“And Moshe spoke before Hashem saying: ‘Behold Bnei Yisroel didn’t listen to me, so why will Pharaoh listen to me, and I have blocked lips.’” (Shemos 6:12)
Rashi explains that this was one of 10 kal vachomer arguments mentioned in the Torah. Meaning, Moshe tried to convince Hashem that there was no purpose for him tell Pharaoh to free the Jewish nation—because if Bnei Yisroel didn’t believe Moshe and they were suffering, and would gain by being redeemed—like it says, “and Bnei Yisroel didn’t listen to Moshe, because of their short breath and difficult labor,” (Shemos 6:9). Then, surely Pharaoh—who would lose by Bnei Yisroel being redeemed—would surely not believe him.
Zera Shimshon asks: this kal v’chomer seems to be faulty. The reason Bnei Yisroel didn’t listen to Moshe was because of “shortness of breath and difficult labor.” Pharaoh, on the other hand, didn’t work hard at all; so why should he not believe Moshe?
Zera Shimshon answers that Hashem governs the world with two contradictory attributes, the attribute of mercy and the attribute of justice. Only Hashem really knows when and how to use both of these contradictory attributes, but both are constantly being used.
At the bris bain habessarim, Hashem decreed that the descendants of Avraham “will be enslaved and oppressed for 400 years.” Hashem’s attribute of mercy and Hashem’s attribute of justice disagree how this decree can be fulfilled. The attribute of justice understood that it must be fulfilled literally: 400 years times 365 days. The attribute of mercy was of the opinion that the fact that the Mitzriyim were much crueler than regular oppressors, the intensity of the oppression should be taken into account and the 210 years of tremendous oppression should be considered as if they served the whole 400 years.
The truth is that the attribute of justice also agreed that Bnei Yisroel should not have to serve the full four hundred years in Mitzrayim, but not because the 210 years of suffering fulfills the decree of bris bain habessarim. Rather, the attribute of justice argued that since the Mitzriyim oppressed Bnei Yisroel more severely than what was decreed—it wasn’t right that they stay in Mitzrayim for the remaining 190 years, but they should leave Mitzrayim and complete those years in other lands.
According to this, Zera Shimshon explains the kal vachomer in the following way:
In the pasuk before the kal vachomer, it is written that Hashem told Moshe, “Go and tell Pharaoh king of Mitzrayim to let Bnei Yisroel leave his land.”
Bnei Yisroel understood from the phrase “his land,” that they will only leave Mitzrayim, however, they will have to complete the remaining 190 years in a different land. In other words, Bnei Yisroel understood that Hashem was dealing with them according to Hashem’s attribute of justice and not with the attribute of mercy. Bnei Yisroel didn’t want to agree to being freed on such terms, but wanted to be completely free.
This is the meaning of the pasuk: “and Bnei Yisroel didn’t listen to Moshe, because of their short breath and hard work.” It doesn’t mean—like we originally thought—that they didn’t listen to Moshe, because of their difficult emotional state that is described as “shortness of breath and hard work.”
Rather “shortness of breath and hard work” means that Bnei Yisroel didn’t accept that they didn’t fulfill the whole 400 years of slavery and oppression and will be redeemed only from Mitzrayim, since the Mitzriyim didn’t act in accordance with the decree and they suffered “shortness of breath and hard work,” and they will, therefore, still have to complete the remaining 190 years of oppression in some other country.
This, then, is the kal v’chomer: if Bnei Yisroel—who would benefit from the redemption—didn’t want to accept that the 400 years had not been completed, and are only leaving Mitzrayim, because the Mitzriyim acted “super-cruel” toward them; then Pharaoh would certainly not accept the 400 years of oppression had been completed. It had nothing to do with their emotional state!