Psychological Warfareby Rabbi Dovid Shmuel Milder
The plague of wild beasts struck the palace of Pharaoh first, followed by the rest of Egypt. The Sefer HaYashar says that octopuses put their tentacles into the houses and unlocked the doors so the animals could enter. The Me’am Loez says each animal came with its climate and natural environment so that it would feel secure and attack the Egyptians more ferociously. He also says that animals which were natural enemies joined together to attack the Egyptians. The Medrash HaGadol says that even domesticated animals attacked the Egyptians. This is a glimpse into the awesome array of wonders Hashem wrought on the Egyptians people during the ten plagues, which are mostly illustrated in this week’s Torah portion of Vaera.
Pharaoh was so startled by this display of violence, especially since it started with him, and he called Moshe to stop it at once. Moshe again demanded: “A journey of three days we shall travel in the desert, and we will bring offering to Hashem our G-D just as he told us” (Shemos 8:23). The Rad”al elaborating on the Medrish Rabba says the reason why Moshe asked for a three day journey was in order to cause the Egyptians to be misled so that they would run after the Jews afterwards. (Shemos Rabba 11:3:15). (Click here for Hebrew text.)
Both the Rad”al and Matnas Kehuna direct us to a Medrish previously at the end of parsha 3, paragraph 8 which explains in more detail the intent of misleading the Egyptians. There the Medrish discusses the original command that Hashem told Moshe, to ask Pharaoh to go on a 3 day journey. The Medrish asks: “Why did they say 3 days and not say ‘may we please permanently go’? Why did they say this? In order to cause the Egyptians to be misled so that they will run after them when they leave and they will say they only let them leave on the condition to go away for 3 days and give sacrifices to Him but they stayed away too long so they should run after them at the end of three days. Then they will drown in the sea, measure for measure, just as they threw the Jewish babies into the Nile, mentioned in the first perek of Shemos.” (Click here for Hebrew text.)
The reality is that the Egyptians did not fall for the ruse for whatever reason, which Hashem already predicted to Moshe. But according to the Medrish, if you analyze it closely, you’ll see that theoretically it was expected to happen that if Pharaoh would grant their request then it is assumed that the Egyptian army would be following from behind ready to attack as soon as they determined that the jews weren’t coming back. It would have been enough to give an excuse for them to run after the Jews and recapture them; but the Egyptians would fall into Hashem’s trap and be drowned in the sea.
The Matnas Kehuna clarifies that the Egyptians really would trick themselves, for Moshe and Aharon did not say “we will go for 3 days and return” or “we’ll go for only 3 days” rather they said “a 3 day journey” and they would travel for three days and fulfill those words.
It would seem that the need for clarification is to explain how Hashem really had no intention of having Moshe and Aharon lie to Pharaoh, since that is the antithesis of truth, which is what Hashem stands for. (We also must say that there is a difference between trickery and misleading. As we found in last week’s dvar Torah, quoting a Rabbeinu Bachye: “that G-D forbid this was a matter of trickery for them to escape”). The Matnas Kehuna went out on a limb to point out that Moshe and Aharon was not saying anything untruthful. All they said was that they would leave Egypt on a journey that would take three days, a distance of three days, and they would bring offerings to Hashem their G-D. They didn’t say anything about when or if they would be coming back. Pharaoh and the Egyptians interpreted on their own the meaning of their statement, that they should be back in Egypt in three days so if they wouldn’t then the Egyptians would be ready to attack and punish their slaves. The Egyptians on their own would also choose to not trust them, follow them, and decide that since they were not heading back at the end of three days they must not be planning on coming back, and with that decide to run after them only to be led into the sea and drown. This could have been psychological warfare at its best if not for Pharaoh being stubborn and hardening his heart.
Why isn’t this a form of lying? The fact is that Moshe and Aharon did not say anything false, and the Egyptians would have misled themselves. They had free choice, and would have had the ability to analyze Moshe and Aharon’s words before running after the Jews to their demise. Therefore it would constitute honesty, albeit causing the Egyptians to mislead themselves.
This is an example of the fine lines and subtleties of truth.
Rabbi Dovid Shmuel Milder