J.J Gross

How Pharaoh makes sure the Bnei Israel will leave Egypt for good (Parshat Bo)

A close reading of text in Bereishit and Shemot would indicate that Pharaoh was eager to be rid of the Bnei Israel.  Apparently he felt that Yosef’s importance to Egypt had come to an end once the famine was over.

I would even suggest a different understanding of the famous verse:

וַיָּקָם מֶלֶךְ חָדָשׁ עַל מִצְרָיִם אֲשֶׁר לֹא יָדַע אֶת יוֹסֵף

And a new king rose over Egypt one who knew not Yosef
(Shemot 1:8)

This  ”new king” is none other than the old Pharaoh who no longer requires Yosef’s services. Indeed, he is fearful that Yosef has become too powerful, and he is concerned about a possible takeover of Egypt by Yosef and his clan. Hence it is not that this Pharaoh “knew not” Yosef. But rather that he no longer “acknowledged ” Yosef.

We have  a strong hint that  Yosef is no longer secure in Egypt when he has to beg Pharaoh’s courtiers, to intercede for him in order to request permission to bury Yaakov in Canaan.

וַיַּֽעַבְרוּ֙ יְמֵ֣י בְכִית֔וֹ וַיְדַבֵּ֣ר יוֹסֵ֔ף אֶל־בֵּ֥ית פַּרְעֹ֖ה לֵאמֹ֑ר אִם־נָ֨א מָצָ֤אתִי חֵן֙ בְּעֵ֣ינֵיכֶ֔ם
דַּבְּרוּ־נָ֕א בְּאָזְנֵ֥י פַרְעֹ֖ה לֵאמֹֽר:

When the days of his weeping had passed, Yosef spoke to Pharaoh’s
household, saying, “If now I have found favor in your eyes,
speak now in Pharaoh’s ears, saying…
(Bereishit 50:4)

Gone are the days when a mighty Yosef, Viceroy of Egypt, can just walk up to Pharaoh and inform him of his plans. He now has to beg members of Pharaoh’s household to intercede with the monarch on his behalf.

Hence, it is not too farfetched to conclude that Pharaoh, at this point, would be quite happy to be rid of the Bnei Israel. He may even have taken it for granted that the funeral of Yaakov would be a perfect time for the Bnei Israel to go back to Canaan and stay there.

In fact, it is rather shocking that they did not use this opportunity to return to where they belonged. After all, the famine was over. There was no reason for them to remain in an alien land when their own property was waiting for them back home — especially since they were already going there anyway. What could possibly motivate them to purchase anything more than a one-day ticket to Canaan/Israel?

And yet, as we see:

וכל בֵּ֣ית יוֹסֵ֔ף וְאֶחָ֖יו וּבֵ֣ית אָבִ֑יו רַ֗ק טַפָּם֙ וְצֹאנָ֣ם וּבְקָרָ֔ם עָֽזְב֖וּ בְּאֶ֥רֶץ גשןֿ

And Joseph’s entire household and his brothers and his father’s household
(went for the funeral); only their young children and their flocks and cattle
did they leave in the land of Goshen.|
(Bereshit 50:8)

By leaving their most precious possessions – the small children and cattle  – behind in Egypt, Bnei israel made it abundantly clear that they had NO intention of returning to Canaan/Israel permanently – not then, not ever.

I would argue that this verse (50:8) is the reason the Bnei Israel were punished. Their clear preference – indeed addiction – for the Egyptian lifestyle was a cardinal sin. And they paid for this sin by remaining stuck in Egypt for centuries, and subsequently in the desert for 40 years more.

(I support my argument by the fact that no one ever takes their cattle to a funeral.  So why would the Torah even mention this fact if it, in this instance, didn’t expect Bnei Israel to indeed take their cattle and children with them, so that they could remain in Israel, where they belonged.)

Clearly Pharaoh took note of this, and does not wish for a repeat performance.

Just before the plague of Locusts (ארבה), Moshe tell Pharaoh:

וַיֹּ֣אמֶר משֶׁ֔ה בִּנְעָרֵ֥ינוּ וּבִזְקֵנֵ֖ינוּ נֵלֵ֑ךְ בְּבָנֵ֨ינוּ וּבִבְנוֹתֵ֜נוּ בְּצֹאנֵ֤נוּ וּבִבְקָרֵ֨נוּ֙ נֵלֵ֔ך כִּ֥י חַג־יְהֹוָ֖ה לָֽנוּ

Moshe said, “With our youth and with our elders we will go, with our sons and with our daughters, with our flocks and with our cattle we will go, for it is a festival of the Lord to us.”

Pharaoh notices the absence of any reference to the Israelites’ “young children” (טַפָּם) so he makes sure there will be no mistake:

וַיֹּ֣אמֶר אֲלֵהֶ֗ם יְהִ֨י כֵ֤ן יְהֹוָה֙ עִמָּכֶ֔ם כַּֽאֲשֶׁ֛ר אֲשַׁלַּ֥ח אֶתְכֶ֖ם וְאֶת־טַפְּכֶ֑ם

So he [Pharaoh] said to them, “So may the Lord be with you, just as I will let you and your young children out ..
(Shemot: 10:9-10)

And just to be absolutely sure, after the plague of Darkness  (חשך)   Pharaoh says:

וַיִּקְרָ֨א פַרְעֹ֜ה אֶל־משֶׁ֗ה וַיֹּ֨אמֶר֙ לְכוּ֙ עִבְד֣וּ אֶת־יְהֹוָ֔ה רַ֛ק צֹֽאנְכֶ֥ם וּבְקַרְכֶ֖ם יֻצָּ֑ג גַּם־טַפְּכֶ֖ם יֵלֵ֥ךְ עִמָּכֶֽם:

Pharaoh summoned Moses and said, “Go! Worship the Lord, but your flocks and your cattle shall be left. Your young children will also go with you.”

Of course all of this would seem to contradict the fact that Pharaoh would not allow the Bnei Israel to leave Egypt.  But we know that this is not the case. His resistance to releasing the Bnei Israel is God’s doing, by constantly “hardening Pharaoh’s heart” (Please see my different translation of “hardening “  (הכביד ) in my notes on this Parsha from previous years). And, as I argue, the purpose of the plagues was not to get Pharaoh to change his mind – indeed he wanted nothing more than to be rid of the Bnei Israel. Rather the plagues were meant to persuade the Bnei Israel to want to leave, which very few were interested in doing,  so enslaved were  to  the “Mitzrayim” lifestyle.


For my earlier notes on Parshat Bo please go to: .


About the Author
J.J Gross is a veteran creative director and copywriter, who made aliyah in 2007 from New York. He is a graduate of the Hebrew University in Jerusalem and a lifelong student of Bible and Talmud. He is also the son of Holocaust survivors from Hungary and Slovakia.