Pharaoh pleaded with Moshe to remove the frogs. Moshe agrees to pray for their removal at a time to be determined by Pharaoh. An interlocutor asks whether Moshe’s response is politically savvy. Would it not be more effective if he had told Pharaoh that the frogs would disappear after the Jews left Egypt? By agreeing to intercede before his demands were met, Moshe enables Pharaoh to renege once relief is obtained.
The question presupposes that Moshe is acting on his own, and not on divine instruction. This premise does not, in itself, disqualify the question. The Torah does not explicitly state that Moshe’s response was dictated by G-d, and some commentators, notably Abarbanel, hold that Moshe acted on his own initiative when he promised to pray. Moreover, if he was obeying G-d’s command, this would merely shift the question from Moshe to G-d: It would be G-d who would forego His advantage by letting Pharaoh off the hook.
The obvious explanation is that neither G-d nor His agent Moshe aim to liberate Israel from Egypt through naked force. The goal is to have Pharaoh tell them to leave of his own volition. That is why, in the later stages, G-d strengthens Pharaoh’s will and enables him to persevere until the bitter end. He must not acquiesce to their leaving as the result of negotiation. If Moshe had led the people out of Egypt while promising Pharaoh that he would remove the plague afterwards, Pharaoh’s action would have been conditional. Pharaoh would be a sovereign making the most advantageous choice in a difficult situation. He would be acting, vis-à-vis G-d, like one king confronting a greater power. The divine plan, however, is that Pharaoh must submit completely to G-d’s power, with no residual strings attached. He must forsake the prerogatives of dignified give and take negotiation. G-d is not only stronger; He is incomparably sovereign.1
Let me point out three consequences of this analysis. One pertains to the question of Pharaoh’s “hardness of heart.” Many thinkers, most notably Rambam, insert it in the context of the debate about moral responsibility and freedom. Their attention, then, is on whether and how Pharaoh retains responsibility for his acts despite the limits of his freedom. Regardless of how we understand these phrases in the Torah and their moral implications, our focus right now is on Pharaoh’s status as a political figure: in order for him to recognize the power of G-d, he must be acting as a sovereign admitting the nullity of his royal powers. This means that, even if his actions as an individual are coerced by circumstances, from a formal perspective he must grant Moshe’s demands without conditions or external reservations.
It seems obvious to us that recognition of G-d as King entails willingness to obey Him. As Mekhilta (Shemot 20:1) puts it: If you accept His kingship you must accept His laws. It is possible to resist the step that Israel took at Sinai. Pharaoh’s grudging acknowledgement of divine sovereignty does not lead him to worship G-d. His character is not converted nor is it G-d’s stated intention to extract from him genuine repentance. Only for a fleeting moment does he confess that G-d is righteous (tsaddik) and he and his people are wicked. What is required of him by the story of the exodus is only to relinquish his own pretense of sovereignty. Exodus is about the power of G-d not the eschatological transformation of the world.
This sheds light on the importance of kriat yam suf as the climax of the Exodus story. This final episode depicts the subservience of all creation to G-d. In Tanakh the sea is often conceived as the great chaotic force of nature that must be vanquished to establish divine sovereignty: see for example Psalms 24, 29, 104, 96 and 98 inter alia. The participation of the sea in the final rescue of Israel and the drowning of Pharaoh’s hosts is thus the final stage in demonstrating G-d’s kingship over the universe. Therefore, it is in the Song of the Sea that G-d’s is first presented as king forever. Once this recognition is achieved the path is open to Sinai where kingship is fully expressed as obedience to the Torah.
1 Thanks to Alex Maged, Dovi Shaffier and Robbie Schrier who were my sounding board for these ideas. This is an abridged version of Shalosh Seuddot remarks at Young Israel of Ave J earlier this year.