SALT - Wednesday, 7 Shevat 5781 - January 20, 2021

  • Rav David Silverberg
            Before the tenth and final plague that God brought upon Egypt – the plague of the firstborn – Moshe warned Pharaoh that God would kill every firstborn in Egypt, “from Pharaoh’s firstborn…until the firstborn of the maidservant who is behind the mill…” (11:5).  Indeed, later (12:29), we read that when the plague struck, God killed even the firstborn of the slaves in captivity.
            Rashi (11:5), citing the Mekhilta, raises the question of why even the maidservants were included in this plague, and he explains, “They, too, would subjugate them [Benei Yisrael] and rejoiced in their distress.”  The Taz, in Divrei David, understands that Rashi here presents two different reasons for why even the maidservants were deserving of punishment – because they also took part in the oppression of Benei Yisrael; or, alternatively, they did not actually oppress Benei Yisrael, as they themselves were lowly slaves, but nevertheless, they celebrated Benei Yisrael’s suffering, and for this they were punished.
            Maharal of Prague, by contrast, in Gur Aryeh, explains that Rashi here gives but a single reason for why the maidservants deserved to be punished.  He writes that the maidservants were ordered by their masters to force Benei Yisrael to perform slave labor.  For this they would not have deserved to be punished, as they were under coercion.  However, these maidservants followed their orders gleefully, relishing the opportunity to fill the role of oppressor, rather than the oppressed.  And so they were included with the rest of Egypt in the deadly plague which God unleashed to punish the country for their cruelty to Benei Yisrael, because they happily complied with the commands they received to oppress Benei Yisrael.
            This comment of the Mekhilta perhaps warns that victimhood should not lead one to celebrate the suffering of others.  When God set out to punish the Egyptians for enslaving Benei Yisrael, He did not make an exception for those who were themselves enslaved, because their having suffered the pain and humiliation of slavery did not entitle them to enslave others, or even to celebrate the slavery of others.  We are expected to deal kindly with other people even if we were not always dealt kindly with, and we are expected to wish for their wellbeing of other people even if we have suffered harm.  The maidservants who celebrated Benei Yisrael’s suffering were not absolved from punishment despite their own misfortune, because a person’s misfortune does not allow him to wish misfortune upon others.