“And There Was a Great Cry in Egypt”

  • Harav Mosheh Lichtenstein


In Appreciation of the Tremendous Work Done by ORA, 
Freeing Agunot, Preventing Abuse. 
For more information


In memory of Albert W. and Evelyn G. Bloom,
who creatively fulfilled the mitzva of  "והגדת לבנך".
Shanen Bloom Werber, Dov Bloom, Elana Bloom, Michael Bloom


Adapted by Binyamin Fraenkel

Translated by Kaeren Fish



Our parasha describes in great detail the final plague in Egypt, in which all the firstborn of the Egyptians were killed. Moshe first warns 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 that sits upon his throne to the firstborn of the maidservant 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 was none like it, nor shall be like it any more.” (Shemot 11:4-6)


Then we find the description of the plague itself:


“And it was at midnight that 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 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 on, that they might send them out of the land in haste, for they said, We are all dead men.” (Shemot 12:29-33)


The text describes real pain. The “great cry” that emanated from Egypt was not a show of crocodile tears. This was mourning of parents for their children. The plague was an excruciating, mortal blow to the Egyptians, and sensitivity is demanded of the reader. A situation in which “there was not a house where there was not one dead” is difficult to understand or imagine.


These verses give rise to a troubling question. It is clear to us why the firstborn of Pharaoh is punished: as the son of the king, he was presumably a part of the mechanism of evil that subjugated Bnei Yisrael with such cruelty. But for what reason was the same terrible punishment meted out to the firstborn of the handmaid, and the captive, and the cattle? The Egyptian leadership, and even the Egyptian nation, might have sinned, but in what way have the offspring of the maidservants and the cattle sinned?


Let us consider two different ways of answering this question.


Pharaoh acts with his nation’s support


First, let us recall a reality that is not far removed from us in chronological terms. Rabbi Soloveitchik zt”l recounted that as a young child in the town of Choslavitch, the persecution and harassment that he suffered was not at the hands of the Russian Czar, but rather involved the regular neighborhood kids. When there is a population that lives under oppression, the rest of society bares its basest and most violent drives and makes the lives of the oppressed people miserable. No ruler can subjugate an entire population on his own; he needs wide support on the part of his people. At the beginning of Sefer Shemot, Pharaoh addresses the Egyptian people:


“And there arose a new king over Egypt who did not know Yosef. And he said to his people, Behold, the nation of Bnei Yisrael is more numerous and mightier than we. Let us deal wisely with them, lest they multiply, and it come to pass that, when any war might occur, they will join our enemies and fight against us, and go up out of the land.” (Shemot 1:8-10)


Pharaoh receives widespread support from his people, just as other totalitarian regimes have enjoyed popular support throughout history. Every ruler needs backing; Pharaoh, Hitler and Stalin could not have acted as they did without the support – whether active or even merely passive – that they received.


Expulsion of Hagar


Second, a fundamental distinction can be drawn between two different kinds of struggle. To clarify the point, let us look at the two accounts of Hagar’s expulsion 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 hearkened to the voice of Sarai. And Sarai, Avram’s wife, took Hagar, her maid, the Egyptian, after Avram had dwelled ten years in the land of Canaan, 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: My wrath 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 have you come? And to 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 simply give her handmaid to her husband. This is an act of tremendous self-sacrifice. Sara, Avraham’s lawful wife, deliberately and willingly relinquishes her status and allows Hagar to take her place, all for the sake of Avraham. The moment that Hagar discovers that she is pregnant, she begins to heap scorn on Sara. Sara, who has already sacrificed so much, wants Avraham to banish Hagar.


Avraham understands Sara and sends Hagar away. At this stage, God intervenes on Hagar’s behalf. Although Hagar is now suffering at Sara’s hands, God declares that expulsion is not the appropriate solution. Hagar returns to the home of Avraham and Sara, who subjugate their own will to God’s will.


Seemingly, everything is clear. Sara has been hurt by Hagar, but her personal pain cannot justify the harm done to someone else – Hagar. God instructs Avraham that Sara’s personal pain does not supersede that of Hagar, and that Sara must desist from oppressing her. Ramban’s criticism of Sara and Avraham in this instance is well-known:


“Our matriarch [Sara] sinned by this affliction, as did Avraham by allowing her to act in this way. God heeded her affliction and gave her a son who would be a wild man to afflict the seed of Avraham and Sarah with all manners of affliction.” (Ramban on Bereishit 16:6)


Rambam wishes to argue that Hagar is supposed to return to the home of Avraham and Sara, and that Sara must tolerate the presence of her handmaid despite the difficulty involved. Avraham internalizes the lesson:


“And Sara saw the son of Hagar the Egyptian, whom she had borne to Avraham, mocking. So she said to Avraham, Cast out this handmaid and her son, for the son of this handmaid shall not be heir with my son, with Yitzchak. But the thing was very grievous in Avraham’s eyes on account of his son.” (Bereishit 21:9-11)


Here we encounter a similar situation: the family of Hagar is making trouble, and Sara wants to banish them from the home. Avraham, who understands God’s intention from the previous incident, refuses. But here God intervenes in a most surprising manner:


“And God said to Avraham: Let it not be grievous in your sight because of the lad, and because of your maidservant. In all that Sara has said to you, hearken to her voice, 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)


Seemingly, this is difficult to understand. What is the difference between Hagar’s offense to Sara and the harm that Yishmael is causing to Yitzchak? In both cases we have one individual who is harming another individual, and God’s response in the first instance was to clarify that no one takes precedence over someone else. What, then, is different in the second instance?


In order to answer this question we must look at the continuation of the verse: “… for in Yitzchak shall your seed be called.” The second expulsion comes in the context of a different type of struggle. The prohibition against harming the individual qua individual no longer applies; here the struggle is between Yitzchak and Yishmael as representatives of world-views that are destined to develop.


God rules that Avraham must give preference to Yitzchak – and, more importantly, to what he symbolizes – over Yishmael and what he represents. The situation is not about the child named Yitzchak who is fighting with the child named Yishmael. The issue at stake here is the pitting of the “Yitzchak collective” against the “Yishmael collective.”


When great corporations clash, innocent individuals sometimes suffer. We see this in the plague of the firstborn: God did not punish “the Egyptians,” but rather “Egypt.” This is a significant distinction: the question is not whether a certain Egyptian “A” has harmed some or other individual Jew. The discussion concerns affiliation with the collective.[1]


The wiping out of Amalek and the annihilated city


Let us consider two more examples.


  1. Concerning Amalek, Shaul is commanded by Shmuel:


“And Shmuel said to Shaul, The Lord sent me to anoint you to be king over his people, over Israel; now therefore listen to the voice of the word 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 spare them not, but slay both man and woman, infant and suckling, ox and sheep, camel and donkey.” (Shmuel I 15:1-2)


Amalek stands in opposition to God, and therefore the command entails the annihilation of the entire Amalekite nation.


  1. We find a similar commandment concerning the idolatrous city that must be annihilated (le-havdil):


“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 should be noted that, concerning the city, an effort is made to provide some defense for individuals, as we find in Sanhedrin (112b) concerning the righteous who escape from the city but lose their property. Their possessions belong to the collective of the idolatrous city, and they are therefore destroyed as part of the command, but the righteous individuals themselves are saved since they committed no sin.




In wars across the globe, thousands of people are killed; the images presented in the world media are horrific. First of all, it is clear that the pain felt by both sides in every conflict is genuine. It is not a matter of putting on a show for the media; their bitter anguish is the most fundamental level of parents’ compassion for their children. There are few experiences more difficult than that of a parent standing by helplessly while his children suffer.


Nevertheless, one or the other side may be morally in the right. Here we refer back to the two explanations offered above. First, we have to know that there are not too many righteous people in Sedom. There are various populations around the world that support and encourage terror. Even those who are not actual fighters are partners in the conflict, by providing active combat support or playing a passive auxiliary role.


However, this explanation is not enough. In war, the casualties include people who are innocent by any criterion: people who do not support the terror regime under which they live, nor do they support terror activities, but they end up being struck by stray missiles, or seized for use as human shields. Here we must invoke the second explanation proposed above: the war of the side that is morally right is not waged solely against the terrorists themselves; it is waged against the entire nation that represents them.


Ideally, we would want to target only the “evil” nations, without any harm being caused to any innocent individual. However, this is impossible. Practically speaking, in a world in which a state is represented by people, the most effective way to strike at cruel and violent entities is to strike at their people.


Two Caveats


Still, two principles must be emphasized. The world cannot permit itself to carry out significant combat against nations that are ruled by terror organizations unless two important conditions are fulfilled.


The first is an absolute avoidance of any deliberate targeting of innocent people. We dare not cause deliberate harm to people who have done no wrong – just as the Torah shows compassion towards the righteous people in an idolatrous city. The decision to strike must be completely justified, and if this condition is not fulfilled then the operation lacks the stamp of moral approval.


The second important condition is that in waging this war we must maintain our own moral human behavior. My father, Rav Aharon Lichtenstein, once commented on the Gemara in Bava Kama (32a), which teaches, “If he administered one extra stripe and [the receiver of lashes] died, he is sent into exile.” He said that when the appointee of the beit din adds another stripe, this itself is evidence that all the previous stripes were not administered for the sake of heaven, but rather out of cruelty. Therefore, the Gemara in Makkot (23a) rules explicitly: “Our Rabbis taught: Only those lacking in physical vigor and having abundant knowledge are appointed to administer lashes.” Here, “knowledge” is meant in the sense of composure and moderation. The appointee of the beit din must be someone who will not be motivated by negative human emotions, but rather out of the recognition that this is what is necessary at the given time.


Only when we genuinely care about the people and the nations that the world seeks to protect itself from, will we truly understand the pain and bitterness embodied in the statement, “My creatures are drowning in the sea, and you sing praises?!”


(This sicha was delivered at seuda shelishit, Shabbat Parashat Bo 5769 [2009].)




[1]  In this regard we must mention the general principle cited in the name of Rav Yosef in Bava Kama (60a) concerning the verse, “And you shall not go out any man from the entrance to his house until the morning”: “Once the destroyer is given free rein, he makes no distinction between the righteous and the wicked.” This idea also appears further on in the Gemara, in Bava Kama 92a: “From where do we derive the teaching that ‘together with the corn the cabbage is smitten’?...”