Moshe Rabbeinu’s mission
was clear: He was chosen by HaShem to lead the people out of Egypt and take them
to live in Eretz Yisrael. That is how it was given to Moshe, and that is how he
presented it to the people. By the time he confronts Pharaoh, however, the
agenda seems to have changed. Moshe declares to Pharaoh, “The G-d of the
Hebrews called out to us. We want to go three days’ journey into the desert to
make sacrifices to G-d.” The ensuing discussion centers on the three days, and
on who should be allowed to go, with or without cattle, and so on. Why was Moshe
bargaining for a limited excursion when his real mission was one of national
The Ramban explains that it was just a ploy. The intention
was to deceive Pharaoh into thinking that they were returning, so that when they
left and didn’t return, Pharaoh would chase after them, leading his army into
the Yam Suf to drown. And it had to be by drowning because that was the fitting
punishment, measure for measure, for their crime of drowning the Jewish
children. This brought a tremendous awareness of justice into the world.
Afterwards, Yisro was to say that that’s what impressed him and motivated him
to join the Jewish people. He had heard about Krias Yam Suf and from it he
understood that there’s a just G-d in the world.
In the same vein, the Or HaChaim points out that HaShem could
have employed other means to bring them to the sea, or the sea to them. He
suggests that the three-days deception was itself part of the punishment measure
for measure. Just as the Egyptians had guilefully enlisted the Jews in their own
enslavement by promoting it to them initially as a patriotic work project that
only gradually developed into a cruel servitude, so they were paid back in kind,
tricked by the Jews into charging full speed to their demise.
According to Sforno, the three-days proposition was designed
to preserve Pharaoh’s free will. Just as we can understand that the hardening
of Pharaoh’s heart was designed—not to deprive him of free will, but to give
him superhuman strength to withstand the terrible pressure of the plagues so
that he retained a free-will choice whether or not to send out the Jews—so
also Moshe’s request for a mere three days’ trip was something that was within
the orbit of Pharaoh’s free will. For if Moshe had demanded that he let the
Jewish slaves go forever, he could never agree to it; it would be tantamount to
completely relinquishing his royal authority. On the other hand, a brief respite
from subjugation was something that could be countenanced.
I was thinking of another idea: First, you have to understand
what real freedom is, and what Klal Yisrael was destined to achieve. The
symbol of freedom at the Seder is matzoh. Yet, matzoh is
also lechem oni, the cheap, filling food of the poor and the enslaved.
Why did HaShem command us to use the food of slavery as the symbol of freedom?
First of all, anyone who thinks we became free just by going
out of Egypt is making a big mistake. In Hallel, we say, Hallelukah, avdei
HaShem. Originally, we were Pharaoh’s slaves; now we’re slaves of HaShem.
We never ceased being slaves; we only changed masters. Freedom to do whatever
you want is not really freedom at all; it is only another kind of slavery, the
service of one’s desires. True freedom means being able to do what we really
want in order to attain meaning in life, and that can be found only in serving
HaShem. As Chazal say, ain lecha ben chorin eleh mi sh’osek b’Torah. The
only truly free person is one who is engaged in Torah, serving HaShem. That’s
why the matzoh of slavery is the symbol of freedom, because we are still
slaves, albeit of another kind.
The Shlah HaKadosh says that Egypt was a training ground;
after 210 years of serving Pharaoh, they could now know how to serve HaShem. So
HaShem said to them, “Before I take you out permanently, I want to give you a
three-day trial to see if you know how to subjugate yourselves to Me.” Klal
Yisrael had to prove that they were fit to be free, and weren’t just
interested in being free to serve their own desires.
After three days, HaShem told them to return, to test their
willingness to serve Him, even if it meant going back to Egypt. By agreeing to
return, and not rebelling and insisting on staying out, they showed their
genuine subjugation to Him. Seeing that they were indeed ready to be His
servants, HaShem allowed them to remain with Him in the wilderness.