“...to the least sinner of them all”
12 February 2004
(A week and a half ago, I gave the d’var Torah for the parsha at my synagogue for seudah shlishit. My talk was thrown together on Saturday afternoon, and I haven’t had a chance to write it up until now.)
The parsha of Bo gives two descriptions of the victims of the tenth plague. When Moses warns of the impending plague, he says “every first-born in the land of Egypt will die, from the first-born of Pharoah sitting on his throne to the first-born of the maidservant behind the millstone” (Exodus 11:5). But when the plague actually strikes, the text says “the Eternal struck every first-born in the land of Egypt, from the first-born of Pharoah sitting on his throne to the first-born of the prisoner in the pit” (12:29). The commentators, of course, notice this contrast and remark on it. I’d like to throw a third verse into the mix. Back when God is is still talking to Moses through the burning bush, He says: “[You will tell Pharoah that] I will kill your first-born son” (4:23). In this verse, the other Egyptians aren’t mentioned.
The story of the Exodus focuses on the relationship between Moses and Pharoah, but the ordinary Egyptians, like the ordinary Jews, were moral agents as well. How did the ordinary Egyptians exercise their own power of free will? Here are the examples that the text provides:
All in all, not a very impressive sampling. And so, in the tenth plague, God executed “every first-born in the land of Egypt, from the first-born of Pharoah sitting on his throne to the first-born of the prisoner in the pit.” The Sforno expounds on this: “from the greatest sinner of this [nation] to the least sinner of them all” (s.v. Exodus 11:5). How is the prisoner in the pit implicated as a sinner? Says Rashi (s.v. Exodus 12:29): “they were happy at the suffering of Israel.” Every Egyptian had some power to cause the Jews benefit or harm, and for how they exercised whatever power they had, they were called to account.
- Pharoah’s daughter takes pity on the infant Moses, rescues him, and hires a Hebrew nurse for him (2:5–10). There is no sign, however, that she intends for him to grow up as anything other than an Egyptian aristocrat.
- Moses, when he goes out among his fellow Jews, encounters “an Egyptian man beating a Hebrew man” (2:11). The Midrash says this man was actually one of the Egyptian overseers, but the text does not bother to distinguish him as a particular kind of Egyptian.
- Before the plague of hail, “those who feared the Eternal’s word among Pharoah’s courtiers sheltered their servants and livestock indoors” (9:20) but did nothing to help the Jews.
- When Moses threatens the plague of locusts, the courtiers finally tell Pharoah, “let the men go and worship the Eternal, their god” (10:7). Pharoah offers to let only the men go (which, as the commentators observe, is exactly what the courtiers had suggested), and Moses turns him down. The courtiers do not object to this state of affairs.
- Finally, before the announcement of the tenth plague, the Jews are instructed to borrow silver and gold utensils from their Egyptian neighbors. The text goes on to say that “the Eternal gave favor to the [Jewish] nation in the eyes of the Egyptians, and the man Moses was also very great in the land of Egypt” (11:3). This could be read as a sign that the Egyptians are finally coming to respect the Jews. Nachmanides reads it this way: “the people of Egypt did not hate them on account of the plagues, but … said, ‘we are the wicked ones, doing violence, and it is obvious that God favors you.’” (The Egyptians were apparently foreshadowing Noam Chomsky.) On the other hand, if you interpret God’s “hardening of Pharoah’s heart” as a removal of Pharoah’s free will (the interpretation that Maimonides gives in Laws of Repentance), then it would be reasonable to say that the Egyptians, in their sudden favor for the Jews, are being similarly manipulated. After all, when God had given Abraham the prophecy that his children would be enslaved, He also said “in the end they shall go free with great wealth” (Genesis 15:14), and they had to get that wealth somehow.