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I am viewing Rashi's explanation (based on Mechilta) of Shemot 14:12 when B'nai Yisra'el say to Moshe:

"This is what we told you in Egypt that you should leave us alone, for it is better for us to work for the Egyptians than to die here in the desert."

Rash"i asks where did they tell Moshe this? He refers to Shemot 5:21. I don't get it. There doesn't seem to be anything in that verse that states or implies any statement that they preferred being enslaved in Egypt or relayed this idea in any way to Moshe.

Can someone elaborate as to how this verse proves Rashi's reference?

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Well you're apparently not alone in thinking that it's not obvious that the Israelites said something of this sort in 5:21. For instance, Ibn Ezra in his commentary to 14:12 says that they must have said this at some point but we don't find it recorded anywhere. He opines that it is included in 6:9 where the verse says that "they didn't listen to Moses". Ibn Kaspi (commentary to 14:12) elaborates on this slightly, noting that "they didn't listen to Moses" is The Torah recording the incident in general terms without bothering to give all the details. (The details being what we find out in 14:12, namely, that the people said that they would rather be slaves in Egypt than die in the wilderness.)

Interestingly, the Samaritan Pentateuch's version of 6:9 has an additional clause in which it is explicitly stated that the Israelites told Moses that they would rather stay as slaves in Egypt than die in the wilderness:

וידבר משה כן אל בני ישראל ולא שמעו אל משה מקצר רוח ומעבדה קשה ויאמרו אל משה חדל נא ממנו ונעבדה את מצרים כי אוב לנו עבד את מצרים ממותנו במדבר

And Moses spake so unto the children of Israel: but they hearkened not unto Moses for anguish of spirit, and for cruel bondage. And they are saying to Moses: leave us please and we shall serve to Egyptians because it is good for us to be servants of Egyptians than to die in the wilderness. (STEP translation, my emphasis)

Whether this is due to a differing original text or a later interpolation, it apparently agrees with Ibn Ezra and Ibn Kaspi about when the Israelites actually said this.

R. Ephraim Luntschitz (commentary to 14:12) acknowledges that Rashi's explanation requires elaboration. He explains that when the Israelites in 5:21 said "to give a sword in their hands to kill us" they meant that even if they would escape Egypt the Egyptians would chase after them and kill them in the wilderness. Thus, in 14:12 when the Egyptians have chased after them and are about to kill them, they tell Moses that this is exactly what they had said would happen back in 5:21.

Alternatively, when we look at Rashi's source in the Mechilta it appears that it is not actually saying that the Israelites said this in 5:21. Rather, in 5:21 the Israelites merely expressed their distress over the slavery. Later when many of their brethren died during the Darkness, that was even more distressing to them. Now when the Egyptians are about to kill them in the wilderness it is even more distressing than when their brethren died during the Darkness (because at least their brethren were properly buried and eulogized). Thus, it seems that 14:12 should be read as only the first half of the quote being an actual quote, while the second half is actually the explanation of the quote. That is to say, rather than reading it as we said "leave us be and let us serve Egypt, for it is better to serve Egypt than to die in the wilderness" we should read it as we said "leave us be and let us serve Egypt" because it would have been better for us to serve Egypt than to die out here in the wilderness.

This point is elaborated on by R. Elijah Mizrachi (supercommentary to Rashi 14:12), who notes that this has to be the case because at the time of 5:21 they were still in Egypt so it wouldn't have made sense for them to say then that they would rather be slaves in Egypt than die in the wilderness.

R. Samuel David Luzzato notes (commentary to 14:12) the Samaritan version which has the Israelites actually saying this in 6:21, but he argues that there would be no reason for them to have thought of dying in the wilderness when they were suffering the backbreaking labor in Egypt. And if they did somehow think of it then the verse would be inaccurate since it says that the reason why they didn't listen to Moses was due to the hard labor and their low spirits, when the real reason was that they made a calculated decision that slavery was better than death in the wilderness. He therefore also cites the Mechilta's interpretation, apparently understanding it to mean that the Israelites added in the second half of the statement now in 14:12 (that it would have been better to remain as slaves in Egypt).

  • Great research. I'll follow up with some questions when I have more time, IY"H. – DanF Jan 28 at 17:53
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I don't understand your question at all! That verse, 5:21 is Benei Yisrael complaining to Moshe and telling him to stop bothering them with what he has done so far to try to free them, and that they are happy to serve Pharaoh, but not put their lives in jeopardy:

וַיֹּאמְר֣וּ אֲלֵהֶ֔ם יֵ֧רֶא י״י֛ עֲלֵיכֶ֖ם וְיִשְׁפֹּ֑ט אֲשֶׁ֧ר הִבְאַשְׁתֶּ֣ם אֶת־רֵיחֵ֗נוּ בְּעֵינֵ֤י פַרְעֹה֙ וּבְעֵינֵ֣י עֲבָדָ֔יו לָֽתֶת־חֶ֥רֶב בְּיָדָ֖ם לְהׇרְגֵֽנוּ׃

and they said to them, “May Hashem look at you, and judge, because you have made us a stench to be abhorred in the eyes of Pharaoh, and in the eyes of his servants, to put a sword in their hand to kill us.” (Alhatorah translation)

This is exactly what they are saying here, except that now that they are out in the desert, they add a line about dying in the desert:

הֲלֹא־זֶ֣ה הַדָּבָ֗ר אֲשֶׁר֩ דִּבַּ֨רְנוּ אֵלֶ֤יךָ בְמִצְרַ֙יִם֙ לֵאמֹ֔ר חֲדַ֥ל מִמֶּ֖נּוּ וְנַֽעַבְדָ֣ה אֶת־מִצְרָ֑יִם כִּ֣י ט֥וֹב לָ֙נוּ֙ עֲבֹ֣ד אֶת־מִצְרַ֔יִם מִמֻּתֵ֖נוּ בַּמִּדְבָּֽר׃

Isn’t this the word that we spoke to you in Egypt, saying, ‘Leave us alone, that we may serve the Egyptians?’ For it were better for us to serve the Egyptians, than that we should die in the wilderness.” (Alhatorah translation)

  • Am I missing something? In the Shemot verse, they are complaining that Moshe made things worse for them, as Pharaoh now told them to gather their own bricks. It seems that they complained just about that specific instance. It doesn't seem to state that they wanted to remain slaves. – DanF Jan 25 at 15:57
  • The implication being that they were happy to serve Egypt rather than endanger themselves (giving them a sword to kill us) - I edited accordingly. @DanF – רבות מחשבות Jan 25 at 15:58
  • So too here, they would rather be working under somewhat humane conditions in Egypt than in danger of being killed in the desert. @DanF – רבות מחשבות Jan 25 at 15:59

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