drowned at Yam Suf, though, there was no longer any reason to return.
- R"Y Bekhor Shor Shemot 5:4 interprets "דֶּרֶךְ שְׁלֹשֶׁת יָמִים" as three travel days, and thus he says that the Israelites about-faced immediately after the three days.21 According to him, despite the Israelites turning back toward Egypt, talebearers told Paroh that the Israelites intended to flee.22
- Alternatively, though, "דֶּרֶךְ שְׁלֹשֶׁת יָמִים" means a distance covered by an average person in three days.23 According to this, the Israelites might have still been at the beginning of their allotted journey time24 when Paroh was goaded into chasing after them.
No Choice but to Deceive
This approach understands the three day proposal as a necessary ruse to facilitate the Exodus. Commentators diverge regarding the intended audience of the deception and as to why this ploy was essential:
Egyptians Were Misled
- Had Paroh known that the Israelites intended to leave permanently, he would not have let them go even temporarily – Rashbam identifies this as Moshe's concern,26 and Ralbag says that this was Hashem's reason for the deception.
- Had Paroh and the Egyptians known from the beginning that the Israelites were leaving permanently, they would not have chased after them and drowned in Yam Suf27 – Shemot Rabbah, Lekach Tov, Ibn Ezra, Ran.
- Hashem could have orchestrated the drowning of the Egyptians in Yam Suf in some other way, but He deceived them in this fashion in order to punish them "measure-for-measure". Just as the Egyptians had "bait-and-switched" the Israelites by inviting them into the country as temporary guests and then enslaving them permanently, they themselves were deceived when a temporary vacation became a permanent exodus – Oznayim LaTorah.
- The Egyptians would not have loaned their belongings to the Israelites had they known that they would not be returning – Ibn Ezra.28 Ibn Ezra assumes that the objects were a loan – see Reparations and Despoiling Egypt for a full discussion.
- Paroh's refusal of the three day request demonstrated his intransigence more so than if he had been asked to free the Israelites permanently29 – an opinion cited by the Ran,30 Akeidat Yitzchak, Abarbanel.31 While slavery itself was the norm during this time period in Egypt and the rest of the world,32 records exist of other Egyptian slaves being granted furloughs for religious worship.33
- Moshe would not have dared to request that Paroh completely free the Israelites,34 and such a bold request might even have caused Paroh to kill Moshe and act even harsher toward the Israelites – Shadal.35
- Rashbam and Shadal maintain that it is permissible to be deceptive in such cases.37 Rashbam notes the parallel use of sacrificial worship as a cover story also in the case of Shemuel, and Shadal alludes to the verse "וְעִם עִקֵּשׁ תִּתְפַּתָּל" also in his justification of despoiling Egypt.38 The Ran also, while highlighting the potential moral issues involved and noting that these caused both the Israelites39 and Paroh himself40 to doubt whether Moshe was acting as God's messenger,41 nevertheless explains that Hashem uses such means in administering punishment to the wicked.42
- Ibn Ezra is more circumspect in his justification of the action, saying "וחלילה שהנביא דבר כזב".43 He is thus forced to resort to arguing that technically Moshe did not lie because he never explicitly said they would return, and that the nation did in fact sacrifice at Mt. Sinai.44 Even according to Ibn Ezra, though, Moshe's request was misleading.
- Three travel days – Mekhilta DeRabbi Yishmael, Shemot Rabbah, and Rashi.48 According to them, Paroh's spies reported back to him that the Israelites did not head back to Egypt on the fourth day, and thus Paroh knew that he had been duped.
- A distance which takes an average person three days to cover – This is apparently the approach adopted by the Lekach Tov and Ibn Ezra who note that this is the distance to Mt. Sinai.49 According to them, Moshe did not lie,50 and the nation was, in fact, on its way to Mt. Sinai as promised.51 Thus, Ibn Ezra explains that it was the Israelites' U-turn at Pi-HaChirot which led Paroh to conclude that their intention was not to go to sacrifice.