A Three Day Journey/2/en

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A Three Day Journey?

Exegetical Approaches


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?

No Deception

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.

Purpose of the initial three day request – These commentators explain that this request was intended only to demonstrate how hard-hearted and inflexible Paroh was, that he would not consider even a temporary leave.1
Moshe's subsequent conversations with Paroh – According to this approach, Moshe requested permanent freedom for the people even before the Plagues and throughout the process.2 However, this position does not explain why in the middle of the Plagues (8:23) Moshe again mentions a leave of only three days.
Deception not permitted – R. Lipmann-Muhlhausen is reluctant to attribute deception or a lie to Hashem or Moshe. Regarding borrowing vessels, he writes (#49): "בזה טעו רבי' לפרשו דרך שאלה והלוואה... וח"ו שהש"י צוה לעשות זאת. ותמה על עצמך הא כתיב מדבר שקר תרחק". R. Mecklenburg is similarly reluctant, and this is consistent with his general tendencies in defending the Patriarchs.3
"שַׁלַּח אֶת עַמִּי" – HaKetav VeHaKabbalah asserts that the intensive פִּעֵל form of the verb שלח means to send away permanently, and stands in contrast to the simple פָּעַל form which means simply to send.4 For more, see שלח‎.5
"וְיַעַבְדֻנִי" – According to R. Lipmann-Muhlhausen and R. Mecklenburg, this refers to becoming servants of Hashem, and not just a one-time act of religious sacrifice.6
Understanding the negotiations – This opinion does not account for the protracted negotiations between Moshe and Paroh as to whether women, children, and livestock would be able to accompany the men.7 In fact, HaKetav VeHaKabbalah (Shemot 10:11) appears to say that Paroh was petitioned merely for a temporary journey, and it was only his suspicion that Moshe's real intention was to leave permanently.
Permanent freedom granted at the Exodus – When Paroh finally agreed to release the Israelites, it was with the full knowledge that they were leaving for good. R. Mecklenburg reads "וּבֵרַכְתֶּם גַּם אֹתִי" in Shemot 12:32 to mean that Paroh will be blessed by their permanent departure as he will no longer need to endure further plagues.8
Despoiling Egypt – As the Egyptians knew that the Israelites were leaving permanently, both of these commentators understand that the gold and silver vessels were given as outright gifts, not loans.9 See Reparations and Despoiling Egypt.
Why did Paroh give chase? "כִּי בָרַח הָעָם" poses a difficulty particularly for the position that Paroh had given the Israelites their unconditional release.10 HaKetav VeHaKabbalah thus attempts to reinterpret "בָרַח" as if it were a passive (נפעל) form related to בריח, and thereby explains that Paroh thought the Israelites were locked in by the desert (as in "סָגַר עֲלֵיהֶם הַמִּדְבָּר"‎).11
Choice of the Wilderness Route – According to this approach, the choice of the longer route was likely out of concern that the Israelites were unprepared to conquer Canaan, and had nothing to do with the Egyptians ultimately giving chase.  For further discussion, see The Roundabout Route.

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.

Purpose of the initial three day request – The Netziv explains that had the Egyptians known that the Israelites were leaving for good, they would not have loaned them their gold and silver vessels.13 He adds that the Egyptians' desire to retrieve their loaned objects, in turn, led them to chase after the Israelites and drown in Yam Suf.14
Moshe's subsequent conversations with Paroh – The Netziv maintains that throughout the Plagues, the negotiations dealt with the plans for a temporary religious excursion (as is explicit in 8:23 and indicated by many other verses). Only after the Plague of Darkness during which the unworthy part of the Hebrew population perished, did the rest of the Children of Israel become worthy of complete freedom, and at this point Moshe demanded their permanent release.15
Permanent freedom granted at the Exodus – According to the Netziv, after the Plague of the Firstborn, Paroh banished the Israelites permanently, as per Hashem's prediction "כְּשַׁלְּחוֹ כָּלָה גָּרֵשׁ יְגָרֵשׁ אֶתְכֶם מִזֶּה" (Shemot 11:1).16
Why did Paroh give chase? The Netziv posits that Paroh regretted his decision to permanently free the Israelites ("וַיֵּהָפֵךְ לְבַב פַּרְעֹה וַעֲבָדָיו"), and that the Egyptian masses were never even aware that the Israelites had been granted permanent freedom.17 Thus, when he received reports that the Israelites were lost and cowering ("כִּי בָרַח הָעָם") in the wilderness, he decided to change course.18
Despoiling Egypt – The Netziv maintains that although the objects were given as loans, they later became spoils of war and legitimately became the property of the Israelites. See Reparations and Despoiling Egypt.
Choice of the Wilderness Route – Since, according to the Netziv, Paroh expelled the nation for good, he asserts that the longer route was chosen only for its potential to instill faith, and was unconnected to a fear of Paroh chasing.  For more, see The Roundabout Route.

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.

Purpose of the initial three day request – R. Bachya suggests that the point was for the Children of Israel to gradually become accustomed to Hashem's commandments.
What if Paroh had consented initially or not chased? R. Bachya's comments appear to suggest that there would have been multiple stages of the Exodus, and taking permanent leave of the Egyptians would have come only at a later stage.
Moshe's subsequent conversations with Paroh – According to this approach, the entire dialogue discussed only a temporary journey.
Deception not permitted – These commentators stress the importance of Moshe and the Israelites not being guilty of lying (or theft).
Temporary leave granted at the Exodus – Paroh permitted the Israelites merely to go to sacrifice.
Despoiling Egypt – According to R. Yosef Bekhor Shor, the borrowed vessels would have been returned had the Egyptians not drowned and forfeited their claims. On the other hand, R. Bachya says that the objects were given in lieu of centuries of unpaid wages and with no expectation of their being returned. See Reparations and Despoiling Egypt.
If the Israelites were keeping their word, why did Paroh give chase?
  • 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.
Choice of the Wilderness Route – According to R"Y Bekhor Shor, the Wilderness Route was selected in order to ensure a confrontation in which the Egyptians would drown in the Sea and thus sever the Israelites' remaining bonds of servitude.  See The Roundabout Route for elaboration.

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

Purpose of the deceptive three day request – There are a number of different possibilities:
  • 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
Is deception permitted?36
  • 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.
How could such a secret be kept from the entire Egyptian nation? Ibn Ezra praises the righteousness of the Israelites for not revealing the secret ("וצדיקים גמורים היו ישראל שלא גלו הסוד")‎.45 Alternatively, the Egyptians were informed of the plans to leave permanently and this accounts for Paroh's suspicions and insistence on guaranteeing their return.46
Moshe's subsequent conversations with Paroh – According to this approach, the entire dialogue discussed only a temporary journey.
Temporary leave granted at the Exodus – Ibn Ezra explains that Paroh gave the Israelites only temporary leave to sacrifice ("וגרשו אותם המצרים ללכת לזבוח", ‎"כדבריכם, שתלכו דרך שלשת ימים")‎.47 Thus Paroh needed to specify "גַּם צֹאנְכֶם גַּם בְּקַרְכֶם קְחוּ", while had the Israelites been leaving permanently this would have been obvious.
Despoiling Egypt – These commentators diverge on this issue. Most explain that the items were given as loans with the expectation that they would be returned, but that the Israelites were entitled to keep them as compensation for the slavery. However, Rashbam maintains that the items were given as gifts to sponsor the religious worship, perhaps to gain Divine favor. See Reparations and Despoiling Egypt.
Why did Paroh give chase? According to this approach, "וַיֵּהָפֵךְ לְבַב פַּרְעֹה" means that Paroh regretted granting permission for a three day holiday and falling for the Israelite ruse. There is a difference of opinion, though, on how he knew that he had been deceived and that the Israelites had fled ("כִּי בָרַח הָעָם"). This disagreement centers on the meaning of the phrase "דֶּרֶךְ שְׁלֹשֶׁת יָמִים":
  • 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.
Choice of the Wilderness Route – Abarbanel suggests that one of the motivations for taking the Wilderness Route was so that they would not be viewed as liars.52  Had they headed towards the Philistine Route, it would have been clear that they were not planning on keeping their word.  For more, see The Roundabout Route.

Even the Israelites Themselves Did not Know

Purpose of the deceptive three day request – Ramban explains that the Children of Israel were not yet prepared to leave Egypt permanently and would not have agreed to enter and conquer the Land of Israel.53
Moshe's subsequent conversations with Paroh – According to this approach, the entire dialogue discussed only a temporary journey.
When did the Israelites find out that they were going forever? While Moshe is instructed in Shemot 3:16-17 to inform the Elders of Israel about the long range plans, it is unclear if the masses were ever privy to this information.54 Even if they were aware of the long term plan, it is difficult to determine when they thought it would be implemented and if even during the actual Exodus they knew they were leaving permanently.55
Deception not permitted – Ramban does not address this issue.
Despoiling Egypt – Ramban does not address this issue.
Temporary leave granted at the Exodus – Paroh gave the Israelites only permission to go to worship.
Why did Paroh give chase? According to Ramban, Paroh's spies reported that the Israelites were not sacrificing but were rather parading as if they had achieved full freedom.