Why the Long Process?

The phrase “G‑d took us from Egypt with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm” is a common refrain in the Passover liturgy. The obvious meaning is that the Israelites, enslaved by fierce captors, were powerless to escape, and G‑d appeared with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm to pluck them from Egypt’s grasp.

This might explain the mighty hand, but why the outstretched arm? Did G‑d have to reach out from a distance? Were the Egyptians somehow too powerful for G‑d to approach? In addition, one wonders why G‑d took so much time with the Egyptians when He could have obliterated them in mere moments, as He indeed did at the Red Sea, and as He did to the Assyrians many years later. Why the drawn-out and seemingly unnecessary dramatics in the exodus from Egypt?

Moses’ Reluctance

Moses, you might recall, was reluctant to accept G‑d’s mission to free the Israelites. He knew that the Jewish savior would need to inspire the pagan Pharaoh to believe in G‑d and be moved by His directive. This could only happen if the messenger himself would be a paragon of piety, aflame with love, atremble with fear, and strong in faith. Only a man who spoke of G‑d with utter conviction could hope to make a dent in Pharaoh’s resolute wall of denial.

Moses knew he was a great prophet, but he was also the most humble of men, and he wouldn’t make assumptions about his future. He might be G‑d’s perfect choice at that moment, but perhaps he would no longer be worthy of that choice by the time he reached Pharaoh.

Moses ultimately accepted the mission, but when he failed to sway Pharaoh, and instead Pharaoh increased the burden on his slaves, Moses blamed himself. If he were only a little more pious, he thought, Pharaoh would have been moved.

He approached G‑d and poured out his tortured heart. “Why have you sent me?” he cried. “Since I came to speak to Pharaoh in Your name, he has only harmed this people and You [who selected me for this] have not saved Your people.” 1

Moses was essentially saying, “You could have done this in one of two ways: You could have sent an envoy that would successfully inspire Pharaoh to free the Israelites, unlike me, who only caused them harm. Or You could have smitten Pharaoh and freed them Yourself. You did neither—why?”

To this G‑d responded, "Now you will see what I will do to Pharaoh, for with [My] mighty hand he will send them out, and with a mighty hand he will drive them out of his land."2 Again, why the need for a mighty hand or an outstretched arm? G‑d could have instantly liberated His nation. He is G‑d, after all.

In the Nick of Time

The problem was that the Israelites themselves were in a sunken spiritual state. They had assimilated to the point where, had they remained in Egypt for even one moment longer, they would have fallen into a permanent spiritual abyss. When G‑d appeared to Moses, the Israelites did not deserve to be liberated. Their Egyptian captors, on the other hand, had not yet reached a level of cruelty that warranted their destruction.

G‑d wouldn’t destroy Egypt in one fell swoop because that would have been unjust. The Israelites didn’t deserve such a miraculous redemption, and the Egyptians didn’t deserve such spectacular destruction. So G‑d offered Pharaoh enough rope to hang himself. Every time Pharaoh would defy G‑d, he would push Egypt closer to the brink of destruction.

But it was a race against time. Every moment the Israelites remained in Egypt brought them that much closer to the final abyss.

Under normal circumstances, Pharaoh should have been inspired by Moses, but G‑d blocked the inspiration, “hardening” his heart, and thus Pharaoh brazenly rejected G‑d. G‑d gave Pharaoh a chance to obey him, but instead Pharaoh increased the slaves’ burden. G‑d offered Pharaoh ten chances to free the Israelites and redeem himself in the process, but Pharaoh refused each time. And with each refusal, Pharaoh unwittingly brought Egypt closer to the brink by increasing their guilt.

To allow this process to play out, G‑d permitted Pharaoh to defy Him and demonstrate the full prowess of Egypt’s might. Then G‑d used a “mighty hand,” a show of His strength, to force the Egyptians to free the Israelites against their will.

But a mighty hand was not enough. When Egypt’s scale finally reached a tipping point, the Israelites were themselves on the brink. Hence the outstretched arm. G‑d reached out to the rim of the proverbial pit into which the Israelites were about to fall and plucked them, at the very last moment, from disaster.

This is why we thank G‑d on the Seder night for calculating the time of our redemption perfectly. A level of perfection only G‑d could achieve.3