After much persuasion, Moshe agrees to go to Pharaoh as Israel’s leader. Hashem promises Moshe that he will not go alone, that both Aharon and the Elders of Israel would accompany him, as the Torah says, “And they will hearken to your voice, and you shall come, you and the Elders of Israel, to the king of Egypt, and you (plural) shall say to him, ‘the Lord God of the Hebrews has happened upon us, and now, let us go for a three days’ journey in the desert and offer up sacrifices to the Lord, our God.’” (Exodus 3:18) However, when we examine the Torah’s description of the first time that Moshe enters the royal palace, we find two central changes. The Torah describes Moshe’s entrance to Pharaoh’s palace as follows: “And afterwards, Moshe and Aharon came and said to Pharaoh, ‘So said the Lord God of Israel, ‘Send out My people, and let them sacrifice to Me in the desert.’” (Exodus 5:1) The most conspicuous of the changes is that the Elders are not mentioned in the verse, and it appears that only Moshe and Aharon entered. Additionally, apparently Moshe and Aharon changed the message that they were supposed to deliver to Pharaoh.The original message was supposed to tell Pharaoh that Heshem appeared to them and it was their desire to celebrate and offer sacrifices to Hashem, their God, yet Moshe requests that the people be freed and describes the celebration as a Divine command. Certainly, one can ask, “Where did the Elders disappear to? And how can the change in the message that Moshe delivers to Pharaoh be explained?”
The Midrash in Shemot Rabbah, Parshat Shemot 5:14 s.v “And Afterwards” explains that at first the Elders walked with Moshe and Aharon towards Pharaoh’s palace, but on the way they deserted Moshe. As the Midrash says:
“And afterwards, Moshe and Aharon came”, (Exodus 5:1) where did the Elders go, as they are not mentioned as being with them? Did not the Holy One Blessed be He say to him: “and you shall come, you and the elders of Israel, to the king of Egypt” (Exodus 3:18) ? Our sages said: The Elders went with them, and then one by one, two by two, they snuck away and dropped out. Once they reached Pharaoh’s palace, none of the Elders were there, as it has been written, “And afterwards, Moshe and Aharon came.” Where are the Elders? Rather, they left. The Holy One Blessed be He said, “This is the way to act? I swear that I will repay you.” When? When Moshe and Aharon ascended Mount Sinai with the Elders, the Holy One Blessed be He returned them, as it is written: “And to the Elders he said, ‘Wait for us here….” (Exodus 24:14)
This Midrash explains that the Elders are not mentioned because they abandoned Moshe on the way to the palace, and that this act awakens Hashem’s anger who punishes them by not permitting them to ascend Mount Sinai with Moshe to receive the Torah. The Midrash does not indicate the reason that the Elders deserted Moshe on the way to the palace, but one can hypothesize a number of reasons: 1) – Fear and concern over Pharaoh’s reaction. 2) – Lack of belief that Moshe was the chosen leader. 3) – Lack of belief that the Nation of Israel was worthy of redemption. Hashem does not view what they did kindly, and pays them back measure for measure in that they do not ascend with Moshe to receive the Torah.The language of the Midrash reminds us what Avraham told the 2 men who walked with him to the Akidah. When Avraham realized that they didn’t see the Divine presence on the mountain he asked them to “seat with the donkey”.
The common thread is that if people lack the ability and courage to lift their eyes and to have faith-they need to remain in their place and not climb up the mountain. The reality described by the Midrash paints a gloomy picture of the Jewish leadership before Moshe’s arrival. This was leadership which could not succeed in overcoming its fear, concentrating on guarding the status quo, which could not develop a vision of leading forward. Moshe, who drew encouragement from the fact that the elders of the people, who were the leaders of the people in Egypt, believed in him and caused the people to believe in the truth of his mission, finds himself alone in the battle with Pharaoh. As the Abarbanel writes: (Exodus Chap. 4): “And I think that the Elders did not want to go with Moshe and Aharon to Pharaoh as Hashem said to Moshe, ’and you shall come, you and the elders of Israel, to the king of Egypt, because they were afraid of him.” Pharaoh instilled fear in the Elders of Israel to such an extent that they could not even express a position contrary to his will.
However, Rabbenu Avraham ben HaRambam, in his commentary to Exodus 5:1 disagrees with this explanation, and maintains:
“It states in the section beginning ‘And Moshe was a shepherd… .’(Exodus 3:1) and you shall come, you, Aharon and the Elders of Israel. It is surprising. It appears to me that the Elders of Israel went in with him as he was commanded, and that is missing in order to shorten (the text), and to connect ‘And they said to Pharaoh’ with Moshe and Aharon, who were the only ones to speak, not the Elders. And this is proven by the statement of Pharaoh “Go to your [plural] own labors.”
His claim is that the Elders did go in with Moshe and Aharon but are not mentioned in the verse, the reason being that only Moshe and Aharon actually spoke, not the Elders, and it was necessary to connect Moshe and Aharon as the speakers to the content of what they said. His proof comes from the fact that Pharaoh commands, “Go to your labors”, apparently intended not just for Moshe and Aharon, who happened to be exempt from labor according to Chazal, but to the Elders as well. This explanation while being a defense of the Elders, raises a specific problem: While we do find the idea that there is a necessity for the Torah text to be more concise, but in our context, this would only amount to a reduction of a single word, since the Torah could have written, “And afterwards, Moshe and Aharon and the Elders came”. Without a doubt, there is great importance in the lack of mention of the Elders who were the leaders of Israel during that period.
The Netziv, in Haemek Davar, Parshat Shemot 5:1, gives his explanation in the spirit of the Midrash and maintains: “Its meaning is that after the many things that were included, it appears that Moshe and Aharon tried to get the Elders to come with them but to no avail.” That is that Moshe and Aharon tried to persuade the Elders to come with them, but they refused to do so, their reason being: “Moshe and Aharon went: By themselves, because (the Elders) belief was not complete so as to enable them to rise to the level of self-sacrifice and to go to Pharaoh.” According to the Netziv, the Elders do not yet believe completely in Moshe’s mission, and the Divine message, in so far as they would be willing to put their lives in danger by going to Pharaoh. This description paints the Elders of Israel in a critical light. Even though they believed and “kneeled and prostrated themselves,” (Exodus 4:31) nevertheless, their belief was not full and complete — doubts and fears still permeated among them, preventing them from working in a full and open way on speeding up the redemption. Because of this, the Netziv claims that a change occurred in the original Divine message:
“And they said to Pharaoh etc. Send out my people etc.: Not as Hashem said to Moshe that he should say that because Hashem called to us in a Divine Revelation, that we are demanding to sacrifice before Him, but today when the Elders did not personally appear, Moshe and Aharon could no longer say that because Hashem appeared to them we are all, therefore, demanding that we go and sacrifice in the desert. Therefore, they took a different approach, that Hashem told them, as a command, to tell Pharaoh,’Send out my people etc.’”
The lack of presence of the Elders caused a change in the message that Moshe delivered to Pharaoh. Moshe could no longer say that “God happened upon us” for Pharaoh would not believe him since anyone could say that Hashem appeared to him. The Elders were supposed to be “witnesses” to the Divine revelation, at least to create a more significant effect. Since the Elders did not come, Moshe had to change the message from revelation that creates “Now let us go” which symbolizes the popular will to draw close to Hashem, to a Divine command to send out the people and that this people will sacrifice to the Lord their God. The Netziv explains that Moshe’s message without the Elders is weaker and less significant and, to a certain degree, misses the opportunity to influence Pharaoh. Moses’s message which was meant to deliver attributes of Divine revelation and the popular and national will to celebrate the God who appeared to them, changed to a message of command.
Nechama Leibowitz, in her book “Studies in the Book of Shemot”, describes the situation of the leadership as follows: “ We have before us the picture of everyone accepting the proclamation of the redemption with great enthusiasm. With great belief in Moshe and Aharon, it was decided “unanimously” to go to Pharaoh, to demand “Let us go” and to follow Moshe and Aharon. The next morning they go out to Pharaoh’s palace and doubts begin to gnaw at them: Will Pharaoh listen? Is there a real chance of success, is it worthwhile? In general, there is great danger to come before Pharaoh with requests, and individuals began to “cop out”, one by one. Not by means of a decision, not unanimously, but shamefully, surreptitiously. The farther the delegation went, the closer it came to the palace, the more the number of police surrounding Pharaoh’s palace grew, the closer it came to the moment when they would be required to stand before Pharaoh, the smaller the number of demonstrators. When they arrived, behold Moshe and Aharon were alone. They were individuals against the king of the entire Egyptian empire, against the most powerful person in the world, they alone, two old people without an army without “back-up” since even the representatives of this lowly poor nation for which they came — were not with them. Is it so that they were isolated? As the proverb says; ‘ The one whos has the truth is the majority, even if he is the only one.’ The Elders of Israel were not successful in translating their belief in the Divine revelation to Moshe and the Divine message that the end had come, into action. The doubts and the fears prevented them from acting in accord with their beliefs and created a gap between their beliefs and their deeds. Moshe, who experienced the revelation and the authenticity of the message of redemption, stood opposite Pharaoh without budging and without fear because the truth was with him, and he was not alone in this battle.
In a certain respect, this description reminds us of the image of Avraham Haivri who stood alone against the entire world claiming the singularity and unity of Hashem. He was unafraid of the fiery furnace or of the scorn, but acted according to his beliefs and feeling of having a mission beating within him. Moshe, to a great extent like Avraham, that this was the time to be strong like a tiger and not “be ashamed because of people who mock him in the service of Hashem, Blessed be He.” (Rama, Shulchan Aruch, OC 1:1)