Moshe-Mordechai van Zuiden
Psychology, Medicine, Science, Politics, Oppression, Integrity, Philosophy, Jews

Our Exodus from Egypt did not start with a lie

The relationship of the Jewish People with hostile and with saintly foreign leaders

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).

About the Author
MM is a prolific and creative writer and thinker, a daily blog contributor to the TOI. He is a fetal survivor of the pharmaceutical industry (, born in 1953 to two Dutch survivors who met in the largest concentration camp in the Netherlands, Westerbork, and holds a BA in medicine (University of Amsterdam). He taught Re-evaluation Co-counseling, became a social activist, became religious, made Aliyah, and raised three wonderful kids. He wrote an unpublished tome about Jewish Free Will. He's a strict vegan since 2008. He's an Orthodox Jew but not a rabbi. * His most influential teachers (chronologically) are: his parents, Nico (natan) van Zuiden and Betty (beisye) Nieweg, Wim Kan, Mozart, Harvey Jackins, Marshal Rosenberg, Reb Shlomo Carlebach and lehavdiel bein chayim lechayim: Rabbi Dr. Natan Lopes Cardozo, Rav Zev Leff and Rav Meir Lubin. * Previously, for decades, he was known to the Jerusalem Post readers as a frequent letter writer. For a couple of years he wrote hasbara for the Dutch public. His fields of attention now are varied: Psychology (including Sexuality and Abuse), Medicine (including physical immortality), Science (statistics), Politics (Israel, the US and the Netherlands, Activism - more than leftwing or rightwing, he hopes to highlight Truth), Oppression and Liberation (intersectionally, for young people, the elderly, non-Whites, women, workers, Jews, GLBTQAI, foreigners and anyone else who's dehumanized or exploited), Integrity, Philosophy, Jews (Judaism, Zionism, Holocaust and Jewish Liberation), Ecology and Veganism. Sometimes he's misunderstood because he has such a wide vision that never fits any specialist's box. But that's exactly what many love about him. Many of his posts relate to affairs from the news or the Torah Portion of the Week or are new insights that suddenly befell him. * He hopes that his words will inspire and inform, reassure the doubters but make the self-assured doubt more. He strives to bring a fresh perspective rather than bore you with the obvious. He doesn't expect his readers to agree. Rather, original minds must be disputed. In short, his main political positions are: anti-Trumpism, for Zionism, Intersectionality, non-violence, democracy, anti the fake peace process, for original-Orthodoxy, Science, Free Will, anti blaming-the-victim and for down-to-earth optimism. Read his blog how he attempts to bridge any discrepancies. He admits sometimes exaggerating to make a point, which could have him come across as nasty, while in actuality, he's quit a lovely person to interact with. He holds - how Dutch - that a strong opinion doesn't imply intolerance of other views. * His writing has been made possible by an allowance for second generation Holocaust survivors from the Netherlands. It has been his dream since he was 38 to try to make a difference by teaching through writing. He had three times 9-out-of-10 for Dutch at his high school finals but is spending his days communicating in English and Hebrew - how ironic. G-d must have a fine sense of humor. In case you wonder - yes, he is a bit dyslectic. November 13, 2018, he published his 500st blog post with the ToI. If you're a native English speaker and wonder why you should read from people whose English is only their second language, consider the advantage of having a peek outside of your cultural bubble. * NEW: To see other blog posts by him, his overspill blog you can reach by clicking on the Website icon next to his picture at the head of every post. There you may find precursors to later TOI blog posts, addition or corrections of published TOI blog posts, blog posts the TOI will not carry and some thoughts that are too short to be a TOI blog post. Also, the TOI only allows for one blog post per blogger per 24 hours. Sometimes, he has more to say than that. * To send any personal reaction to him, scroll to the top of the blog post and click Contact Me.
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