“And There Was a Great Cry in Egypt”

  • Harav Mosheh Lichtenstein
Summarized by Binyamin Fraenkel
Translated by David Strauss
Dedicated in memory of Irit bat Yitele z”l,
whose yahrzeit is 6 Shevat
By Family Rueff
This shiur is dedicated in memory of
Miriam Heller z"l
whose yahrzeit is 7 Shevat,
by her niece, Vivian Singer
The Plague of the Firstborns
            Our parasha describes the plague of the firstborns in great detail. First, we read of the threat that Moshe sounded in the ears of Pharaoh:
And Moshe said: “Thus says the Lord: About midnight will I go out into the midst of Egypt; and all the firstborn in the land of Egypt shall die, from the firstborn of Pharaoh that sits upon his throne, to the firstborn of the maid-servant that is behind the mill; and all the firstborn of cattle. And there shall be a great cry throughout all the land of Egypt, such as there has been none like it, nor shall be like it any more.” (Shemot 11:4-6)
The Torah goes on to describe the plague itself:
And it came to pass at midnight, that the Lord smote all the firstborn in the land of Egypt, from the firstborn of Pharaoh that sat on his throne to the firstborn of the captive that was in the dungeon; and all the firstborn of cattle. And Pharaoh rose up in the night, he, and all his servants, and all the Egyptians; and there was a great cry in Egypt; for there was no house in which there was not one dead. 
And he called for Moshe and Aharon by night and said: “Rise up, get you forth from among my people, both you and the children of Israel; and go, serve the Lord, as you have said. Take both your flocks and your herds, as you have said, and be gone; and bless me also.” And the Egyptians were urgent upon the people, to send them out of the land in haste; for they said: “We are all dead men.” (Shemot 12:29-33)
            The Torah here describes true pain. "A great cry in Egypt" does not mean crocodile tears. It refers to a father's compassion for his son in the simplest sense. Egypt receives an exceedingly severe and critical blow, to which we must be sensitive. The reality of "there was no house in which there was not one dead" is difficult for us to comprehend.
In light of these verses, a weighty question arises. It is clear to us why Pharaoh's firstborn was punished; as the king's son, he presumably was part of the evil apparatus that cruelly enslaved the people of Israel. But what is the reason for punishing the firstborn of the maidservants and the captives and the cattle? Granted that Egypt sinned, but in what way did the firstborn of the maidservants and cattle sin?
We wish to suggest two possible approaches to answer this question.
Pharaoh with the Backing of the People
First, I wish to mention a reality that is not chronologically distant from us. R. Soloveitchik related that when he was a young boy in Khaslovitz, he suffered injury not at the hands of the Russian Tsar, but at the hands of the children in the neighborhood. When a population is subject to oppression, everyone reveals his violent instincts and casts thorns and thistles in the eyes of the oppressed people. No ruler can enslave a population by himself; he needs widespread support from the lower classes.
At the beginning of the book of Shemot, Pharaoh appeals to the Egyptian people:
Now there arose a new king over Egypt, who knew not Yosef. And he said to his people: “Behold, the people of the children of Israel are too many and too mighty for us; come, let us deal wisely with them, lest they multiply, and it come to pass, that, when there befalls us any war, they also join themselves to our enemies, and fight against us, and get them up out of the land.” (Shemot 1:8-10) 
            Pharaoh receives widespread support from his entire nation, similar to the support that other totalitarian regimes received over the course of history. Every ruler needs backing. Even Pharaoh, Hitler and Stalin would not have been able to act as their hearts desired, without the passive or active support that they received.
The Sending Away of Hagar
Second, I wish to propose a fundamental distinction between two types of struggles. In order to clarify the issue, I would like to turn our attention to the two stories of the sending away of Hagar in the book of Bereishit. The first story appears in Parashat Lekh-Lekha:
Now Sarai, Avram's wife, bore him no children; and she had a handmaid, an Egyptian, whose name was Hagar. And Sarai said to Avram: “Behold now, the Lord has restrained me from bearing; go in, I pray you, to my handmaid; it may be that I shall be built up through her.” And Avram listened to the voice of Sarai. And Sarai, Avram's wife, took Hagar the Egyptian, her handmaid, after Avram had dwelt ten years in the land of Canaan, and gave her to Avram her husband to be his wife. And he went in to Hagar, and she conceived; and when she saw that she had conceived, her mistress was despised in her eyes. 
And Sarai said to Avram: “My wrong be upon you. I gave my handmaid into your bosom; and when she saw that she had conceived, I was despised in her eyes; the Lord judge between me and you.” But Avram said to Sarai: “Behold, your maid is in your hand; do to her that which is good in your eyes.” And Sarai dealt harshly with her, and she fled from her face. And the angel of the Lord found her by a fountain of water in the wilderness, by the fountain in the way to Shur. And he said: “Hagar, Sarai's handmaid, from where do you come? And where do you go?” And she said: “I flee from the face of my mistress, Sarai.” And the angel of the Lord said to her: “Return to your mistress, and submit yourself to her hands.” (Bereishit 16:1-9) 


Our matriarch Sara does not just give her husband her handmaid. This is a true act of devotion and a tremendous personal sacrifice. Sara, who is Avraham's senior wife, relinquishes her standing in favor of her handmaid, and all this for the sake of the patriarch Avraham. The moment that Hagar finds out that she is pregnant, she begins to scorn Sara. Sara, who has already sacrificed enough, turns to Avraham with a request that he send her away.
Avraham understands Sara and sends Hagar out of his house. At this point, however, God intervenes in favor of Hagar. Despite the fact that Hagar suffers at the hand of Sara, God declares that her being sent away under these circumstances is not desirable. Hagar returns to the house of Avraham and Sara, who subject their desire to the will of God.
Seemingly, everything is clear.  While it is true that Sara is hurt by Hagar, her personal pain does not excuse harming another person – Hagar. God instructs Avraham that Sara's personal pain does not outweigh that of Hagar and that Sara should stop tormenting Hagar. In his well-known comments, the Ramban sharply criticizes the behavior of Avraham and Sara:
Our matriarch sinned with this tormenting, and so too did Avraham when he allowed her to do so. God heard her suffering and gave her a son who would be a wild ass of a man to torment the seed of Avraham and Sara with all types of torment. (Ramban, Bereishit 16:6, s.v. va-te'aneha Sarai)
The Ramban essentially claims that Hagar is supposed to return to the house of Avraham and Sara and that Sara must endure the presence of her handmaid despite the difficulty involved. Avraham understands the lesson for the next time as well:
And Sara saw the son of Hagar the Egyptian, whom she had borne to Avraham, making sport. Therefore she said to Avraham: “Cast out this bondwoman and her son; for the son of this bondwoman shall not be heir with my son, with Yitzchak.” And the thing was very grievous in Avraham's sight on account of his son. (Bereishit 21:9-11)
Again we encounter a similar case – Hagar's family is making problems, and Sara wants to remove them from the house. Avraham, who already understands God's desire from the previous experience, refuses. Here, however, God intervenes in a surprising manner:
And God said to Avraham: “Let it not be grievous in your sight because of the lad and because of your bondwoman; in all that Sara says to you, listen to her voice; for in Yitzchak shall seed be called to you. And also of the son of the bondwoman will I make a nation, because he is your seed.” (Bereishit 21:12-13) 
On the face of it, there appears to be a difficulty here. What is the difference between the offense committed by Hagar against Sara and the offense committed by Yishmael against Yitzchak? After all, in both cases there is an individual who causes offense to another individual, and God says that preference should not be given to the one over the other. What is the difference between the two cases?
To answer this question, we must turn to the continuation of the verse: "For in Yitzchak shall seed be called to you." In the second eviction, we are dealing with a different type of struggle. We are no longer dealing with one individual who causes harm to another individual. Here the struggle is between Yitzchak and Yishmael as representatives of two outlooks that will develop in the future.
God decides that Avraham should give preference to Yitzchak, and especially to what he symbolizes, over Yishmael and what he stands for. This is not the story of the boy Yitzchak who is quarreling with the boy Yishmael. This is a struggle between the collective of Yitzchak and the collective of Yishmael, and in struggles between large collectives, "innocent" individuals sometimes suffer harm.
The plague of the firstborns can be understood in this light. God did not punish the Egyptians, but rather Egypt. This is a significant difference. The issue here is not whether a certain Egyptian man harmed one Hebrew or another. The issue here revolves around belonging to a particular collective.[1]
Wiping out Amalek and an Ir Ha-Nidachat
I would like to offer two more examples of this idea. King Shaul was commanded by Shemuel as follows regarding Amalek:
And Shemuel said to Shaul: “The Lord sent me to anoint you to be king over His people, over Israel; now therefore listen you to the voice of the words of the Lord. Thus says the Lord of hosts: I remember that which Amalek did to Israel, how he set himself against him in the way when he came up out of Egypt. Now go and smite Amalek, and utterly destroy all that they have, and spare them not; but slay both man and woman, infant and suckling, ox and sheep, camel and ass.” (I Shemuel 15:1-3)
Amalek stands against God, and we must therefore deliver a blow to the entire Amaleki nation.
A similar command is found in connection with an ir ha-nidachat (a city in which most of the inhabitants practiced idolatry):
You shall surely smite the inhabitants of that city with the edge of the sword, destroying it utterly, and all that is therein and the cattle thereof, with the edge of the sword.  And you shall gather all the spoil of it into the midst of the broad place thereof, and shall burn with fire the city, and all the spoil thereof every whit, to the Lord your God; and it shall be a heap forever; it shall not be built again. (Devarim 13:16-17)
With regard to an ir ha-nidachat, efforts are made to preserve the lives of individuals, as we find in Sanhedrin (112b) regarding the righteous who are removed from the city, but their assets are destroyed. Their wealth belongs to the collective of the ir ha-nidachat and is therefore destroyed in fulfillment of the commandment, but the righteous themselves are saved, as they did not sin.
Thousands of people are killed in wars around the world, and the images presented by the world media are shocking. First of all, it is clear that the pain that both sides feel in each and every conflict is real and genuine. These are not just photo-ops and crocodile tears, but expressions of severe anguish that is the most elementary layer of a parent's for his children. There is nothing more difficult than a parent standing helpless in the face of the suffering of his children.
Nevertheless, there are sides to conflicts that enjoy the moral upper hand. Here we would like to return to the two explanations suggested above. First, it is important to point out that there are not that many "righteous people in Sodom." Various populations in the world support and encourage terrorism. Even those who are not counted among the actual combatants participate in the fighting actively (fulfilling support functions) or passively.
This explanation, however, does not suffice. In war, harm is inflicted also upon people who are innocent according to every criterion. People who do not support the terrorist regime or terrorist operatives may nevertheless suffer injury when they are hit by a stray missile or seized to serve as a human wall. We must turn to the second explanation suggested above. The war waged by the just side is fought not only against the terrorist operatives but against a particular nation.
Ideally, we would prefer to strike only at the "bad" people, without harming any innocent citizen at all, but this is impossible. Unfortunately, in a world in which countries are represented by human beings, strikes against those horrific and violent entities are carried out through strikes against their people.
 Nevertheless, it is important to emphasize two principles. The world cannot allow itself to carry out significant strikes against nations that are run by terrorist organizations unless two important conditions are met:
The first condition is absolute avoidance of inflicting intentional harm upon innocent people. We must not harm people who have done nothing in the first place, similar to the way that the Torah spares the lives of the righteous in an ir ha-nidachat. The decision to strike must be completely justified; otherwise, it lacks a moral seal.
The second important condition is that we must maintain our own humane and moral behavior. My revered father once commented on the gemara in Bava Kama (32a): "If he [the officer of the court] added a single lash and he died, he goes out into exile because of him." My father explained that when the officer of the court adds a lash, it retroactively becomes clear that all the prior lashes were administered not for the sake of justice, but as acts of cruelty. Therefore, the gemara in Makkot (23a) states explicitly: "Our Rabbis taught: Only men lacking in physical vigor and abounding in knowledge are appointed as superintendents." Here the term "knowledge" is used in the sense of moderation and composure. When he administers the lashes, the court officer must not exploit the evil emotions in man, but rather must act with the recognition that this is what is necessary at that given moment.
Only when we truly and sincerely care for the nations that the world tries to guard against will we truly understand the sentiment reflected in Chazal's statement: "My handiwork is drowning in the sea, and you wish to break out in song?"
[This sicha was delivered at seuda shelishit on Shabbat Parashat Bo 5769 (2009).]

[1] Regarding this matter, note should be taken of the statement reported in the name of R. Yosef in Bava Kama (60a) regarding the verse: "And none of you shall go out of the door of his house until the morning" (Shemot 12:22): "Once permission is granted to the Destroyer, he does not distinguish between the righteous and the wicked." This idea is also expressed later in the gemara (Bava Kama 92a): "From where do we derive the proverbial saying that together with the thorn the cabbage is smitten..."