Gradual Freedom (Exodus 13:17-17:16)

A people, enslaved for generations, can only face freedom one step at a time

This week's portion continues the exciting exodus saga. The Israelites have left Egypt exultantly, only to find a few days later that all of Egypt is chasing them. God splits the Red Sea, allowing the Israelites to pass through safely on dry land and then drowns the Egyptian pursuers as the sea is restored to its former state. The Israelites sing the triumphant Song of the Sea in praise of God (Exodus 15:1-21).

Soon, though, the wear of daily life in the desert begins to show. The people complain of hunger and are given manna. The people complain of thirst and Moses is told by God to strike a rock, causing a spring to flow from it. The portion ends with the war between Israel and Amalek.

In Exodus 14:5, the Egyptians realize that the Israelites have fled, and in dismay they begin to chase them. The Egyptians' reaction is somewhat surprising, given that in Exodus 12:33 they could not hustle the Israelites out of their country fast enough.

Rabbi Shlomo ben Yitzchak (Rashi), the pre-eminent medieval commentator, explains that while the Egyptians certainly knew of the Israelites' departure, they had expected them to be gone for only three days, since that was the length of time Moses had requested for a religious pilgrimage. Only after the three days had passed without the Israelites returning did the Egyptians realize their slaves were really gone.

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All of this brings up a question very much at the heart of the exodus story. Why is it that Moses and Aaron consistently ask Pharaoh to allow the Israelites three days in the wilderness to worship God? Why not ask for outright freedom?

Time after time, throughout the 10 plagues, throughout the vicissitudes of Pharaoh's broken promises, Moses' and Aaron's request remains constant: "Let us go a three days' journey into the wilderness and sacrifice to the Lord our God." If their goal was the ultimate emancipation of God's people, why not be up front about their motives? Why shroud this pivotal moment of national freedom in the murkiness of deception? They debate with Pharaoh about who will be allowed to come along and what they will bring, but the substance of their petition is always a three-day pilgrimage.

Some have suggested that Moses requested a three-day journey because had he requested ultimate freedom, Pharaoh would certainly have refused. Rabbi Abraham Ibn Ezra claims that it was important to phrase the request as a three-day journey so that the Egyptians would chase after the Israelites when they did not return, causing the Egyptians to meet their final punishment at the Red Sea. Ibn Ezra adds that Moses and Aaron do not actually lie, in that they never say that the Israelites will return after the three-day journey.

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