“And There Shall be a Great Cry Throughout Egypt”

  • Harav Mosheh Lichtenstein
The Death of the Firstborn
Our parasha describes the death of the firstborn of Egypt in great detail. First there is Moshe’s warning to Pharaoh:
And Moshe said, “So says the Lord: About midnight I will go out into the midst of Egypt. And all the firstborn in the land of Egypt shall die, from the firstborn of Pharaoh who sits on his throne to the firstborn of the maidservant who 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 was none like it, nor shall there be like it again.” (Shemot 11:4-6)
Then we read of the plague itself:
And it came to pass, that at midnight the Lord smote all the firstborn in the land of Egypt, from the firstborn of Pharaoh who sat on his throne to the firstborn of the captive who was in the dungeon, and all the firstborn of cattle. And Pharaoh rose up in the night – he, and all his servants, and all of Egypt – and there was a great cry in Egypt, for there was not a house where there was not one dead.
And he called for Moshe and Aharon by night, and said, “Rise up and get you out from among my people, both you and Bnei Yisrael, and go, serve the Lord, as you have said. Also take your flocks and your herds, as you have said, and be gone, and bless me also.” And Egypt urged the people, that they might send them out of the land in haste, for they said, “We are all dead men.” (Shemot 12:29-33)
These verses reflect genuine pain. “A great cry in Egypt” does not imply crocodile tears. This is the anguish of parents crying over their slain children. The plague dealt the Egyptians a mortal blow, and we must be sensitive to this. A reality of “There was not a house where there was not one dead” is unimaginably traumatic.
It makes sense that Pharaoh’s firstborn was punished. As the king’s son, he was most likely part of the mechanism of evil that subjugated Am Yisrael with such cruelty. But for what reason were the firstborn sons of the maidservants and captives, and the firstborn of the cattle, also punished? What was their sin?
We will propose two different ways of answering this question.
Pharaoh with the Backing of Egypt
First, let us recall a reality that is not far removed in time. R. Soloveitchik ztz”l recounted how, as a young student in Khislavichi (Chaslowitz), he was persecuted – not by the Russian Czar, but rather by the neighborhood children. When a population is subjugated, the surrounding society exposes its violent inclinations and treats the downtrodden population with cruelty and lack of consideration. No ruler can subjugate a population entirely on his own; he needs the broad support of his people.
At the beginning of Sefer Shemot, Pharaoh addresses the Egyptians:
Now there arose a new king over Egypt, who did not know Yosef. And he said to his people, “Behold, the people of Bnei Yisrael are more and mightier than we. Come, let us deal wisely with them, lest they multiply, and it come to pass that, when any war should chance, they also join our enemies, and fight against us, and so go up out of the land.” (Shemot 1:8-10)
The king of Egypt, like other totalitarian regimes over the course of history, has the support of his people. Every leader needs backing; neither Pharaoh, nor Hitler, nor Stalin could have acted as they wished were it not for the passive or active support that they enjoyed.
Expelling the Stranger
Adopting a different perspective, we must draw a fundamental distinction between two types of struggles. To clarify this point, let us review two stories of expulsion of a foreigner in Sefer Bereishit. The first appears in Parashat Lekh Lekha:
Now Sarai, Avram’s wife, bore him no children. And she had an Egyptian handmaid, whose name was Hagar. And Sarai said to Avram, “Behold now, the Lord has restrained me from bearing; I pray you; go in to my maid; it may be that I may obtain children by her.” And Avram listened to Sarai. And Sarai, Avram’s wife, took Hagar, her maid, the Egyptian, after Avram had dwelled ten years in the land of Cana’an, and gave her to her husband Avram for a 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, “Let my wrong be upon you; I have given my maid 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 as it pleases you.” And when Sarai dealt harshly with her, she fled from her face. And an angel of the Lord found her by a fountain of water in the wilderness, by the fountain on the way to Shur. And he said, “Hagar, Sarai’s maid, from whence do you come? And to where are you going?” 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)
Sara does more than simply give her handmaid to her husband. This is an act of tremendous self-sacrifice. She openly relinquishes her status in favor of her handmaid, all for the sake of Avraham. The moment that Hagar discovers that she is pregnant, she begins to treat Sara with scorn. Sara, who has already sacrificed enough, appeals to Avraham to expel Hagar.
Avraham understands Sara and is accepting of Hagar’s expulsion from his home. At this point, there is Divine intervention on Hagar’s behalf. Although Sara suffers at Hagar’s hands, God proclaims that expulsion is not the proper solution in this situation. Hagar returns to the home of Avraham and Sara, who submit to God’s decree.
Seemingly, everything is clear. Sara has been offended by Hagar, but her personal pain cannot excuse harm caused to someone else – Hagar. God tells Avraham that Sara’s pain does not exceed that of Hagar, and Sara must desist from oppressing her. Ramban famously criticizes Sara and Avraham over this episode:
Our matriarch sinned in this oppression, and Avram did too, in allowing it. And God heard [Hagar’s] suffering, and gave her [a child] who would be a wild man, causing all manner of suffering to the descendants of Avraham and Sara. (Ramban, Bereishit 16:6)
Ramban argues that Hagar is supposed to return to the home of Avram and Sara, and Sara is meant to tolerate the presence of her handmaid, despite the difficulty that this entails. Avraham understands the lesson the next time the issue arises:
And Sara saw the son of Hagar, the Egyptian, whom she had born to Avraham, mocking. So she said to Avraham, “Cast out this maidservant and her son, for the son of this handmaid shall not be heir with my son, with Yitzchak.” But the matter was very grievous in Avraham’s eyes because of his son. (Bereishit 21:9-11)
The situation is repeating itself. Hagar’s family is making trouble, and Sara wants them expelled. Avraham, who has understood and internalized God’s will from the previous episode, refuses. But here, surprisingly, God intervenes:
And God said to Avraham, “Let it not be grievous in your sight because of the lad and because of your handmaid; in all that Sara has said to you, listen to her, for in Yitzchak shall your seed be called. And also the son of the handmaid I will make into a nation, because he is your seed.” (Bereishit 21:12-13)
At first this is difficult to understand. What is the difference between Hagar’s scorning of Sara and Yishmael’s mocking of Yitzchak? In both instances, there is an individual who is abusing someone else, and God steps in and protects one side against the other. What is the relationship between the two scenarios?
In order to answer this question, we must look at the latter part of the verse: “For in Yitzchak shall your seed be called.” The second expulsion is part of a different sort of struggle. This is no longer a matter of harm to an individual qua individual; the struggle here is between Yitzchak and Yishmael as representatives of future worldviews that will develop.
God rules that Avraham must prioritize Yitzchak – and, especially, that which he symbolizes – over Yishmael and all that he stands for. The question concerns more than just the child Yitzchak who is fighting with the child Yishmael. What is at stake here is the collective known as “Yitzchak” and its position vis-à-vis the collection known as “Yishmael.” When there is friction and confrontation between large entities, “innocent parties” are sometimes caught in the way and suffer harm.
We might consider the plague of the firstborn in this light. God did not punish the Egyptians, but rather Egypt. This is a significant distinction. The question here is not whether some specific Egyptian harmed some specific Jew. The discussion is conducted on the level of the collective.[1]
Erasing Amalek and the Ir Nidachat
Let us consider two more examples of the same idea: the erasing of Amalek and the ir nidachat (an Israelite city the majority of whose inhabitants become idolators).
In the war against Amalek, Shaul receives a command from Shemuel:
And Shemuel said to Shaul, “The Lord sent me to anoint you to be king over His people, over Israel; now therefore hearken 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 laid wait for him in the way when he came up from Egypt. Now go and smite Amalek, and utterly destroy all that they have, and do not spare them, but slay both man and woman, infant and suckling, ox and sheep, camel and donkey.” (Shemuel I 1-3)
Amalek stood against God, and so we must fight an uncompromising battle against the entire Amalekite nation.
A similar command is given concerning the ir nidachat:
You shall surely smite the inhabitants of that city with the edge of the sword, destroying it utterly, and all that is in it, and its cattle with the edge of the sword. And you shall gather all the spoil of it into the midst of the open place of the city, and shall burn with fire both the city and the entire plunder taken in it for the Lord your God, and it shall be a heap forever; it shall not be built again. (Devarim 13:16-17)
It must be noted that with regard to an ir nidachat, an effort is made to protect the individuals, as we find in Massekhet Sanhedrin (112b) concerning righteous people who escape from the city and lose all their assets when the city is destroyed. Their assets belong to the collective of the ir nidachat, and are therefore eradicated as part of the command – but they themselves are saved, since they did not sin.
In wars the world over, thousands of people are killed, and the pictures shown in the media are horrific. It is clear that the pain suffered by both sides to any such conflict is genuine. What we see is not false media drama, but rather the gut-wrenching anguish of parents desperate to spare their children. It is difficult to imagine a more heartbreaking scene than a parent standing by helplessly in the face of his children’s suffering.
Nevertheless, there are aspects of the situation that represent moral justice. Here we return to the two approaches discussed above. First, we have to know that there are not many righteous people in Sedom. Various populations around the world support and encourage terrorism. Even those who are not fighters themselves are still involved, whether actively (offering battlefield support) or passively.
But this explanation is not enough. In war, there are casualties among those who are innocent by any criterion – people who did not support the terror regime or terrorist activity, but were hit by a missile or were captured to serve as human shields. Here we recall the second explanation offered above: The war waged by the side that is just is not waged against terrorist individuals alone, but rather against a nation.
Ideally, we would wish to harm only “evil” nations, without harming any innocent civilians. However, this is impossible.
Still, it is important to emphasize two principles. The world cannot allow itself to deal a significant blow to nations that are ruled by terror organizations until two important conditions are fulfilled.
The first is that there must be absolutely no deliberate targeting of innocent bystanders. We must make every effort to avoid harming people who have done nothing evil themselves, just as the Torah shows compassion towards the righteous individuals living in the ir nidachat. The decision to launch a strike must be completely justified; otherwise, it lacks the stamp of morality.
The other important condition is that we must maintain our human and moral behavior. My father and teacher once commented on the gemara in Bava Kama (32a): “If [an officer of the beit din] inflicted on him an additional [unauthorized] stroke [of lashes], from which he died, he [the officer] is exiled to a city of refuge on his account.” My father said that when the officer of the beit din adds a gratuitous stroke, he thereby demonstrates that all the previous strokes were not administered le-shem shamayim (for the sake of Heaven), but rather were administered with cruelty. It is for this reason that the gemara rules explicitly (Makkot 23a), “Our Sages taught: Only men who are lacking in vigor and abounding in knowledge are appointed as officers.” The term “knowledge” here is meant in the sense of a well-considered and balanced approach: an officer of the beit din must not administer lashes out of aggression and other base instincts, but rather out of a recognition that this is God’s will at the given time.
Only when we honestly and truly care about the nations against whom the world seeks to protect itself will we really understand the pain and anguish behind the words, “My creatures are drowning in the sea, and you are giving song?!”
Translated by Kaeren Fish

[1] In this regard, it is worth mentioning the principle cited in the name of R. Yosef, commenting on the verse, “And no one of you shall go out of the entrance of his house until morning”: “Once permission has been given to the Destroyer, he makes no distinction between the righteous and the wicked” (Bava Kama 60a). This idea also appears further on in the same massekhet (92a): “Rabba said to Rabba b. Mari: From whence do we derive the proverbial saying that ‘together with the thorn the cabbage is uprooted’?” and Rashi’s explanation that in attempting to uproot a thorn bush, one will sometimes end up uprooting the cabbage growing adjacent to it.