We have a major problem with this week's Torah portion. In fact, it's a problem with the entire Exodus from Egypt. The problem is: Is God being truthful with Pharaoh?
Beginning back in Parshat Shmot (Exodus 5:3) and continuing this week in Va'eira (Exodus 8:23), God instructs Moshe to ask Pharaoh to release the Jewish People for three days only.
"We will go on a three-day journey in the Wilderness and bring offerings to Hashem, Our Lord, as He will instruct us."
Lest we think that Pharaoh knew and understood that the three days would extend to more days, it is clear that he did not (Exodus 8:24):
"Pharaoh said, 'I will send you and you shall bring offerings to Hashem, your Lord, in the Wilderness, only do not go far off!'" (Subsequently, Pharaoh went back on his word.)
So was God playing straight with Pharaoh? Beyond the moral and philosophical problem of God telling lies, the Talmud (Shabbat 55a) states unequivocally, "The signature of God is Truth." Yet, it is difficult to fathom God asking Pharaoh for three days of freedom when we know that He intended all along to set the Jewish people free from Egypt forever. What can we suggest to resolve this troublesome issue?
There is no way out of saying that when God said three days, He meant three days - and three days only. Since Pharaoh rejected this 'Freedom-for-three-days-only Plan,' it never took hold and God was not bound by it. Therefore when the Jewish People do eventually leave Egypt, they leave forever.
So, we have resolved the problem - God is not a liar. But now we have another question. Why would God deal in such terms with Pharaoh? True, had Pharaoh agreed, the Jews would have left for three days and then returned to Egypt. But we know that God did have in mind for the Jewish nation to exit Egypt, never to return. Why, then, would God initially want a temporary reprieve from Egyptian persecution before the ultimate Exodus?
The answer teaches us something extremely vital for spiritual living.
If I asked you today to change your entire lifestyle overnight so that by tomorrow you'll be as learned and as pious as the greatest Torah leader alive, you would probably be unable to accomplish it. This is not because you are not a good person and don't have a great spiritual yearning. Rather, there are some challenges that are so overwhelming that they are virtually impossible. Perhaps, given a few years of profound growth, it would be possible, but it is not presently. People usually change and grow gradually.
If someone takes on too much, too fast, the growth very often does not have any lasting effects.
God knew that Pharaoh was very attached to all of his possessions. The Jewish slaves were a major portion of his possessions. Asking Pharaoh to part from the Jewish nation - his slaves - forever would be a demand that Pharaoh would find impossible to agree to. God wanted Pharaoh to gradually realize that he would not perpetually own the Jews as slaves. Hence, He plans to take the Jews out for three days, have the Jews worship Him, and in this way Pharaoh will begin to get the idea that in the future, the Jews will serve God and not Pharaoh.
This 'three-days-only' request is one that Pharaoh would be able to answer affirmatively. Although, Pharaoh in the end refuses, he was at least capable of passing the test.
This temporary Exodus was also beneficial for the Jewish nation as well. They had spent many years in Egypt and had become adversely affected by the immoral Egyptian society. Had they been asked by God to suddenly leave Egypt, they would find it hard to abandon their cultural idolatrous leanings and serve only God. They, like Pharaoh, needed time to get used to the idea of the Jewish people leaving Egypt. They could only gradually begin to serve and worship God through His Torah. They were too attached to Egyptian idolatry to change without a 'three-days-only' interim reprieve from Egyptian culture.
We are all good people. We all want to reach our maximum spiritual potential. Yet, we sometimes move too fast for growth to last. How many of us leave Yom Kippur thinking we will never gossip again? And then that first violation happens when we aren't thinking, and we give up.
We have to learn to move more slowly. We have to utilize patience in our spiritual growth. And we have to remember that it doesn't matter how high up you are on the spiritual ladder - as long as you are moving up.