Nine plagues were proclaimed. Nine plagues befell Pharaoh and the Egyptians. With each passing plague, Pharaoh was one step closer to freeing the Children of Israel. Until this point, he had offered to release them all save the cattle. Even this Moshe refuses, and Pharaoh orders him out telling him never to return. Moshe, at this last moment, tells Pharaoh of the final plague, the slaying of the firstborn. It is then, says Moshe, that you and all your servants will come to me begging us to leave, and it is only then that we will go.
The entire story, since the beginning of last week’s parasha, has been building up to this point. And yet, right in the middle of this showdown with Pharaoh, immediately after Pharaoh orders Moshe out, and right before Moshe proclaims the coming of the final plague, the story breaks, and God issues Moshe a seemingly out-of- place command:
And the Lord said to Moshe, one more plague will I bring upon the Egyptians… Speak, please in the ears of the people and let each man borrow from his neighbor and each woman from hers, objects of silver and objects of gold. (11:1-2).
What is the point of this interruption? What, we may ask, is the point of this entire request?
To answer this, we must go back to last week’s parasha, and an unexpected interruption that occurs there as well.There, immediately before the ten plagues begin, and after Moshe has complained to God that Bnei Yisrael has not listened to him, the narrative is interrupted:
These are the heads of their fathers’ houses: The sons of Reuven… (6:14).
All of a sudden, we are treated to an extensive list of the genealogies of the tribes of Israel, for many verses, from Reuven, to Shimon, to Levi, until we finally get to Moshe and Aharon, great-grandchildren of Levi, Aharon’s wives, his children, his children’s wives, until finally we resume:
These are that Aharon and Moshe, to whom the Lord said, Bring out the children of Israel from the land of Egypt according to their armies. These are they which spoke to Pharaoh king of Egypt, to bring out the children of Israel from Egypt: these are that Moshe and Aharon. (6:26-27).
What is this genealogical list doing here?
The answer, I believe, is clear. It is coming to situate Moshe and Aharon clearly and firmly as part of the families of and the people of Bnei Yisrael. This could not be taken for granted. Moshe had come to Bnei Yisrael with a message of redemption. The people initially believed him. But then he appeared before Pharaoh, and the people were not behind him. It was only he and Aharon that stood there, all alone. Where were the people? Where were the elders? Rashi says that they slowly dropped off, one by one, until there was no one left when they finally arrived at Pharaoh’s house. Their courage and their will were not strong enough for the task. Or perhaps it was Moshe who realized that this would be too much to ask from them at this stage. Either way, it was Moshe and Aharon speaking on behalf of the people, but not with the participation of the people.
And it only got worse after that. After the first meeting with Pharaoh, things only got harder for the people. It was then that the people really turned on Moshe. They were not ready for the hardship and the upheaval that comes in the wake of change, even change for the better. Remember, these were the same people who, when they faced hardship and privation in the Wilderness, would readily turn on Moshe and Aharon, yearning for the pots of meat and vegetables that had been provided to them in Egypt. Never mind that they were slaves. Never mind that they had no choice, no freedom. Never mind the back-breaking work. What was important was that their life was predictable, it was structured, it was familiar. That’s what they craved. They couldn’t handle the responsibility that comes with freedom. They couldn’t handle the change and disruption that comes with making one’s life better.
So Moshe complains to God that the people have abandoned him. And what is God’s response –
And Moshe spoke before the Lord, saying, Behold, the Children of Israel have not hearkened unto me; how then shall Pharaoh hear me, who am of uncircumcised lips?
And the Lord spoke unto Moshe and unto Aharon, and gave them a charge unto the children of Israel, and unto Pharaoh king of Egypt, to bring the children of Israel out of the land of Egypt.(6:12-13).
They won’t listen to you? Fine. Ignore them. Just go speak to Pharaoh. Worry about him. Speak on the people’s behalf even if they are not behind you.
The exodus would have to be forced not just on Pharaoh, but on Bnei Yisrael as well. God’s “strong hand” was necessary not just to force Pharaoh to send them out, but to hold on to their hands and to drag them out as well. [And maybe some refused even then; hence the famous midrash that 80% died in the plague of darkness…]
Indeed, during the entire period of the ten plagues, we do not hear from B’nei Yisrael at all. The entire drama is a showdown between Moshe and Pharaoh. In fact, we hear more from the Egyptians than we do from the Israelites. At least Pharaoh’s advisers voiced their opinions and applied some pressure. But Bnei Yisrael are invisible. They are spoken about, spoken for, but are not actually speaking themselves. They are the objects of the redemption, not its subjects.
Sometimes this is necessary. Sometimes it is the job of a leader to understand the vision of the people and help them actualize it. Sometimes it is the job of a leader to inspire the people with his vision and have them embrace his vision as their own. And sometimes a leader might need to force his vision on people if they cannot even realize what is best for them. But if the latter is the case, he’d better make darn sure that he is really speaking for the deepest needs of the people, that he is truly one of them, not some outsider who thinks he knows best, fighting his own fights for his own reasons.
Hence, at the moment that God tells Moshe to ignore the people and go confront Pharaoh, the Torah reminds us that this Moshe and Aharon are not some outsiders – a child of privilege who grew up in Pharaoh’s house, an elite member of the priestly class – no, they are the Moshe and Aharon who are deeply entrenched in Bnei Yisrael, connected with all their family ties, their parents, their children, their siblings. These are who came before Pharaoh. Speaking for the people, as a part of the people. Going to Pharaoh not because of their own agenda, but because God had commanded them, because this was the leadership that was necessary.
And hence the interruption in our parasha. For you can only speak unilaterally on the people’s behalf for so long. There comes a time in the process where the people must take part in their own redemption. But you have to meet the people where they are at. Mindsets do not change overnight. Slavery is still familiar, freedom is anxiety provoking. So how to get the people’s buy in? Give them what they want. Focus them on the immediate material benefits that will result. Have them borrow gold and silver. And as a result, they will be taking an active part in the exodus. They will be sending themselves a message that they are invested in this process, they believe in this process, they are part of this process. Through this, you will turn (unwilling, unappreciative) beneficiaries into stakeholders and participants.
It is this turning point that enables them to achieve in greater investment: “This month is for you the beginning of months… Speak to the congregation of Israel, and you shall take each person a sheep according to their father’s house, a sheep for each house.” (12:1-2). The participation is now ratcheted up. It is not just the self-interest of the gold and silver. Now you will own the process, reordering the calendar, being in control, and actively showing your fidelity to God. Take a lamb, engage in this ritual, put the blood on the doorposts so you become a part of your own redemption. And do it by household, not just as individuals, but as families, as members of a community, as an entire nation.
You will own your redemption so fully so that you will continue this practice in future generations. And then,
It shall come to pass, when your children shall say unto you, What mean you by this service? That you shall say, It is the sacrifice of the Lord’s pesach, who passed over the houses of the children of Israel in Egypt, when the Lord smote the Egyptians, and delivered our houses. (12:25-26).
It will become your story, what you tell over to your children. You will be the participants in the story and in its future retelling.
Consider then this final contrast. When Moshe first came to the people, we read:
And the people believed: and when they heard that the Lord had visited the Children of Israel, and that the Lord had looked upon their affliction, then they bowed their heads and worshiped. And afterward Moses and Aharon went in, and told Pharaoh… (4:31-5:1).
The people prostrated and gave thanks, but then it was Moshe and Aharon who went and did.
But now the people have been engaged. Now, however much is needed to be forced on them before they are finally ready to buy in and to become a part of their own redemption. It is now that we read:
And the people bowed the head and worshiped. And the Children of Israel went away, and did as the Lord had commanded Moses and Aaron, so did they. (12:27-28).
Their prostration is followed with their doing. Moshe and Aharon had started following God’s orders and acting on behalf of the people. That type of leadership is necessary at times. But to succeed, it has to end with the people following God’s orders. It has to end with the people acting on behalf of the people.