Thursday, 2 January 2014

Deceiving Pharaoh - Do the ends ever justify the means?

This blog post is a summary of a great shiur by Rabbi Elchanan Samet. Click here to read it. Throughout the process of taking the Jews out of Egypt there are several deceptions that Hashem commands Moshe to tell Pharaoh. The first is that Moshe asks that the Jewish people be allowed to serve God in the desert for three days. Moshe never directly asks for Bnei Yisrael to be freed. See the source sheet from today's class.

Shemot Chapter 5 verse 3
"The God of the Hebrews has happened upon us. Now let us go on a three day journey in the desert and sacrifice to the Lord our God, lest He strike us with a plague or with the sword."

This request is constantly repeated by Moshe and Aharon and is the discussion is the basis for Pharaoh allowing the Jews to leave. He lets them leave because he thinks they will be back three days later. 

The second deception is that Hashem commands Moshe to tell the Jewish people to borrow from the Egyptians all their gold, silver and clothes. How can they borrow these things if they have no intention of coming back to Egypt?!

Shemot Chapter 12 verses 34-35
"And the children of Israel did according to Moshe’s order, and they borrowed from the Egyptians silver objects, golden objects, and garments. The Lord gave the people favor in the eyes of the Egyptians, and they lent them, and they emptied out Egypt."

The final deception is that Hashem commands Moshe to turn around after leaving Egypt to give the impression that the Jewish people were lost and in disarray.

Shemot Chapter 14 verses 2-3
"Speak to the children of Israel, and let them turn back and encamp in front of Pi hahirot, between Migdol and the sea; in front of Bal Zefon, you shall encamp opposite it, by the sea. And Pharaoh will say about the children of Israel, They are trapped in the land. The desert has closed in upon them."

Hashem tells Moshe that the purpose of this final deception and presumably all three deceptions is in order that Hashem "will be glorified through Pharaoh and through his entire force, and the Egyptians will know that I am the Lord And they did so." I.e. without the Egyptians being drowned at the sea, God's greatness would not become known in the world.

The Ibn Ezra writes that "God's wisdom is beyond our understanding. It would appear to me, though, that this deception was performed for two reasons: firstly, in order that they would give them vessels of gold and silver for had they known that they would not return, they would not have given them. And secondly, in order that Pharaoh and his army would drown. For had they left with his permission, and had he not believed that they would return, he would not have pursued after them."

Rabbeinu Nissim writes a similar position. "He wished to bring about a situation where they themselves, of their own choice, would enter the water and die there. Had Moshe informed Pharaoh from the beginning that their time had come to be redeemed, he would certainly have agreed to their demand because of the plagues, and would not have pursued them thereafter, for why would he pursue them after having willingly let them go when they were still under his rule?

Therefore God did not want Moshe to tell Pharaoh exactly what was happening, but rather to say that they were going to offer sacrifices on a three-day journey, such that when they would tell Pharaoh thereafter 'that the nation had escaped,' he would think that everything Moshe had done had not come from God but rather had been done deceitfully and fraudulently. For had it not been thus, why would Moshe have fooled him by saying that they were going only to offer sacrifices? For this very reason He commanded, 'Let each man ask his neighbor for vessels of silver and gold' even though the money rightfully belonged to the Jews and they could have taken it openly, God nevertheless told them to dissemble so that when it was told to the king of Egypt and his nation that Bnei Yisrael were escaping, there is no doubt that they regarded them as bandits and swindlers and this, without doubt, brought them to pursue them."

I also saw someone suggest that in war anything is allowed including deceiving the enemy e.g. making ambushes. So it was ok to deceive Pharaoh since the goals were to take the Jews out of Egypt and to punish the Egyptians. The only way to achieve them was through deception.

However I find all of these verses and commentaries philosophically difficult. If God is all powerful then God should be able to make his greatness known throughout the world without human suffering (even if the people "deserve" it or not). Surely there must have been a way of bringing his greatness another way?! I'm left feeling do the ends ever justify the means?

I'm open to suggestions...

1 comment:

  1. This is a very interesting point, especially since this is not the first time that deceit is mentioned in the Torah. As we would recall, Yakkov obtained Esua's birthright from Yitzhak through deceit, Shimon and Levi massacred the inhabitants of Shechem to rescue Dina as a result of deceit, Juduh fathered a child by Tamar his daughter-in-law through her deceit (in fact he perpetuated the deceit by promising his youngest son). There clearly is a lesson here - but I am missing the common thread.

    Perhaps deceit is part of the world and in fact necessary?? The question would then be when is it appropriate to use deceit rather than the simply saying deceit is bad.


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