Yesterday, we noted the difficult verse in Parashat Shemot in which God responds to Moshe’s claim that he was incapable of approaching Pharaoh to demand the release of Benei Yisrael. God replied, “For I shall be with you; and this is the sign that I have sent you – when you bring the nation out of Egypt, you shall serve God on this mountain” (3:12). While the first portion of God’s response – “For I shall be with you” – seems clear, the rest of this verse, in which God speaks of a “sign” and foretells the event of the Revelation at Mount Sinai, seems difficult to understand.
The Rashbam, interestingly enough, introduces his commentary to this verse by expressing disdain at the approaches taken by earlier commentators, writing, “One who wishes to arrive at the true interpretation of these verses should study this commentary of mine, because my predecessors did not understand it at all.” (Presumably, he refers here even to the explanations offered by his grandfather, Rashi.) In his interpretation to this verse, the Rashbam advances a surprising theory regarding the entire process of the Exodus, the scheme through which God had Moshe persuade Pharaoh to release Benei Yisrael. According to the Rashbam, Moshe expressed two concerns about the mission to which he was assigned: how he would be able to enter the palace and stand before Pharaoh, and, even if he were to be granted an audience with Pharaoh, why Pharaoh would heed his demand. Addressing Moshe’s first concern, God assured him, “For I shall be with you, and this is the sign that I have sent you.” Following Rashi’s first approach to explaining this verse (as mentioned yesterday), the Rashbam writes that God pointed to the sight of the burning bush, which was engulfed in flames and yet remained intact, as a sign of the miraculous protection He would grant Moshe. Just as the bush was supernaturally shielded from the flames, so would Moshe be supernaturally shielded from harm as he entered the palace and spoke to the Egyptian king.
In the final segment of this verse, the Rashbam writes, which foretells the event of Ma’amad Har Sinai, God tells Moshe of the tactic he would use to lead Benei Yisrael to freedom. Instead of demanding that Pharaoh release the slaves – a demand which there was no reason to expect Pharaoh to obey – Moshe was to appeal to Pharaoh to allow Benei Yisrael some time off to journey into the desert and offer sacrifices to God. As God explained later (verse 18), Moshe was to ask Pharaoh simply to allow Benei Yisrael to take a three-day journey into the wilderness. According to the Rashbam, this request was made “derekh chokhma” – as a trick. The plan was for Benei Yisrael to request a temporary “vacation” for the sake of serving God, indicating that they would then return, but this was merely a trick, as they would then continue traveling away from Egypt, toward the Land of Israel.
The Rashbam would likely understand on this basis the events that transpired after the Exodus, when, as we read in Parashat Beshalach (14:5), Pharaoh was informed “that the nation had fled,” and he promptly mobilized an army to pursue Benei Yisrael. At first glance, this verse seems very difficult to understand. After all, Pharaoh himself had driven Benei Yisrael out of the country. Why would he be surprised to hear that they “fled”? According to the Rashbam, the answer is clear: Pharaoh granted Benei Yisrael permission to leave temporarily, but he then learned that they were continuing to travel, and were not returning to Egypt.
A number of later commentators objected to the Rashbam’s understanding of the events. For example, Rabbeinu Chananel (to 3:18) writes, “Heaven forbid that this was a trick in order to escape.” In his view, it is inconceivable that God would have commanded Moshe to lead Benei Yisrael to freedom by knowingly deceiving Pharaoh in this fashion. According to the Rashbam, however, this was precisely the tactic, already from the moment God first spoke to Moshe and ordered him to lead Benei Yisrael to freedom.
(For a fuller discussion of this topic, see Rabbi Menachem Leibtag’s essay, “Let My People Go – a Hoax or a Mission.”)