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Inspired/based on this question, I was surprised to see that the following hasn't yet been asked here:

Moshe is told by God (Shemos 3:18) to request of Pharoh that the Jews leave for three days, and then return to Egypt. This request is then repeated in most of the conversations between the two of them that occur throughout the plagues. Yet, they never returned to Egypt.

Was the original plan to return to Egypt, but that got changed somewhere along the way? If so, when did the plan change, and why? On the other hand, if the plan was to leave forever, why did that have to be done through deception?

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To first clarify, even though lying is usually frowned upon, I'm pretty sure that, at least ethically speaking, there's no reason to frown upon lying to Pharaoh in this situation if it was necessary to save the Jews. The question being dealt with here is why was this deception necessary - couldn't God have saved them without the lie?

Thanks to this shiur, I've heard five separate answers to this question:

The Ramban addresses this question, and writes (comments to Shemos 3:18) that this message wasn't necessary for Pharaoh, but for the Jews. The Jewish people would have been unwilling to follow Moshe to the land of Canaan where so many strong and fearsome nations resided, until they saw God's mighty hand expressed in the incredible miracles that He performed. According to the Ramban, only after witnessing these miracles did Moshe tell the Jews the true intentions of leaving Egypt. Needless to say, this explanation is considerably difficult to read into the pesukim.

The Ibn Ezra and Ran in his Drashos write that telling Pharaoh that they would return after 3 days would (1) help convince the Egyptians to let them 'borrow' their stuff, and (2) cause Pharaoh to chase after the Jews when they didn't return, and thereby be drowned in the sea.

The Abarbanel disagrees with the Ran, since God hardened everyone's hearts anyway. He writes that this request was made of Pharaoh for PR reasons: by refusing such a reasonable request as a short vacation, everyone who hears the story will learn what an obstinate king Pharaoh was. R. Yaakov Tzvi Mecklenburg in HaKesav VaHakkabalah seems to agree, and he adds that this explains why Moshe stopped referring to the 'three days' request once the plagues got underway.

R. Yaakov Kamenetsy, in Emes L'Yaakov, suggests that the original plan was actually to only leave for three days. Even though eventually the Jews would be leaving Egypt in accordance with the bris bein habesarim, this would have only occurred after being in Egypt for 400 years, and a 'vacation' was needed of service to God to make sure that the Jews wouldn't sink to the depths of tumah during their slavery in Egypt, which would have continued. However, when Pharaoh refused and God had to begin bringing on the plagues, the plans changed.

The Rav Peninim Chumash includes many interesting 'peirushim' to various parshiyos, and his explanation given here is that God's instruction to deceive Pharaoh has an important educational value, to teach the Jewish people that in future wars they should do whatever is necessary to win, even if it may be deceitful or underhanded. Thus, even though deception wasn't necessary in this case, it will be in the future when we shouldn't be relying on miracles.

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Was Moshe decieving Pharoh, or was the original “Exodus” from Egypt meant to be temporary?

Exodus 3:18 And they shall hearken to thy voice: and thou shalt come, thou and the elders of Israel, unto the king of Egypt, and ye shall say unto him, The LORD G-d of the Hebrews hath met with us: and now let us go, we beseech thee, three days' journey into the wilderness, that we may sacrifice to the LORD our God.

This was more of a proof test as opposed to a deception or a change of plans.

Exodus 3:19 And I am sure that the king of Egypt will not let you go, no, not by a mighty hand.

Pharaoh is requested to make a fairly reasonable concession. His hard-heartedness is a sort of proof to Moshe the G-d knows what will happen and his plans can be trusted.

  • But did they ever make it clear to pharaoh that they are actually planning to leave forever? If not, Pharoah's finally sending them out was on false pretenses – הנער הזה Dec 16 '14 at 19:07
  • If Pharaoh let them go, and they kept going then one might make a case that Pharaoh had been deceived. If Pharaoh let them go and they came back and a few days later and then they left, a case for deception could not be made. Only if both Pharaoh agreed and Israel bolted could a case be made for deception. It is a bit of a reach to declare G-d as deceptive because of two possibilities, one the Pharaoh would say yes and two that they would not return. Especially when the point of the event was to prove that G-d knew that Pharaoh would not let them go. – timf Dec 16 '14 at 20:45
  • @Matt When they actually are sent away (by Par'o) after makas bechoros, he in effect said "go and do not come back". That is why it says Beshalach. – sabbahillel Jan 22 '17 at 23:17
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I addition to @Matt's excellent answer, I would like to add another reason I saw in the commentaries.

The Ohr Hachaim on Shemot 3:18 says:

"G'd applies the yardstick of "measure for measure." Sotah 11 states that the Egyptians had cleverly inveigled the Israelites into slave labour by sweet-talking them into such patriotic service, whereas gradually they became more and more cruel and demanding. G'd orchestrated the steps leading to redemption in a similar fashion. First He had Moses speak about a three day religious holiday for Pharaoh's labourers as well as borrowings of the Egyptians' silver and of their fancy garments. G'd gradually upped the ante, just as the Egyptians had done in their treatment of the Jews."

  • That seems to be part of his question, rather than his explanation of what happened. – Ploni Jan 7 at 4:48
  • @Ploni, I disagree. If you read the full Ohr haChaim, he explicitly gives this as an explanation as to what motivated God to conduct the Exodus in a 'deceiving' way – DankMasterDan Jan 8 at 23:24

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