And Pharaoh arose during the nighttime, him, his servants and all of Egypt, and there was a great outcry in Egypt, for there was no home which did not have dead.
As the clock strikes midnight, the plague of the firstborn is unleashed. Pharaoh, himself an eldest, fears the worst. Like a man possessed, he runs out of his palace in complete hysteria, frantically searching for Moshe and Aharon. Finally locating the pair, he unceremoniously shouts: “Get out! Leave the country immediately, you and your entire nation, before my subjects and I all die!”
Moshe replies: “Fool! Do you really expect us to leave in the dead of night!?!”
Pleads Pharaoh: “Yes, I beg of you, just get up and leave immediately!”
Moshe bristles: “Do you intend for us to escape like thieves?”
Pharaoh rejoins: “But all of Egypt will be dead by morning!”
To which Moshe finally responds: “If you truly seek to end the plague, all you must do is repeat after me- Behold you are free men, slaves to no one but the Creator!”
Left with no choice, Pharaoh begrudgingly complies: “Until now, you were my slaves, but now you are free men”. (As per Yalkut Shimoni, Shemos 106)
Entertaining as it may be, the Moshe-Pharaoh exchange bears much scrutiny. Why would Moshe consider Pharaoh a fool for wanting to save his country from imminent disaster? Indeed, what is so preposterous altogether about the Israelites leaving in the middle of the night? Had they not been waiting for this moment of liberation for decades? Wouldn’t they jump at the opportunity for freedom the moment it presented itself?
Obviously, something far deeper than what meets the eye is at play over here. Pharaoh, desperation in his voice notwithstanding, was not simply conceding the fight. Instead, he was simply resorting to the last trick in his bag. Yes, he would have to let them go, but only with the mindset of fugitives. Let them escape like rats in the dead of night, he reasoned, lest they regain an element of self-respect in the process of liberation.
Moshe, however, refused to bite. The entire purpose of the Exodus was to emerge a nation conscious of its innate majesty, and, to that end, leaving in stealth simply wouldn’t do.
If all Pharaoh really wanted was to end the plague, there would be only one way out. He would have to proclaim loud and clear: Jews are henceforth free men, both in practice and in stature.
Forced to comply, Pharaoh maliciously contorted his admission to retain at least some element of dehumanization: Until now, you were my slaves, but now you are free men.
Or: Historically, you have always been a nation of lowly, sub-human slaves, and it is only now that you have somehow managed to wriggle free from that menial state.
Unfortunately, that parting message of Pharaoh yet festers in the back of many a Jewish mind, forever voicing its conviction that we are indeed the subhuman species world civilization has made us out to be.
Indeed, from Egypt to Greece, Inquisition Spain through Nazi Germany, our enemies have done nothing but try to convince us of that voice’s innate truth.
Yet we must forever recall that voice’s origin: A pathetic, pajama-clad Pharaoh, supposed leader of the “civilized” world, forced to repeat after our illustrious leader Moshe for fear of his life, like a naughty schoolchild being scolded for some pesky act of mischief.
That, not the lie our enemies try to feed us, is the true picture of our exalted nation’s standing vis-a-vis the “enlightened” world.
Even in rags, we are royalty, not ragtag.