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And He Left Pharoah

Parshat Bo includes the three final plagues brought against the Egyptians – locusts, darkness, and the slaying of the first born. The negotiations between Moshe and Pharoah, and the antagonism between them, seem to intensify during this period.

In his numerous encounters with Pharoah, the Torah mentions Moshe's departure from the Egyptian king five times, three times in Parashat Vaera and twice in Parshat Bo.

Parshat Vaera

ויצא משה ואהרן מעם פרעה ויצעק משה אל ה'. (שמות ח:ח)

ויצא משה מעם פרעה ויעתר אל ה'. (שמות ח:כו)

ויצא משה מעם פרעה את העיר ויפרש כפיו אל ה'. (שמות ט:לג)

And Moshe and Aharon went out from Pharoah, and Moshe cried out to God. (Shemot 8:8)

And Moshe went out from Pharoah and he entreated unto God. (Shemot 8:26)

And Moshe went out from Pharoah, out of the city, and he spread forth his hands to God. (Shemot 9:33)

Parshat Bo

ויפן ויצא מעם פרעה. (שמות י:ו)

ויצא מעם פרעה בחרי אף. (שמות יא:ח)

And he turned and he went out from Pharoah. (Shemot 10:6)

And he went out from Pharoah in anger. (Shemot 11:8)

The two descriptions in Parshat Bo differ from the descriptions in Parashat Vaera. According to the commentators, these differences reflect significant developments in the interaction between Moshe and Pharoah.

“And He Turned and He Went Out”

According to the Torah, after Moshe warned Pharoah and his advisors about the impending plague of locusts, Moshe “turned” (ויפן) and departed. The term ויפןis used exclusively in this instance. What is its significance?

Ramban cites an opinion that relates the term ויפןto the impact of the plague of hail that immediately preceded the plague of locusts:

בעבור שפחדו מאד בברד חשב משה שיפחדו גם עתה שימותו ברעב אם יאבדו יתר הפליטה הנשארת להם ויצא בלא רשותו טרם שיענוהו הן או לאו כדי שיתיעצו בדבר. חשב מחשבות אמת כי כן עשו ואמרו לפרעה "הטרם תדע כי אבדה מצרים".

Since they were very frightened by the plague of hail, Moshe thought that they would now also be afraid that they would die of hunger if they would lose the remnants that were left over. So, he exited without permission, before they could respond affirmatively or negatively, in order that they could discuss the matter. He thought correct thoughts, for that is what they did, saying to Pharoah: “Do you not yet know that Egypt will be destroyed?”

According to this interpretation, the term ויפןindicates an abrupt departure. In this instance, the suddenness of Moshe’s departure represented a breach of protocol, leaving the presence of the king without permission.[1] The justification for this action was Moshe’s sense that following the severe consequences of the plague of hail, Pharoah and his advisors might be prone to accept his conditions. Moshe’s motivation in leaving the room was to allow Pharoah and his advisors to discuss the situation freely in private. This interpretation is supported by the subsequent verse:

ויאמרו עבדי פרעה אליו עד מתי יהיה זה לנו למוקש שלח את האנשים ויעבדו את ה' א-לקיהם הטרם תדע כי אבדה מצרים. (שמות י:ז)

And the servants of Pharoah said to him: ‘For how long will this be a trap for us? Let the men go so they can worship the Lord their God. Do you not yet know that Egypt will be destroyed?’ (Shemot 10:7)

Or Hachaim also sees the term ויפןas an indication of an abrupt departure, and connects it to the impact of the plague of hail on Pharoah and his advisors. In his interpretation, however, Moshe’s departure takes on a negative connotation:

זלזלו בעיניו, שאחר שהתודה ואמר "ה' הצדיק" חזר לטרחונו. לזה פנה ויצא כדרך הנהוג עם שאר בני אדם.

They were disdainful in his eyes, for after he (Pharoah) had admitted and said: “God is the righteous one”, he returned to his troublesome stance. For this reason he (Moshe) turned and exited as is normal behavior among other people.

The plague of hail had apparently brought Pharoah to a recognition of God, as indicated in Shemot 9:27:

ויקרא למשה ולאהרן ויאמר אליהם חטאתי הפעם ה' הצדיק ואני ועמי הרשעים.

And he called to Moshe and Aharon and said to them: “I have sinned this time. God is the righteous one, and I and my people are wicked”.

As a result, Moshe expected to find Pharoah in a more cooperative mood. When he sensed that Pharoah had returned to his hard line posture, Moshe was disgusted and lost his patience. According to Or Hachaim, Moshe’s growing frustration, reflected in his sudden departure from the room, was a normal human reaction.

The Midrash interprets ויפןin a much different fashion than the previous two commentators:

מהו ויפן? שראה אותם שהיו פונים זה בזה והיו מאמינים לדבריו, ויצא משה כדי שיטלו עצה לעשות תשובה. (שמות רבה יג:ה)

What is the meaning of “and he turned”? That he saw them relating (פונים) to each other, that they believed his words. And Moshe exited so they would consult and repent. (Shemot Rabbah 13:5)

According to the Midrash, Moshe understood from subtle interactions between Pharoah and his advisors that they were prone to take heed of his threat. The interpretation of the Midrash is based on two linguistic points:

1) The subject related to the verb ויפןis indefinite. The Midrash views Pharoah, rather than Moshe, as the subject of ויפןsince he is the only individual mentioned in the verse. In the opinion of the Midrash, the verse reads as follows:

ומלאו בתיך [של פרעה] ובתי כל עבדיך ובתי כל מצרים אשר לא ראו אבותיך ואבות אבותיך … ויפן [פרעה] ויצא [משה] מעם פרעה.

And your (Pharoah’s) houses and the houses of all of your servants and the houses of all of the Egyptians shall be filled, as neither your fathers or your father’s fathers have seen … and he (Pharoah) turned, and he (Moshe) went out from Pharoah.

2) The word ויפןhas two possible meanings. It could mean to physically turn as in ויפן כה וכה וירא כי אין איש(“and he turned this way and that way and saw that there was no man” – Shemot 2:12), or it could mean to relate or give one’s attention to, as in אל תפן אל קשי העם הזה(“do not pay attention to the stubbornness of this people” – Devarim 9:27). The Midrash, in contrast to the two previous commentators, prefers the second meaning.

The conclusion of the Midrash is similar to that of the commentary cited by the Ramban in that it is consistent with the subsequent verse in which Pharoah’s advisors suggest that it would be worthwhile to grant Moshe his request.

“And He Left Pharoah in Anger”

The Torah records in Shemot 11:8 that Moshe’s final departure from Pharoah, prior to the killing of the first born, was characterized by anger (חרי אף). What was the source of this anger? Rashi relates it to the harsh interaction between Moshe and Pharoah 9 verses earlier:

ויאמר לו פרעה לך מעלי השמר לך אל תוסף ראות פני כי ביום ראותך פני תמות. ויאמר משה כן דברת לא אוסיף עוד ראות פניך. (שמות י:כח-כט)

And Pharoah said to him: ‘Go from before me, take heed not to see my face again, for on the day that you see my face, you shall die.’ And Moshe said: ‘As you have spoken, I will not see your face again. (Shemot 10:28-29)

Why is there a gap between the precipitating incident and Moshe’s actual departure? The intervening verses record a communication between God and Moshe followed by Moshe’s transmission of the message to Pharoah:

ויאמר ה' אל משה עוד נגע אחד אביא על פרעה ועל מצרים אחרי כן ישלח אתכם מזה… (שמות יא:א)

And God said to Moshe: ‘Yet one more plague will I bring upon Pharoah and upon Egypt; afterwards he will let you go from here.’ (Shemot 11:1)

Ibn Ezra explains that the revelation to Moshe regarding the final plague actually took place earlier.

ויאמר ה' - … ומתי נאמר לו, וזה נאמר לו במדין עוד הנה אנכי הורג את בנך בכורך (שמות ד:כג).

...ויאמר ה' אל משה - וכבר אמר ה' זה למשה וכבר הראתיך רבים כאלה.

And God said - … And when was it said to him? It was said to him when he was still in Midyan: “Behold I will kill your first born son.” (Shemot 4:23)

And Godsaid to Moshe - And God had already said this to Moshe, and I have already demonstrated many instances like this.

Ibn Ezra uniquely holds that the use of the ו' ההיפוך(the letter vav that changes a future tense verb into the past tense) sometimes turns the verb into the past perfect. In this case, the word ויאמרwould therefore be translated “and he had said”, indicating that the revelation had taken place previously. Thus, according to Ibn Ezra, Moshe’s warning to Pharoah and his angry departure followed immediately after their harsh interaction recorded in verses 10:28-29.

Most commentators, however, do not accept Ibn Ezra’s grammatical point. On the contrary, Rashi holds a completely opposite opinion that the use of the past tense without the ו' ההיפוך(e.g. וה' אמר) represents the past perfect tense.[2] If so, the revelation to Moshe intervened between the angry exchange between Moshe and Pharoah and Moshe’s actual departure. The Midrash indicates that this Divine revelation to Moshe was unique in that it took place in the house of Pharoah:

אמר לו משה: "כן דברת לא אוסיף עוד ראות פניך". אמר הקב"ה: "עדיין מתבקש לי להודיע לפרעה מכה אחת". מיד קפץ עליו אלוקים, כביכול נכנס בפלטין של פרעה בשביל משה, שאמר לו: "לא אוסיף עוד ראות פניך” – שלא ימצא בדאי. ואתה מוצא שלא דבר הקב"ה עם משה בביתו של פרעה אלא אותה שעה. (שמות רבה יח)

Moshe said to him (Pharoah): “As you have spoken, I will not see your face again.” God said: “I still want to inform Pharoah about one more plague.” Immediately, God pounced upon him (to communicate with Moshe), so to speak entering the palace of Pharoah for the sake of Moshe, who had said to him (Pharoah): “I will not see your face again.” – so he would not be proven to be a liar. And you find that God did not speak with Moshe in the palace of Pharoah except for this one instance.

Once Moshe had announced that he would not have another face to face meeting with Pharoah, God was motivated to communicate with Moshe before he left the palace so that he need not recant. This explains the suddenness and unusual location of the revelation. According to this Midrash, a characteristically human element has here entered into the interactions between Moshe and Pharoah. In a sense, God is now taking his cue from Moshe. This is consistent with another difference between the departures recorded in Parashat Vaera and those recorded in Parashat Bo. In the three departures in Parashat Vaera, Moshe exits the palace and immediately seeks out God’s assistance. In the departures in Parashat Bo, that element is missing. It seems that Moshe and Pharoah are increasingly setting the agenda. In this spirit, the Midrash subsequently sites the following verse from Yeshayahu 44:26: "[אנכי ה'] מקים דבר עבדו ועצת מלאכיו"– “[I am the Lord] Who fulfills the word of His servant and the counsel of His messenger”.

Moshe Takes Charge

It is in the waning moments, when Pharoah forbids Moshe to come again to the palace, that Moshe takes complete control of the negotiating agenda. This is reflected in his assertion as he departs Pharoah’s chamber for the last time:

וירדו כל עבדיך אלה אלי והשתחוו לי לאמר צא אתה וכל העם אשר בגגליך ואחרי כן אצא ויצא מעם פרעה בחרי אף. (שמות יא:ח)

And all of these your servants shall come down to me, and bow down to me, saying: ‘Get out, you and all of the people that follow you.’ And after that I will go out. And he went out from Pharoah in anger. (Shemot 11:8)

The scenario that Moshe describes comes to fruition on the night that the first born of Egypt are slain, as reflected in Shemot 12:30-31:

ויקם פרעה לילה הוא וכל עבדיו וכל מצרים ותהי צעקה גדולה במצרים … ויקרא למשה ולאהרן לילה ויאמר קומו צאו מתוך עמי גם אתם גם בני ישראל ולכו עבדו את ה' כדברכם.

And Pharoah rose up in the night, he and all of his servants and all of the Egyptians, and there was a great cry in Egypt … And he called for Moshe and Aharon by night and he said: ‘Rise up and get out from among my people, both you and the children of Israel, and go to serve the Lord as you have spoken.’

רש"י - מגיד שהיה מחזר על פתחי העיר וצועק היכן משה שרוי היכן משה שרוי.

Rashi - This tells us that he went around to the doors of the city, and cried: “Where does Moshe live? Where does Moshe live?”

Rashi indicates that in this instance, it was Pharoah who went out of the palace to find Moshe, bringing to realization the scenario that Moshe had determined.


The unfolding drama described by the Torah regarding the liberation of Bnai Yisrael from Egypt plays itself out simultaneously on the Divine and the human levels. In the confrontation between God and Pharoah, Pharoah’s obstinacy facilitates a growing recognition of God among both the Egyptians and Bnai Yisrael. This drama builds gradually throughout the ten plagues until it reaches its crescendo in the smiting of the Egyptian firsborn. In the confrontation between Moshe and Pharoah, Pharoah’s obstinacy has a transformational effect on Moshe. The plague of hail seems to be a turning point in this human drama, as reflected in the relationship between the two leaders. During the final three plagues, recorded in Parashat Bo, Moshe emerges as a more self-confident and assertive leader, taking the primary role in setting the agenda on the human level, and to some degree on the Divine level as well.

[1] Ibn Ezra claims that “ויפן ויצא” means that Moshe turned toward Pharoah and exited backwards as is

the protocol when taking leave of royalty. The difficulty with this explanation is that it does not explain why the term “ויפן” is used exclusively in this instance. Presumably, Moshe would have followed the same protocol each time that he exited Pharoah’s chamber.

[2] See Rashi’s comment on Breishit 4:1.

The above image originally appeared on the jacket of the Nehama Leibowitz printed series © WZO/JAFI and is reproduced here with permission from the online series © The Pedagogic Center, The Department for Jewish Zionist Education, JAFI.