Contrary to popular opinion, our Exodus from Egypt did not start with a repeated lie to the greatest dictator of the world at the time that we just wanted to leave for three days and then return.
I do agree that deceit should trouble a Jew. Honesty is so basic to the Jewish outlook, there is not even a Commandment not to lie or to speak the truth — much as there is none concerning Free Will. (It just says we have.) People are born honest. Children need grownups to model lying in order for them to understand that such a thing is possible at all. Honest people see that the whole of the Hebrew Bible is written with honesty. Moses isn’t rebuked for lying to Pharaoh, so we need to ask the question, how come?
Another troubling thing that I hope to answer in one go is that Jethro comes by in the wilderness (Exodus 18) but it says so many times that he is Moses’ father-in-law that one must ask oneself, why? And also, why does Jethro say to his son-in-law: “I, your father-in-law Jethro, have come to you with your wife and her two sons with her” (Exodus 18:6)? He saw them a year ago. Had they changed so much that he had to introduce them to him?
Both the above problems can be solved by better understanding Hebrew. The Malbim (Meir Loeb ben Jechiel Michael Weisser, 1809-1879) has what it takes. The verb root Shin-Lammed-Chet appears a couple of hundred times in the Torah. It can mean two things. When it has a dot (daggesh) in the Lammed, it means, send away/out/forth, release, set free, expel, let loose/go off, dismiss, see/cast out. When the Lammed has no dot, it is, send on an errand or of an agent, send for, stretching out a hand.
The first: Out! The second: Go but I expect to hear back from you.
Pharaoh was supposed to let the Jews go. The Torah does not records that Moses actually used this verb to him. It only says that Moses should request this (Exodus 4:21, 6:1, 6:11, 7:2, 11:1, 13:15). It does mention that Pharaoh disagreed (Exodus 5:2, 7:14, 8:28, 10:27, 13:15) and agreed (Exodus 10:10, 13:17) to do so.
Just like the activists for the freeing of Soviet Jewry understood when they sang “Let My People go!” (after Louis Armstrong, after the King James translation of Exodus 5:1, 7:16, 8:1, 8:20, 9:1).
We see the same verb root with G^d expelling us from Paradise (Genesis 3:23), Noah sending off the raven and the dove (Genesis 8:7-8, 10), Pharaoh sending away Abram and Sarai (Genesis 12:20), Abraham sending away Hagar (Genesis 21:14), the letting go of Rebecca (Genesis 24:54, 56, 59), Laban finally letting go of Jacob (Genesis 30:25, 31:27), Jacob hopes that the Viceroy of Egypt will let go of the captured brothers (Genesis 43:14), we must let go of a slave (Exodus 21:26-27), letting loose an animal (Exodus 22:4) or sending away the mother bird (Deuteronomy 22:7), sending away the scapegoat (Leviticus 16:10), And I will let loose on you (and not: sent to you) the sword (Leviticus 26:25) and fiery serpents (Numbers 21:6), and hornets (Deuteronomy 7:20) and beasts’ teeth (Deuteronomy 32:24) on them, and all his life’s days he cannot dismiss (divorce) her (Deuteronomy 22:29).
This in stark contrast with the second, dotless, verb root that means: go and I’ll see you. As in: Adam should not be able to stretch out his hand toward the Tree of Life (Genesis 3:22), Abimelech sending [for] Sarah (Genesis 20:2), Abraham (not) stretching out his hand (Genesis 22:10, 12), Isaac sending off Jacob (Genesis 28:5), And Jacob sent Angels ahead of him (Genesis 32:4), Let us send one of you to get your brother Benyamin (Genesis 42:16), I will send you to Pharaoh (Exodus 3:10), And I will sent to you (and not: And I will let loose on you) the wildlife of the field (Leviticus 26:22), and sending forth spies (Numbers 13:2-3, 16-17, 27, 14:36, 21:32, 32:8), Moses only does what G^d sent him to do (Numbers 16:28-29, Deuteronomy 34:10), and sending out soldiers (Numbers 31:4, 6).
But the dotted verb can also mean: to send away for the time being, for an unlimited period, indefinitely, for an unstipulated period, for the foreseeable future, until further notice, at least for now (but not necessarily forever) (Numbers 5:2-3).
So, all that is asked of Pharaoh is to let the Jews go at least for now. Definitely, no promise is made or expectation is raised about when or if we would return.
Moses also doesn’t ask of Pharaoh to send us away for only three days. Moses says diplomatically that worshipping G^d in the Land of Egypt would not be fitting, due to the ‘Egyptian abomination’ (Exodus 8:22). Pharaoh could understand that as: for you seeing us slaughter animals that you worship would be repulsive. Yet, really, their ever-present idols were too repulsive (Deuteronomy 27:15) an environment for Jews to communicate with G^d.
He asks for a three-day journey (Exodus 3:18, 5:3, 8:27). That’s a measure of length, not time. A three-day journey is the distance an average person travels in three days. (Like a light-year is the distance light travels in a year.) But we were with cattle, small children, and the men just were circumcised, so it would surely take us longer to get there.
Pharaoh had finally agreed to let those annoying Jews go when word reached him (Exodus 14:5) that “the people,” the mixed multitude (Exodus 12:38) had fled, together with the Jews.
At first, he had sent out this mixed multitude too (Exodus 13:17). But now, he and his servants realized that they ended up without any slaves. That referred to the mixed multitude and not the Jews as our servitude had ended half a year before (Babylonian Talmud, Rosh Hashannah, folio 11, side a). But they now wanted everyone back into slavery, including the Jews (Exodus 14:6).
One could wonder why Moses only requests a short journey and not eternal freedom. I once heard, and liked, that this modest appeal was to show that Pharaoh wouldn’t even allow us to go on a journey, so asking for more would’ve been totally redundant — might have given a false impression that we asked too much.
So, we never promised to return and we were also not told that we should. Pharaoh might have thought that we would have to come back because what is there to eat in the desert? But we left with enough food to cross the wilderness and settle somewhere else. There was no deceit involved in us leaving Egypt.
The verse Exodus 18:2 (P. Jethro) also has the verb for sending away indefinitely. Rashi says here that Aaron advised Moses to send his wife and sons back home to Median. Are there not enough people suffering in Egypt that you need to add to them?
Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch notes that Moses must not have given her a bill of divorce because otherwise, she would not have been Moses’ wife anymore now. But with or without full divorce, if she would have been with another man, she most likely could not have returned to Moses as his wife (Deuteronomy 24:1-4).
There were no official divorce procedures yet, but surely, he sent her away without any restrictions that she still was his wife. For all intent and purpose, he divorced her, set her free. Who knows what could happen to him? Yet, How to keep men afar from an available beautiful (Rashi on Numbers 12:1) woman as Zipporah?
Let’s close-read verse Exodus 18:2.
Jethro, the father-in-law of Moses, separated (as we translate the verb in Numbers 16:1) Zipporah [from any man, so that she’d still be available as] Moses’ wife [even] after she had been sent away.
G^d revealed His Thirteen Attributes of Mercy (Exodus 34:6-7); Thirteen is the number of Mercy. It says 13 times that Jethro was Moses’ father-in-law. He did not guard her sternly but because he understood that she wanted that, so rather with mercy. This was a batch of honor created by Jethro. Because of his protective action, he still was Moses’ father-in-law. Or maybe we’d say that one time mentioning his family relationship was in order and that 12 times were redundant. He watched over her for 12 months.
He’s rightly proud to say: “I, your father-in-law Jethro, have come to you with your wife and her two sons with her” (Exodus 18:6).