The Negotiations of Leaving Egypt: The Nuanced Version

Written by Rabbi Elliott Karstadt — 21 January 2024

We are in the middle of the big story that we tell about ourselves as a Jewish people – the story of the Exodus. And, as with many of the stories we tell ourselves, there are more complicated versions of the story, and more simplified ones. For example, often when we tell the story, we tell it that Moses and Aaron go to Pharaoh the king of Egypt and they say … ‘Let my people go!’

And Pharaoh says …


Well, actually, there are quite a few occasions on which Pharaoh says ‘yes’.

I like to teach that, as Progressive jews, we should tell the more complicated, more complex, more nuanced stories – we don’t always simply reach for the simple narratives of our tradition.

So, how does this complicated negotiation unfold.

Well, to begin with, the Israelites’ demands do shift quite a bit over the course of the story. To begin with, they say to Pharaoh that they want to leave ‘so that we can worship God in the wilderness’. Pharaoh may well have every expectation that, having gone out into the wilderness and had the opportunity to worship God, the Israelite slaves will return again, and go back to being slave.

In last week’s portion, having experienced the plagues of blood and frogs, and surrounded by flies that are eating his people alive, Pharaoh offers Moses a deal – worship your God ba’aretz – worship God here in Egypt. To which Moses’ response is: we can’t possibly do that – our form of worship is abominable to the Egyptians and they will surely stone us. No, we will need to go three days march into the wilderness to worship God in the way we need to. And Pharaoh agrees – on the condition that Moses goes back to God and asks for the plague of flies to be lifted. This Moses does, and God lifts the plague, at which point Pharaoh’s heart is hardened and he relents on his promise to free the Israelites.

In this week’s portion, having suffered from several more plagues, Pharaoh again offers a compromise. Ok, he says, the men can go. Which might seem perfectly reasonable in the context, since presumably, only the adult men would have been involved with the acts of worship that Pharaoh assumed were the purpose of the original journey into the wilderness.

Having said last week that he was not a very good speaker, Moses is now in his element as he tells Pharaoh what he thinks of this proposal: ‘With our old and our young we will go. With our sons and our daughters, with our sheep and our cattle we will go.’ So on that occasion, Pharaoh says ‘yes’, but Moses says ‘no’. And the follows the plague of locusts.

After the plague of locusts has passed, Pharaoh offers a revised deal – ok, he says, the young can go with the old, but you need to leave your livestock – your cattle and your sheep – here with you.

But again, Moses says ‘no’ – he says ‘not a hoof will remain’ – we are taking our cattle and our sheep as well.

So, that simple story that we tell, in which the people say ‘let us go’ and Pharaoh says ‘no’ – is actually wrong – or at least it is much more complicated. Pharaoh does say yes – a number of times – it’s just never quite the ‘yes’ that the Israelites want. It’s not the right yes.

Of course, when we come to the end of a negotiation, and there is a measurable outcome, often we have to tell that simple story in order to sell it to others. But those who made the negotiation know differently – they know how complicated and nuanced it was to come to a deal.

Finally, after the ultimate plague, the death of the firstborn, Pharaoh gives the right yes. He finally lets them all go, young and old, men and women, human and beast. That is the end of the simple version of the story as well.

But in the simple version of the story we also know that Pharaoh takes back his word. Why? Because, remember, Moses told him they needed to go into the wilderness three days – the implication being that they were coming back after. It’s after three days, Pharaoh realises they’re not coming back – and he sends his chariots after them. Because he said the yes that he thought he could say, but they had something else in mind – they wanted total freedom.

So what we actually have in this complicated version of the story, is a long and protracted negotiation. There is deception – on both sides. There is good will and bad will at various different points. We ultimately see the goal of the Israelites as the right one – they freedom from slavery and suffering, and they don’t want to have to compromise on that. But that also involves saying a hard no to some very appealing offers.

Negotiation, whether it is in business, in politics, whether it is negotiating for the lives of hostages, is a difficult, complicated, often very messy and contradictory process.

So, whether we ourselves are entering into a negotiation or a trying to come to a compromise, or whether we are thinking about, and praying for, those who are negotiating in secret on our behalf, or on behalf of our loved ones – let us seek the strength to know our commitments and to own our priorities. Let us see the complexity, even if the story we tell afterwards is the simple one – we will know the nuance that lies behind it.