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Image: Moses and Aaron with Pharaoh, 1931, Marc Chagall

Daniel and Karl dive into Chapter 5 and discuss the nature of God, the nature of social movements, the struggle for justice, and the tragedy of injustice.  The midrash that Daniel selected for us is below the audio player on this page.

Exodus 5

1-5 — a request to collectively organize (go to the desert to worship)

After that, Moses and Aaron came and said to Pharaoh (5:1)

Where had the elders gone? They are not mentioned here, though G‑d had said to Moses, “You shall come, you and the elders of Israel, to the king of Egypt.”

Our sages explained that the elders did indeed go with them, but stole away furtively, singly or in pairs, so that by the time they reached the palace of Pharaoh, not one of them was there.

For this reason, when Moses and Aaron went up with the elders to Mount Sinai to receive the Torah, G‑d turned them back, as it says (Exodus 24:14): “And to the elders he said: ‘Wait here for us.’”

(Midrash Rabbah)


Pharaoh said: “Who is G‑d?” (5:2)

That day was Pharaoh’s day for the reception of ambassadors, when all the kings came to pay him honor, bringing with them gifts of crowns with which they crowned him lord of the world; they also brought their idols with them.

After they had crowned him, Pharaoh’s servants came and said: “Two old men are at the gate.”

When Moses and Aaron entered, Pharaoh asked them, “Who are you?”

“We are the ambassadors of G‑d, blessed be He.”

“What do you want?”

“Thus says the L‑rd, G‑d of Israel: Let My people go, that they may observe a festival for Me in the wilderness.”

“Has he not the sense to send me a crown, that you come to me with mere words? Wait while I search in my records.”

Pharaoh went into his palace chamber and scrutinized every nation and its gods, beginning with the gods of Moab, Ammon and Sidon. He then said to them: “I have searched for his name throughout my archives, but have not found him. Is he young or old? How many cities has he captured? How many provinces has he subdued? How long is it since He ascended the throne?”

(Midrash Rabbah)


The king of Egypt said to them: “Why do you, Moses and Aaron, distract the people from their work? Go off to your labors” (5:4)

It was the custom for every nation to have its clergy, the teachers of its faith. For this reason Pharaoh absolved the tribe of Levi from forced labor, recognizing them as the sages and elders of the Jewish people. . . . Thus Pharaoh said to Moses and Aaron, “Go off to your labors,” as the enslavement of the Jewish people in Egypt did not include the tribe of Levi.


6-18– economic repression as a response to the request

The officers of the children of Israel, whom Pharaoh’s taskmasters had set over them, were beaten, saying: “Why have you not fulfilled your quota in making bricks?” (5:14)

These Israelite officers were worthy men who jeopardized their lives for Israel, bearing the blows of the Egyptians so that Israel’s task might be lighter. For this merit they were subsequently endowed with the holy spirit, as G‑d later instructs Moses (Numbers 11:16): “Gather unto Me seventy men of the elders of Israel, whom you know to be the elders of the people and officers over them.” Said G‑d: Since they were beaten for Israel’s sake, therefore they will merit the holy spirit and be appointed as prophets over them.

(Midrash Rabbah)


19-21 — the people blame Moses/Aaron

They said to [Moses and Aaron]: “. . . You have made us abhorrent in the eyes of Pharaoh and in the eyes of his servants, to put a sword in their hand to kill us” (5:21)

They said to Moses: “To what are we compared? To a lamb which a wolf comes to devour, and then a shepherd comes to wrest it from the jaws of the wolf. Between the shepherd and the wolf, the lamb is torn in two.” Thus did Israel say: Moses, between you and Pharaoh, we are dying.

(Midrash Rabbah)

22-6:1 — Moses goes to God; God responds.

G‑d said to Moses: “Now you shall see what I will do to Pharaoh” (6:1)

G‑d said to Moses: Because you questioned My ways, “Now you shall see”—what is now done to Pharaoh you will witness, but you will not live to see what I will do to the kings of the seven nations, when I bring Israel into the Land.

(Rashi; Talmud, Sanhedrin 111a)