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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 '19 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 '19 at 23:24
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Similar to the answer above by R. Yaakov Kamenetsy, The Baal Hatanyah explains that the physical enslavement of the Jewish people in Egypt reflected the enslavement of their souls by the Kelipah of Egyptian impurity. Their Exodus from Egypt likewise represented a spiritual liberation from this Kelipah. Since the spiritual Exodus was an act of escape — i.e., their soul broke away and “escaped” from the impurity of Egypt, while the body and animal soul were still in exile within the Kelipah — therefore the physical Exodus likewise assumed the manner of an escape.


Tanya, middle of Chapter 31:
(source - chabad.org)

והנה בחינה זו היא בחינת יציאת מצרים, שנאמר בה: כי ברח העם

This form of divine service — in which the divine soul breaks free of its exile within the body, while the body and animal soul remain in their lowly state — is analogous to the Exodus from Egypt, of which it is written that “the people escaped.”

The Jews told Pharaoh that they would leave Egypt for only three days, but upon being released from his land they escaped.

דלכאורה הוא תמוה למה היתה כזאת, וכי אילו אמרו לפרעה לשלחם חפשי לעולם, לא היה מוכרח לשלחם

At first glance it seems strange: Why should it have been so, in a manner of flight? Had they demanded of Pharaoh that he set them free forever, would he not have been forced to do so, having been stricken by the Plagues?

The explanation, the Alter Rebbe goes on to say, lies in the spiritual aspect of the Exodus, and this was reflected in its physical counterpart just as every event in Jewish history reflects a parallel spiritual process.

The corporeal enslavement of the Jewish people in Egypt reflected the enslavement of their souls by the kelipah of Egyptian impurity. Their Exodus from Egypt likewise represented a spiritual liberation from this kelipah. Since the spiritual Exodus was an act of escape — i.e., their soul broke away and “escaped” from the impurity of Egypt, while the body and animal soul were still in exile within the kelipah — therefore the physical Exodus likewise assumed the manner of an escape.

אלא מפני שהרע שבנפשות ישראל עדיין היה בתקפו בחלל השמאלי

But escape was necessary because the evil in the [animal] souls of Israel was still strong in the left part of the heart, the seat of the animal soul,

כי לא פסקה זוהמתם עד מתן תורה

for their impurity (the impurity of kelipah) did not cease until the Giving of the Torah.

רק מגמתם וחפצם היתה לצאת נפשם האלקית מגלות הסטרא אחרא, היא טומאת מצרים, ולדבקה בו יתברך

Yet their aim and desire was that their divine soul leave the exile of the sitra achra — the impurity of Egypt, and that it cleave to G‑d.

וכדכתיב: ה׳ עוזי ומעוזי ומנוסי ביום צרה וגו׳, משגבי ומנוסי וגו׳,והוא מנוס לי וגו׳,

So it is written — that there is a divine service which consists of the divine soul’s “escape” from the impurity of the body and animal soul: “G‑d is my strength and my fortress, my refuge in the day of affliction”; “[He is] my high tower and my refuge”; and9 “He is my escape...”

And the Exodus from Egypt exemplified this idea of “escape”.

ולכן לעתיד, כשיעביר ה׳ רוח הטומאה מן הארץ, כתיב: ובמנוסה לא תלכון כי הולך לפניכם ה׳ וגו׳

Hence it is written of the Redemption which will take place in the time to come, when G‑d will remove the spirit of impurity from the earth and there will therefore be no evil necessitating spiritual escape: “[You will not go out in haste,] nor go in flight, for G‑d will go before you.”

The Exodus from Egypt, however, took place in a manner of flight, for the evil was still strong in the people’s animal soul. Similarly, whenever one disregards the lowliness of his body and animal soul and engages in the Torah and the mitzvot in order to free the divine soul from its corporeal exile, he effects the spiritual equivalent of the Exodus from Egypt.

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