7.5. The Crisis of Moses and the Foremen (5:19 – 6:1)

 (19) Now the foremen of the Israelites found themselves in trouble because of the order, “You must not reduce your daily quantity of bricks.”

(20) As they left Pharaoh’s presence, they came upon Moses and Aaron standing in their path,

(21) and they said to them, “May the Lord look upon you and punish you for making us loathsome to Pharaoh and his courtiers — putting a sword in their hands to slay us.”

(22) Then Moses returned to the Lord and said, “O Lord, why did You bring harm upon this people? Why did You send me?

(23) Ever since I came to Pharaoh to speak in Your name, he has dealt worse with this people; and still You have not delivered Your people.”

(6:1) Then the Lord said to Moses, “You shall soon see what I will do to Pharaoh: he shall let them go because of a greater might; indeed, because of a greater might he shall drive them from his land.”

(19) Now the foremen of the Israelites found themselves in trouble because of the order, “You must not reduce your daily quantity of bricks”: Things have now quickly gone from bad to worse not just for the ordinary people, but for the foremen, high-ranking Jews, as well. As their eyes are opened to this reality, they too will want to leave Egypt.

(20) As they left Pharaoh’s presence, they came upon Moses and Aaron standing in their path: To their thinking, Moses and Aaron were nothing more than adversaries “standing in their path.” Moses and Aaron had demanded of Pharaoh that the Jews be allowed to leave, but the Jewish elite had no need for any such thing. And now the elite too is being oppressed for reasons that, at best, and as they see it, have nothing to do with them.

(21) And they said to them, “May the Lord look upon you and punish you for making us loathsome to Pharaoh and his courtiers — putting a sword in their hands to slay us”: The foremen lay all the blame at the feet of Moses an Aaron, while they appear to find no fault at all with Pharaoh himself, nor with his deputies.

Putting a sword in their hands to slay us: The foremen here use expressions similar to those employed by the two quarreling Jews who accused Moses, when at the very beginning of his journey he tried to intervene in their altercation: “Do you mean to kill me as you killed the Egyptian?” (2:14). The situation here is quite similar: Moses tries to act for the benefit of the people, but for all his good intentions he receives only blame. This too is a test for Moses, who once before became so disillusioned with the Jews because of just such accusations that he fled to a new life in a different country.

(22-23) Then Moses returned to the Lord and said, “O Lord”: The commentators on this verse emphasize that Moses’ choice of this particular Divine name (“O, Lord”) expresses his utter bewilderment. A slave at a loss to understand his master’s intentions will address the master in this way.

Why did You bring harm upon this people? … Pharaoh has dealt worse with this people … You have not delivered Your people”: This time around Moses does not blame the Jews, as he did in his youth, nor does he blame those who have quarreled with him, not to mention finding fault with the entire Jewish nation. He now cares only about what is best for the people. This shows how much Moses has already changed, even at this stage.

(6:1) Then the Lord said to Moses: This is God’s answer to Moses’ question, why is it necessary that Pharaoh step up the oppression? The Almighty answers Moses: “It is necessary for your own education, and also for educating the people.”

You shall soon see: Literally, “Now you shall see.” The Midrash puts the stress on “now.” It is precisely Moses’ new and improved situation that will allow him to see. Moses needed once again to experience a crisis in his perception of the Jews, similar to the crisis he had faced in his youth, in order to understand that this time, in contrast to what had happened then, everything was developing quite correctly.

He shall let them go because of a greater might: That is, under duress. God will force Pharaoh to let the Jews go against his will.

Indeed, because of a greater might he shall drive them from his land: But at the same time, the Jews themselves will not just pick up and leave of their own free will. They, too, will be forced to leave, because Pharaoh and the Egyptians will drive them out.

Intensifying the oppression was a necessary step. The plagues that will begin are intended to influence not only Pharaoh, but the Jews as well, to make them want to leave Egypt and rebuild their lives. Crises and conflicts are indispensable for educating nations, just as extreme heat is necessary for smelting metal.

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Bible Dynamics, VOL. 2. EXODUS Copyright © by Orot Yerushalaim / P. Polonsky / English translation of the Torah by the Jewish Publication Society, New JPS Translation, 1985. With sincere gratitude for the permission to use. All Rights Reserved.

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