Abarbanel on the Parsha

For the week ending 16 January 2016 / 6 Shevat 5776

Parshat Bo

by Rabbi Pinchas Kasnett
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At the beginning of this week’s Torah portion, Moshe and Aharon warn Pharaoh that a plague of locusts will descend on Egypt the following day. Moshe and Aharon leave, but Pharaoh’s servants, fearing the total destruction of Egypt, convince Pharaoh to bring them back. The Torah relates the following exchange between Moshe and Pharaoh: “So Moshe and Aharon were returned to Pharaoh and he said to them, ‘Go and serve G-d, your G-d; which ones are going?’ Moshe said, ‘With our youngsters and with our elders shall we go; with our sons and with our daughters, with our flock and with our cattle shall we go, because it is a festival of G-d for us.’ He said to them, ‘So may G-d with you as I will send you forth with your children. Look! The evil intent is opposite your faces. Not so; let the men go now. Serve G-d, for that is what you seek.’ And he drove them out from Pharaoh’s presence.” (Shemot 10:8-11)

Abarbanel finds the exchange very confusing and offers a number of different ways to interpret both Moshe and Pharaoh’s words. From verse eleven it is clear that Pharaoh was willing to let the men go. By asking which ones are going he may have been referring to a select group of men. Abarbanel is puzzled by Moshe’s response. Instead of listing every group he should have simply said that everyone is going. Abrabanel answers that Moshe was unsure of what Pharaoh actually meant. He may have been referring only to the males, or perhaps he was asking if females were included as well. Similarly, he may have been distinguishing between adults and children. Finally, he may have been distinguishing between the people and their animals. As a result, Moshe had to enumerate each specific group. Abarbanel initially interprets Pharaoh’s response, “So may G-d with you as I will send you forth with your children” as a sarcastic rejoinder, meaning “I have no intention of sending your children, and certainly none of the other groups either!”

Pharaoh then says, “Look! The evil intent is opposite your faces.” Abarbanel offers three possible explanations of Pharaoh’s words:

  • Pharaoh felt that they simply wanted to flee; that evil intention could be seen on Moshe and Aharon’s faces.
  • The evil intent that Pharaoh was referring to was his own. He was telling Moshe and Aharon that his anger could very well flare up against them and he would kill them with the sword, as he sensed that the people intended to flee.
  • As mentioned above, Pharaoh’s rejoinder was sarcastic. He had no intention of sending everyone and he was contemptuous of Moshe’s arrogance in including the other groups. His statement, “Look! The evil intent is opposite your faces” is actually directed towards his servants who had urged him to listen to Moshe and Aharon. He is telling them to look at the evil in the dishonest and duplicitous requests of Moshe, and to stop blaming him (Pharaoh) for what had befallen Egypt.

Finally, Pharaoh’s last statement, “Not so; let the men go now. Serve G-d, for that is what you seek” also has three interpretations:

  • If it is actually true that you have no intention of fleeing, then go with the men only, as this is what I believe you really want.
  • Pharaoh’s previous statement, “So be G-d with you as I will send you forth with your children” was actually not meant sarcastically. He did intend to send the children also. However, now, by saying ‘Not so’ he is changing his mind; only the men can go.
  • The entire exchange between Pharaoh and Moshe was similar to a bargaining session between a buyer and seller. Each comes with an extreme position, and eventually they meet in the middle. Moshe starts out by asking that everyone go. Pharaoh starts out by referring to only a select group of men — no old men and no children. They finally compromise: all the men — young, old and children — can go. Since Pharaoh feels that he has been more than generous, there is nothing more to be said, and he dismisses them curtly.

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