Bar-Ilan University's Parashat Hashavua Study Center

Parashat Bo

Lectures on the weekly Torah reading by the faculty of Bar-Ilan University in Ramat Gan, Israel. A project of the Faculty of Jewish Studies, Paul and Helene Shulman Basic Jewish Studies Center, and the Office of the Campus Rabbi. Published on the Internet under the sponsorship of Bar-Ilan University's International Center for Jewish Identity.
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Parashat Bo 5760/2000

"I Shall Not See Your Face Again!" (Ex.10:28)

Prof. Yaakov Spiegel

Department of Talmud

R. Barukh Ha-Levi Epstein,[1] known primarily for his Torah Temimah, wrote an interesting story in his memoirs.[2] While studying together with other Jewish scholars before his rabbi the Netziv, a balebos, an ordinary Jew, came in with a question of Halakhah. One day, he related, he had a quarrel with his partner and in the heat of the argument swore that he would never look at him again. That indeed is how he behaved for many years. He left the synagogue at which the two had both prayed and refrained from attending meetings, dinners, etc. to which he knew that his partner had been invited. But now his partner died, and since many years had passed and the quarrel between them had almost been forgotten, he wanted to look in the face of the deceased and request his forgiveness. His question was whether this may be done.

According to R. Barukh a discussion arose among those present, each giving his opinion. When his turn came, he answered that clear proof of how he should behave could be found in the Torah. As we note in this week's reading, the Holy One, blessed be He, promised the Israelites as follows: "for the Egyptians whom you see today you will never see again" (Ex. 14:13). Nevertheless, it is said: "Israel saw the Egyptians dead on the shore of the sea" (Ex. 14:30). According to the Mekhilta and midrashim each Israelite recognized in the faces of the dead his oppressor in Egypt; if so, it is clear that the words "Israel saw" mean that they literally saw their faces. Hence we conclude that seeing the face of a dead person is not considered seeing; thus the problem was solved. The Netziv accepted his answer with praise. This, briefly, concludes R. Epstein's remarks on the subject.[3]

A similar question arises in this week's reading. When Moses sees Pharaoh after the plague of darkness and requests him to let the Israelites go, Pharaoh responds, "Be gone from me! Take care not to see me again, for the moment [lit. day] you look upon my face you shall die" (Ex. 10:28). Moses replies, "You have spoken rightly. I shall not see your face again!" (10:29), that is, he accepts what Pharaoh said.

Yet despite Moses' reply, we read in connection with the plague of the firstborn as follows: "And Pharaoh arose in the night... He summoned Moses and Aaron in the night and said, '....'" (Ex. 12:30-31). At this meeting Pharaoh spoke with Moses and consented to allow the Israelites to leave Egypt. Thus the question arises how he spoke with him, for this meeting also involves seeing his face, and Moses had promised that he would not see his face again. Of course the previous answer of Rabbi Epstein cannot be given here.

Nahmanides' commentary on the Torah (10:29) addresses this point: "In the plague of the firstborn he did not see him,... either he went to the door of their house and yelled to them in the dark, ... or he sent to call for them by the Egyptians." In other words, either Moses did not see Pharaoh's face because Pharaoh did not enter his house, rather he called to him from without; or he did not see his face because Pharaoh did not call Moses or speak to him by himself, rather by means of emissaries. The question is resolved in a similar way by Or ha-Hayyim (10:31): "There is no case to be made here against the warning, 'Take care not to see me again,' since it was in the dark and no one saw..."

Others, however, maintain that Moses actually saw his face but that nevertheless this does not contradict his words, "I shall not see your face again!" For when one examines what Pharaoh and Moses said very closely one sees that the conditions which they stipulated were not entirely fulfilled, and hence even after seeing the other's face their words still held.

An explanation along these lines is given by Or ha-Hayyim, which stresses that we must pay strict attention to what Pharaoh said: "the day you look upon my face you shall die." In other words, the stipulation was that he must not look upon his face only in the daytime. Or ha-Hayyim, paying close attention to the text, notes that it says "He summoned Moses and Aaron in the night" (12:31) and that the word "night" is superfluous, since in the previous verse we read, "And Pharoah arose in the night" (12:30), thus we already know that it was nighttime. Therefore Or ha-Hayyim concludes that Scripture intended to say: "He called to Moses and Aaron: 'night'." That is, the word "[it is] night" was said by Pharaoh with the intention of emphasizing that what he said at first, when he forbade Moses to see his face, only applied to seeing him in the day. But since it was then night, he was not prohibited and Moses could see him.[4]

An explanation along these lines appears in Exodus Rabbah (18:1): "It is fine that you said 'Do not come see me again,' for I will not come to you, but you shall come to me." Likewise, Ibn Ezra commented, "I will never come to you again," but did not refer the reader to the midrash. Nahmanides also refers us to the Midrash: "Perhaps he was saying 'I shall not see your face again, in your palace; for I will not come to you again.' Thus it is explained in Exodus Rabbah."

Now we must examine how this answer is substantiated in Scripture. Does a close reading of the text, as was done in Or ha-Hayyim, really lead to such an interpretation? An answer can be found in the Netziv's commentary, Ha-amek Davar. If we examine Moses' response to Pharaoh closely, we note that he answered with a wordy response. He need only have said "You have spoken rightly. I shall not see your face again" (Ex.10:28), but he added the word od [lo osif od], as if to say "I shall not see your face again any more."

The significance of this extra word is very important in understanding Moses' response. In the opinion of the Netziv, Moses' answer meant "he will no longer see [Pharaoh's face] in the manner that he had thus far."[5]

In the light of what the Netziv says, we can return to the question with which we began. Also in the Lord's promise to the Israelites it is said, "For the Egyptians whom see today you will not see them again any more (od) until all eternity," (Ex.14:13) to indicate that only seeing them the way they had until now was ruled out, but seeing them in different circumstances was permissible. That being so, perhaps we can say that seeing them at the sea was not the usual way of seeing them, and clearly this seeing did not occur at the place where the Israelites usually saw the Egyptians; it was allowed therefore, but the reason was not because the Israelites saw the faces of dead people.[6] Recalling that R. Barukh's remarks above were said in the presence of the Netziv, it is somewhat surprising the way the Netziv accepted and praised his answer without remarking on his own approach to the text, as we have seen it thus far.

We may add to all the above another difference between these two cases-- Moses and Pharoah and the Israelites and the Egyptians-- that is worthy of note. In the case of Pharaoh and Moses, Scripture always says to "see one's face," whereas in the case of the Israelites it simply says "to see." Perhaps when Scripture refers to seeing a person's face it means an important and most honorable audience. Indeed, Scripture usually uses this phrase in reference to the Creator or to kings, to indicate the importance of this meeting. Thus when Moses said to Pharaoh that he would no longer "see his face," he meant, to see him in a manner showing respect and importance; but when Pharaoh called Moses and Aaron in the middle of the night, he was a person admitting failure and defeat, coming out of his palace to seek his adversary. For Moses to see Pharoah in this position was not "seeing the face" which he swore he would never do.

Moses himself described this groveling which Pharoah would be reduced to, saying, "Then all these courtiers of yours shall come down to me and bow low to me, saying, 'Depart, you and all the people who follow you!'" (Ex. 11:8). Even though he used the word avadekha (rendered here as "courtiers" but usually rendered as "servants,"), according to Rashi this was only out of respect to the ruler; clearly Moses was referring to Pharaoh himself, and this is indicated by his use of the words "come down." Thus, as we said, this is not a case of "seeing the face," but of plain seeing. One could go further into the concept of seeing the face as it appears in other sources, and as mentioned here, but this is not the place for such a discussion.



[1] Born to R. Jehiel Michal Epstein, author of Arukh ha-Shulhan, on 5 Shevat 1860. Since his birthday falls before Parshat Bo, I saw fit to present something from his work in this weekly Torah sheet, as well as to add several details about the man himself. His uncle on his mother's side was the Netziv of Volozhin, in whose yeshiva he studied. His father-in-law was R. Eleazar Moshe Horowitz, author of Ohel Moshe and rabbi of Pinsk. He received rabbinical ordination from the Netziv, from Rabbi Yosef Dov ha-Levi Soloveichik of Brisk (Brest-Litovsk), and others. He acquired a broad education at a young age and was versed in several languages; he also associated with figures from the Enlightenment. He did not go into the rabbinate but worked in finance. He is known primarily for his work entitled Torah Temimah, which became popular and widely accepted immediately upon its publication. In this work he coupled the written Torah with the oral Torah, citing homilies of the Sages on verses of the Bible in order to shed light on them and explain them. This work lends expression to the notion of the written Torah going hand in hand with the oral Torah. He wrote several other works on religious subjects, as well as memoirs entitled Mekor Barukh, replete not only with recollections and stories of great contemporary Jewish leaders and figures from his family, but also with fresh insights into the Torah. R. Barukh Epstein lived most of his life in Pinsk, and there he died when the Germans entered the city in World War II, in the month of Tamuz 5701 (1941). The reader is referred to the book about him by A. Z. Tarshish, Rabbi Barukh ha-Levi Epstein Author of Torah Temimah, Jerusalem 1967.

[2] Mekor Barukh, Part IV, Vilna 1922, pp. 997-999. The subject is also mentioned in passing in Torah Temimah (14, 13 n. 7), where R. Epstein notes that this answer is also found in the Zohar.

[3] R. Menahem Kasher notes in Torah Shelemah (loc. sit. n. 79) that the geonim addressed themselves to a similar question and that Revid ha-Zahav of R. Dov Baer Treves also discusses the issue. He proceeds to cite several other works that discuss this. It has been observed that R. Barukh's works contain things said earlier by others, without R. Barukh giving any attribution. My son Boaz has informed me that this story can be found in Judah Leib Maimon's Sarei ha-Meah, Jerusalem 1990, Part I, pp. 193-194, where the person giving the answer is R. Ezekiel ben Judah Landau, author of Noda bi-Yhudah, when he was young. R. Maimon does not give the sources for his book, and it is impossible to discover them. It seems to me that R. Maimon's memory misled him; nor have I found any reference to this story in books about R. Judah Ezekiel Landau.

[4] This interpretation is also mentioned in the introduction to the Tanhuma, Buber ed., p. 70b, and is given by an early sage whose name is unknown. This is noted by R. Menahem Kasher in Torah Shelemah, Parshat Bo, loc. sit., n. 526.

[5] The Netziv substantiates this on the basis of the mishnah at the end of Tractate Sanhedrin (111b), which discusses the "doomed" city that "shall remain an everlasting ruin, never to be rebuilt" (Deut. 13:17): "R. Akiva says it 'shall never be rebuilt,' means it shall not be rebuilt to the extent that it was before, but that it may be developed into gardens and orchards." The commentary of R. Josef Engel, Gilyonei ha-Shas (113b), and of R. Reuben Margaliyot, Margaliyot ha-Yam, on Tractate Sanhedrin cite other sources as well in proof of this.

[6] On whether or not beholding the face of a dead person is regarded as seeing, in Resp. Menahem Meshiv, Part II, end of §. 41, Rabbi M. M. Kirschenbaum remarks on what R. Epstein had to say in Mekor Barukh and also cites him in Part I, p. 113a. Whoever checks this source will see that extensive references are provided, but this is not the place for further elaboration.

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