There is a curious exchange towards the beginning of the Exodus narrative. Moses goes to Pharoah and demands that he let the people go. However, the request is a limited one. He says, “Let the men go three days into the desert to worship God and then they will return.” Pharoah refuses; but what is the nature of Moses’ request? Is he telling the truth? Suppose Pharaoh had accepted the request. Would the Israelites really have come back? And further, what good is it to leave with only the men?
I have always thought this request was nothing more than a ruse. That is, Moses never really meant it. He expected Pharaoh to refuse and then that would set in motion the whole drama of redemption with its miracles and plagues. But let us imagine for just a moment that Moses is serious. What is it that God expects from Pharaoh?
Let’s step back one moment. Moses has two primary qualifications to lead the people to redemption. First, he sees ethical dilemmas and he jumps in, whether to save the Israelite from the taskmaster or Jethro’s daughters from some toughs at the well. Second, he is able to listen and be present. The miracle of the burning bush requires Moses first to turn aside and then to take the time to notice the great miracle. Most of us would have passed it right by.
This suggests that the political and spiritual leadership needed by God draws from a moral engagement and a receptivity to the world and others. What if, then, Moses’ request of Pharaoh is just such a test? If Pharaoh were to say “yes,” it would imply an openness to the needs of others. It would show a receptivity to the faith request of a whole enslaved people.
Had such a thing happened, the whole story might have been different. Instead of being a story of Pharaoh’s stubbornness, it would have a been a story of discovering receptivity and hope in Egypt. Maybe there never would have been a separate Jewish people. Rather, we would have been partners with Egypt in bringing hope into the whole world, creating light everywhere. It would have transformed political systems as well as spiritual systems. It might have meant the world was ready for peace because the political was ready to enter into the drama of redemption.
Of course, that’s not how the story goes. Instead, we became a small people with a great message. That message, that faith penetrates the darkness, that we can imagine a world better than this, that we are commanded to be a blessing, has lost none of its urgency. We need to keep working on our own receptivity to live that message, always hoping that the Pharaohs of the world will finally set aside their own personal aggrandizement, their own stubbornness and love of power, to finally redeem the political as well.
The Bar Mitzvah student at Minchah this past Shabbat shared a beautiful message. He noted Pharaoh’s inability to listen and wondered if we all might learn to listen better. Maybe, this beautiful thirteen year old suggested, if we could all learn to listen to one another a bit better, to leave aside the hate and bitterness so plaguing our political discourse, God might be able to get to work.
All I can say is: I’m with you. Amen.
Shabbat Shalom, Rabbi David Booth