Midreshet Amit


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Doing What's Right

By: Mrs. Dena Knoll

This week’s Parsha, Parshat Va’Era, contains the first seven of the Ten Plagues. One of the questions that has always bothered me about the story of the Exodus is: How was it fair for God to utterly destroy the life not just of Pharoah but of every Egyptian? The ten plagues decimated Egypt from their water supply (Dam - blood) to their livestock (Dever – animal disease) to their crops (Arbeh – locusts ate everything) to their physical bodies (Shechin – boils) and finally to their beloved children (Makat Bechorot – death of the firstborn). In fact, though I love the animated movie Prince of Egypt, I hesitate to let my children watch it because it makes one feel sympathetic toward the Egyptians to the point of feeling that God and Moshe are unjustly harsh and cruel toward them. Are they?
The Torah does not explicitly address the role of the average Egyptian, but the pesukim do offer glimpses into what Egyptian society was like. The first such clue is in Shemot 1:9 in which Pharaoh addresses his nation, not just his closest advisors, with his plan to outsmart the Jewish nation by enlisting them in hard labor so as to limit their population growth. Pasuk 13 explicitly says, “Va’ya’avidu Mitzrayim et Bnei Yisrael be’pharech” – Egypt enslaved the Jews with hard labor, implying it was not just Pharoah’s loyal supporters but the general populace. More incriminating and disturbing is that after the heroic midwives refuse to kill the newborn Jewish babies, Pharaoh issues the decree to his entire nation (“le’chol amo”) to cast all baby boys into the Nile (Shemot 1:22).

At first, it is difficult to imagine that a leader could possibly issue such a barbaric command to his entire nation. But then one is shocked into realizing that modern history has witnessed the repetition of the same phenomenon. There are many powerful parallels between Hitler’s Germany and Pharaoh’s Egypt, from the way that both leaders dehumanized their Jewish citizens (see Shemot 1:7 and 1:19) to the way they both gradually increased the brutality of their decrees so that their followers were increasingly desensitized. In 1996, Daniel Goldhagen published a controversial book entitled Hitler’s Willing Executioners in which he argues that virtually every German citizen willingly participated in Hitler’s Final Solution; it could be that Pharoah’s Egyptians were no different.

There are a number of take-home lessons that we can learn from this. One is to trust God’s justice and that even if and when His actions appear cruel or harsh, perhaps we do not know the full story. A second is to appreciate the magnitude of the heroism of those Egyptians (and Germans) who maintained their humanity. The midwives, Shifra and Puah, refuse to obey Pharaoh’s barbaric command even at risk of their own lives. And none other than the very daughter of Pharaoh is filled with compassion for the wailing baby boy she discovers hidden in a basket, and even though she knows he is a Jew (Shemot 2:6), she decides to save his life and raise him as her own son. Human beings possess the capacity for great cruelty and great kindness. May we all aspire to be among the Bat-Pharaohs, Shifras, and Puahs of the world who have the courage to do what’s right even in the most difficult of circumstances.