By Rabbi Avi Billet
Issue of Jan. 30, 2009 / 5 Shevat 5769
The Torah is an amazing book. You can read and reread over and over, and each time you find something new: a nuance, a tidbit, something to mull over, something to talk about with friends.
My major in college was “speech and drama” and that side of me always wonders what is the best way to read a spoken statement. In the aftermath of the plague of darkness, after Moshe insists that even the animals are coming along, Paroh hardens his heart. We have the following dialogue between Moshe and Paroh who says, “Leave me. Watch yourself. Do not see my face again, for on the day you see my face you will die.” Moshe says, “So you have spoken. I shall no longer see your face” (10:28-29).
The commentaries understand Paroh as saying “You may no longer seek me out to talk to me,” and Moshe saying, “I won’t come to you, but you may yet come to me.”
What tone did each one have when speaking? Cool, calm, and collected? Angry? Impatient? Snarling? Pleasant? Gentle? Authoritative? Warning? Peaceful?
The possibilities are endless, and they can change with each word. This is what makes drama and dramatic interpretation so exciting. (Have you ever heard of a successful show closing up after the original star left, because the replacement could not find the magic? This is because each actor interprets the piece and plays the role differently. What was magical for one may be an utter disaster for another.)
Many commentaries suggest that Moshe did not leave right away because G-d appeared to him before his departure and told him the prophesy he received in chapter 11, which he proceeded to share with Paroh starting in verse 4.
“And Moshe said, ‘The Lord said ‘Around midnight I will go out into Egypt and the first-borns of Egypt will die, from Paroh’s, who sits on his throne, until the first-born of the maid, as well as all first-born animals. There will be a great cry in Egypt, such as there never was and never will be again. As for the children of Israel, not even a dog will bark, nor will men or animals [make a sound],’ so you will know how G-d will make His wonders in distinguishing between the Egyptians and the Israelites. And all your servants will come down to me, and they’ll bow to me saying ‘Go! You and all the nation at your feet’ after which I will go!’ And he exited from Paroh with great anger.”
It is unclear when the quote from G-d ends, and when Moshe continues talking on his own. But he certainly finishes his speech talking about how the Egyptians will bow to him begging him to leave.
Why is Moshe angry? Is it because of what the Egyptians say? Is it because of how they will come to him? Is it because of what they are reduced to? Is it because of Paroh’s stubbornness?
What triggers his anger? Does Moshe express the anger in his words? Or does he feel the anger only after he finishes speaking?
I like to think that Moshe was angry with Paroh, and only with Paroh, at this stage in the plagues. The Egyptians had already indicated their readiness to let the slaves leave (9:11, 9:30, 10:7), and it was only Paroh who kept hardening his heart (9:7, 12, 35, 10:20, 27).
While G-d had promised that it would be a difficult time, and Paroh would be a difficult man, Moshe never considered the destruction that would be wrought upon the Egyptians. He wanted to take the Israelites out, and he wanted the Egyptians to be punished in whatever manner G-d deemed appropriate. But what is considered appropriate?
Is the destruction of the empire, the economy, the agriculture, the infrastructure appropriate? Absolutely.
Is the taking away of Egypt’s wealth appropriate? It was promised to Abraham in Bereshit 15, so it is entirely in line with the measure for measure penalties.
But Moshe knows what it is like to almost lose a child (according to one opinion in the Talmud and a number of commentaries on Shmot 4:24, Moshe’s son Eliezer almost died before he was circumcised), and it is not something he wishes on anyone –– not even Paroh.
I am reminded of the words of Golda Meir, who said “”We can forgive the Arabs for killing our children. We cannot forgive them for forcing us to kill their children. We will only have peace with the Arabs when they love their children more than they hate us.”
However diplomatic Moshe and Paroh may have been at the beginning of their conversation, Paroh’s continued refusal to let the slaves leave, even at the face of utter destruction and in the background of his people screaming “ENOUGH!” was too much for Moshe to bear.
He became angry because he saw what was coming and knew that only the stubborn refusal of his arch enemy to accept defeat and allow the Israelites to live in peace was what kept both nations from ending their differences with the minimal loss of life.
Avi Billet welcomes your comments and thoughts at avbillet at gmail.com.