The Torah in Parashat Vaera tells of the promises of redemption which God conveyed to Benei Yisrael through Moshe after Pharaoh intensified their workload in response to Moshe’s demand to allow Benei Yisrael to leave. We read that Benei Yisrael paid no heed to these promises, broken and dispirited as they were from their harsh labor (6:9), whereupon God spoke to Moshe and Aharon “and commanded them to [go to] the Israelites and to Pharaoh, king of Egypt, to bring the Israelites out of Egypt” (6:13).
The implication of this verse is that God sent Moshe and Aharon not only back to Pharaoh, but also back to the people. It is not clear, however, what this mission to the people entailed. We understand that Moshe and Aharon were to return to Pharaoh to reiterate their demand that he let Benei Yisrael leave, but the Torah does not seem to explain the purpose for which Moshe and Aharon were to return to Benei Yisrael.
Some commentators avoid this question by reinterpreting the phrase “el Benei Yisrael” (“to the Israelites”) to mean something other than a command to speak to the people. Rav Saadia Gaon, for example, interprets the verse to mean that God issued commands to Moshe and Aharon “about” Pharaoh and “about” Benei Yisrael. Translating the word “el” in this verse as “about,” rather than “to,” Rav Saadia Gaon claims that the Torah speaks of God’s commands to Moshe and Aharon regarding the entire process that would now be unfolding, the process of the plagues and the Exodus from Egypt.
A generally similar approach is taken by Rashi, who likewise explains this verse as a command regarding Benei Yisrael and regarding Pharaoh, as opposed to a command to speak to Benei Yisrael and Pharaoh. According to Rashi, God here commands Moshe and Aharon to show respect to Pharaoh, despite his evildoing, given his stature as king, and to be patient and tolerant of Benei Yisrael who, understandably, felt embittered and resentful of Moshe and Aharon after the initial failure of their mission.
The Talmud Yerushalmi (Rosh Hashanah 3:5), however, explains much differently, claiming that Moshe and Aharon were commanded to convey God’s instruction to the people. Specifically, the Yerushalmi writes, God told Moshe and Aharon to instruct the people to release their servants. It appears that even in the nation’s state of exile and bondage, there were some among Benei Yisrael who were more powerful than others, and had Israelite servants. Before the onset of the ten plagues and the process of the Exodus, God demanded that Benei Yisrael release the servants whom they held under their control. The prophet Yirmiyahu (34:13-14) mentions God issuing such a command at the time of the Exodus, and the Yerushalmi teaches that Yirmiyahu refers to this verse in Parashat Vaera, in which God “commanded Moshe and Aharon [to go] to the Israelites.” According to the Yerushalmi, this means that Moshe and Aharon were to go to the people and demand that they release their servants.
On one level, the significance of this command being issued before the process of the Exodus lies in the fact that Benei Yisrael needed to show that they were prepared to do what the Egyptians were called upon to do. Before God punished Egypt for refusing to release Benei Yisrael from slavery, it was imperative that Benei Yisrael release their own servants. It would be inconsistent, if not hypocritical, for Benei Yisrael to expect God to intervene to release them from servitude while they themselves held servants.
The Penei Menachem (Rav Pinchas Menachem Alter, one of the Rebbes of Ger), however, suggested an additional layer of meaning underlying the Yerushalmi’s remark. When the Yerushalmi says that the people were commanded with regard to “shilu’ach avadim” (“sending away servants”), the Penei Menachem explained, it means that they were called upon to send away the “slaves” within themselves, to rid their minds of their internal slavery, of their sense of subservience to people and things other than God. The process of the Exodus was intended to free Benei Yisrael so they could become the loyal servants of the Almighty. And for this to happen, it did not suffice for God to release the people from the shackles of Egypt; they needed to release themselves from their self-imposed shackles, from the various negative habits and tendencies to which they had grown accustomed and had become, in a sense, subservient. If we are to become free to serve the Almighty, we must rely on Him to protect us from external forces that threaten to seize control over us, but in addition, we must work to achieve freedom from the “masters” under whose control we’ve brought ourselves, and wholeheartedly devote our allegiance to nobody and nothing other than God.