Moses, a diplomatic negotiator ahead of his time

Moses’ goal is to take the people out of slavery and bring them to the land of Israel but he never states that.

The large tapestry in the Knesset by Marc Chagall of Moses receiving the Torah (photo credit: KNESSET)
The large tapestry in the Knesset by Marc Chagall of Moses receiving the Torah
(photo credit: KNESSET)
Ask someone “What did Moses say to Pharaoh?” Most people answer “Let My people go/Shelach et ami !!” Then ask “Where did Moses ask Pharaoh to send them?” With that same assertion most respond “To the Land of Israel.” However, Moses never requested that!
Rather, in their encounters Moses asks, quoting God, to “Let My people go so they may worship Me in the wilderness.”
Moses’ goal is to take the people out of slavery and bring them to the land of Israel but he never states that.
Did Moses lie and try to deceive Pharaoh? Are there lessons about diplomatic negotiations learned from Moses’ tactics?
To answer, we need to look at this week’s Torah portion Shmot – at the Burning Bush when Moses receives his call.
“I indeed have seen the abuse of My people in Egypt, and its outcry because of its taskmasters. I have heard, I know its pain. I have come down to deliver them from the hand of Egypt and to bring them up from that land to a good and spacious land, to a land flowing with milk and honey... And now, go that I may send you to Pharaoh, and bring My people the Israelites out of Egypt... you shall say to him: The Lord, God of the Hebrews, met us, and so, let us go pray, three days’ journey into the wilderness, that we may sacrifice to the Lord our God” (Exodus 3:7-8; 10; 18).
As Moses’ curiosity is piqued by a bush burning yet not consumed, our interest should be provoked by a number of elements in these lines. For one, the word shelach/send is a leitmotif throughout the early chapters of the Book of Exodus. God tells Moses that God will “send” (3:10) him to Pharaoh, “that I Myself have sent you” (3:12). Moses demands of Pharaoh “Let my people go” eight times (5:1; 7:16; 8:16; 8:17; 9:1; 9:13; 10:3; and 10:4).
While that is the most common translation of this famous phrase, Everett Fox captures the Hebrew more exactly in his translation “Send free my people.” Pharaoh says to Moses, “I myself will send you off, that you may sacrifice to the Lord your God in the wilderness” (8:24), while Pharaoh’s attendants say, “Send the men free, that they may serve the Lord, their God” (10:7). In two weeks, Beshalach/Sent is the name of the parasha (Torah portion).
“Now it was, when Pharaoh sent the people free” (13:17). Why send? Someone causes something/someone to be sent. The sender has agency, while the one being sent is more passive, needing permission to go. The Book of Exodus opens with this leitmotif to underscore that weaker reality of the Children of Israel under slavery. Juxtaposed is Moses, at times at the receiving end of being sent, who also has capacity and uses it in his negotiations with Pharaoh.
MOSES ALWAYS keeps his eyes on the prize of liberating the Children of Israel from bondage but, as noted above, does not specifically demand that of Pharaoh. Rather, six times Moses asks the Israelites be allowed to go into the wilderness to worship God, according to conditions Moses spells out (5:1; 5:3; 8:16; 8:23; 10:9; 10:25). Ironically, the Hebrews will worship God for the first time not in the wilderness but in Egypt, with the first Pessah Seder (12:1-51) “not too far away” (8:24) as Pharaoh had requested early in his negotiations with Moses.
Moses does not come up with the petition to bring the people into the wilderness to worship God; as mentioned above, it was God who directed Moses at the Burning Bush to ask the Hebrew slaves be allowed to journey three days into the wilderness to worship God (3:18).
Why did God instruct Moses not to ask for what he really wanted? First, we know Joshua, not Moses, will lead the Children of Israel into the Promised Land. God decided not to have Moses ask for something he was not destined to do in the end.
Second, creative ambiguity can be essential in diplomacy. Moses asking to take the people into the wilderness can be understood as a request to worship God and/or to take the people out of physical servitude. That gray area can be the way forward in diplomatic negotiations.
Thirdly, when it comes to being effective in getting what we want from someone with whom we disagree, conflict transformation activist Rev. Daniel Buttry speaks of three zones. The first, the Comfort Zone is where we like to be and so we are not open to different perspectives and change. At the other end of the spectrum is the Alarm Zone, where we are overwhelmed by what may be said to us, so we shut down because the ask, the change, is
too great to contemplate. However, in the middle lies the Discomfort Zone, where what we are being presented may not initially sit well with us but we wrestle with the request.
Moses’ appeal to go into the wilderness to worship God puts Pharaoh in the Discomfort Zone, but not the Alarm Zone. Pharaoh does not agree initially, but he does continue to engage Moses about the request. Moses does have at his disposal the plagues God unleashes, yet Moses never changes his stated request of Pharaoh. Benno Jacob comments, “Pharaoh responded negatively to Moses more than twenty times, but never with any reference to a prohibition of worship.” A closer look at their negotiations reveals Moses and Pharaoh haggling over the details – where (8:24), who and what get to go (10:8-11; 10:24-26; 12:32) – but never a change in what Moses asked of Pharaoh. In the end, Moses stays firm in his request, both stated and implied; by so doing he is able to lead the people to “a land flowing with milk and honey.” ■
The writer is rabbi emeritus of the Israel Congregation, Manchester Center, Vermont, and a faculty member of the Arava Institute for Environmental Studies and Bennington College.