When Israel was in Egypt’s land,
Let my people go!
Oppressed so hard they could not stand,
Let my people go!
Go down Moses,
Way down in Egypt’s land
Tell old Pharaoh
To Let my people go!
Many of us are familiar with “Go Down Moses”, the spiritual song which dates back to 1850 (or even earlier) which served as a code song while Harriet Tubman, known as the “Moses” of her people helped slaves escape through the Underground Railroad before the American Civil War.
The song “Go Down Moses” was also used as an anthem during Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s March on Washington for civil rights in 1963 as it had universal appeal for all oppressed people. King used the story of the Exodus to give his followers confidence to fight racial injustice. In his last speech “I’ve been to the Mountaintop” in 1968, right before his assassination, he compared himself to Moses leading the Israelites out of Egypt, going up to the mountaintop but not making it into the Promised Land.
“Go Down Moses” has been translated into Hebrew (“Shlach na et ami”) and is sung at Passover seders worldwide.
In the first few Parshiot of the book of Shmot, beginning in Shmot 5:1, over and over Moshe and Aaron ask Pharaoh to let the nation go: “This is what HaShem, God of Israel said, ‘Send my people, so they may celebrate a festival to me in the wilderness.’”
According to Ibn Ezra, the festival that they wanted to celebrate was either Pesach or Shavuot, the celebration of receiving the Torah at Mount Sinai.
Pharaoh almost honors Moshe’s request to let B’nai Yisrael out of Egypt to worship God. However, he is not happy when Moshe lists who would be going: (Shmot 10:9) “With our young and with our old we will go. With our sons, with our daughters, with our sheep and with our cattle we will go for it is a festival to God for all of us.”
For some reason Pharaoh was under the impression that they are only asking for the men to celebrate and not the entire nation. Once Pharaoh hears that Moshe would like to take everyone he says (Shmot 10:11) “That is not right. Only the men should go and worship God for this is what you desire.”
Rashbam comments that according to Pharaoh, if you want to serve God, there is no reason to bring the women and the children.
It didn’t occur to Pharaoh that the women and the children may also want to worship God.
Pharaoh believed that the only reason that the entire nation would go out to pray would be if it was part of an escape plan. Bechor Shor points out that Pharaoh only wanted to permit the men to go, keeping the children back in Egypt as collateral.
Pharaoh was wrong. When it was time to eat the Korban Pesach (Pascal Lamb), it was eaten by the whole family (not just the men) and the entire nation was commanded to eat matza and not chametz. In addition, all of B’nai Yisrael (men, women and children) were present at the revelation at Sinai.
Moshe stood his ground and until today has served as a role model for many leaders throughout the world including Harriet Tubman whose life is celebrated on March 10 and Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. whose legacy was commemorated this past Monday.