Parsha Pearls: Parshas Va’eira
And Pharaoh called for Moshe and Aharon, and he said, “Go sacrifice to your G-d in this land.” And Moshe said, “It is not proper to do that, for we will slaughter the deity of Egypt to Hashem our G-d; behold, if we were to slaughter the deity of Egypt before their eyes, would they not stone us?” (8:21-22)
This answer given by Moshe seems strange. Moshe and the Jews never let fear of the Egyptians stop them from doing anything. Moshe came and went in Pharaoh’s palace without permission, giving him harsh warnings. On the day before the Exodus, the Jews did indeed slaughter the lamb, the deity of Egypt, before their eyes.
The Midrash (Shemos Rabbah 16:3) says this explicitly: “The Holy One, blessed is He, said to Moshe: By your life, Israel will not leave here until they slaughter the god of Egypt before their eyes. I will show them that their god is nothing… on that night Israel slaughtered their pesach offerings and ate them, and the Egyptians saw their firstborn killed and their gods slaughtered, and they could do nothing… Let all those who serve idols be ashamed!”
So how could Moshe have been afraid of the Egyptians stoning the Jews? And if he was not really afraid, but just used this as an excuse to Pharaoh, why did Pharaoh believe it? And if for some reason he was afraid, why did he say “it is not proper to do that”? He should have used much stronger words: “we are afraid to do that” or “it would be dangerous to do that.”
The answer is that yes, when the time of redemption arrived and G-d instructed the Jews to slaughter the deity of Egypt, they could do so without fear. But now it was not yet the time of redemption, and G-d had not commanded them to slaughter the deity of Egypt before their eyes, so this slaughter would have been a transgression of the prohibition on provoking the gentiles during exile.
For the same reason, G-d commanded Moshe and Aharon to speak respectfully to Pharaoh, as Rashi says (6:13). The time of the redemption had not yet arrived, and talking arrogantly to Pharaoh would have been considered “provoking the nations.”
Moshe continued, “Three days journey we will go in the desert, and we will sacrifice to Hashem our G-d as He will say to us.” Seemingly, the words “as He will say to us” are unnecessary. But the meaning is: we must do everything just as G-d tells us. We will sacrifice here in Egypt, but only when He tells us to do so. It is not that we fear the Egyptians. They will not be able to stone us, but they will certainly want to, and it is not proper to provoke them like that. (Divrei Yoel, p. 161)
Rabbi Tzvi Elimelech of Dinov