The Egyptians Could Have Done Better
The Torah makes Par’oh the foil to Moshe and Aharon, mentioning the Egyptian people only infrequently. This can give the impression that they were pawns of their evil king, suffering for something beyond their control. Ramban and others—who lived under monarchs, so that we’d have expected them to see how impossible it is to resist a tyrant—reject that perspective, adding the Egyptian populace to our growing list of those who teach us by showing us mistakes to avoid.
Ramban on Limited Monarchy and the Guilt of Egyptian Civilians
At the start of Shmot, Ramban claims Par’oh wanted to kill the Jews right away, but the Egyptian people would not stomach unjustified murder. Opting for stealthier means, he started with slavery, which he phrased as a tax of servitude, aimed at all non-citizens. When that didn’t work, he secretly ordered the midwives to kill male babies in childbirth. After they found ways to avoid that, he switched to active killing.
Even there, Ramban claims, the people would not tolerate the palace endorsing such actions. Par’oh had to let word out, unattached to his name, that anyone who threw male Jewish babies in the river would not be prosecuted. Lifting the protection of law from the Jews sufficed for rank-and-file Egyptians to choose murder. Yet when it became known that Par’oh had been behind it, in Ramban’s view, enough Egyptians objected that he had to put a stop to it.
Ramban thus gives a lot more power to the people than we might have expected. At each stage, in his view, had they stood firmly against Par’oh, he would have had to back down (and sometimes in fact did). With power comes responsibility; knowing they could have stopped Par’oh, we are faced with the ramifications of where they did not.
Many Egyptians had no moral qualms about killing Jews in this reading, and all or close to all willingly joined Par’oh in enslaving them. Even their opposition, for Ramban, was more political prudence than moral fiber. Ceding the king’s right to wipe out one population without cause would establish a precedent that could backfire.
Lack of political power is one kind of problem, lack of the sense of right and wrong that leads to protest is another, and joining in some of the ruler’s evils is yet another. The Egyptians are already showing themselves in a poor light.
The Sequence of the Plagues, Ramban and Ibn Ezra’s View
Ramban argues that Moshe was sent to meet Par’oh at the water before blood, wild animals, and hail--the most destructive plagues-- to be sure the Egyptian people heard the warning as well as Par’oh. This is in contrast to Chazal’s idea that Par’oh went to the river to relieve himself in private, part of maintaining an image of himself as a god.
Ramban argues that the king going to take the waters would have involved a large entourage. Because the coming plague would be extraordinarily destructive, the people were included, to give them a chance to pressure Par’oh to concede. Their refraining, Ramban adds, made them culpable themselves.
His sequence seems to be: a highly destructive plague, with national warning, a slightly less destructive one with in-palace notice, and the third with no advance word and no loss of life. Almost like an earthquake, each aftershock diminishing in force but a reminder of the original, with the looming threat of another on the horizon.
In addition to repeating his assumption that public pressure could and did change Par’oh’s behavior, here he asserts more explicitly the people’s liability for not protesting. Today, many people deny both that people have power to force their leaders’ hands (even despots), and that their failure to use it makes them somewhat complicit. Ramban, living in a monarchy, knew that to be true, and important to understanding (and, therefore, reliving) the Exodus.
Where do we stand on speaking up about that which is wrong or evil around us? If we allow ourselves to stay silent, do we feel we have accepted some of the responsibility for what comes next?
The Frogs: Making It Worse
Rashi offers an alternate reading, not the plainest sense of the text, that one large frog came out of the river, and shot out streams of smaller ones each time the Egyptians hit it, trying to kill it. Textually, the Midrash is building off a quirk of Biblical Hebrew, which sometimes uses a singular to indicate a group; here, the Torah speaks of הצפרדע, literally “the frog,” singular, rising up over Egypt.
Whatever the derivation, the image is of a plague that would have been easier had the people left it alone. Had they only stopped hitting it after the first or second time, once they noticed that brought more frogs, the plague would have been less severe.
The Midrash seems to me to imply that they were insistent they could figure out how to handle this, as they did during the plague of blood, digging around the river for water (7;24). Their self-defeating arrogance led them to decide the plagues were an engineering problem to be tackled, finding alternate water sources for the blood, and a way to kill the frogs.
They never could find their way to the solution staring them in the face, to submit to Hashem’s Will and force Par’oh to release the Jews. Perhaps one step more realistic is that they never found their way to asking Moshe, sincerely, what they should do. All the way at the end of the process, when the first-born were dying, Par’oh told the Jews to leave, but neither he nor his people could ever bring themselves to ask Moshe what their best reaction would be.
Failing to Notice the Death of the Jews in Darkness
We have already discussed the tradition that Jews were killed during darkness. Hashem did it then, Rashi says on 10;22, because the Egyptians would have used it to convince themselves it wasn’t the Jews’ God bringing these plagues.
That assumes a certain blindness among the Egyptians, who would see a bunch of Jews die and not notice that it was a specific population, those who had rejected leaving Egypt when Hashem called for them to go. They’re also seen as blind to the fact that only twenty percent of the Jews were left after the plague of darkness. Chazal think that the fact that it happened when they couldn’t see it would have been enough for them not to notice. Perhaps they were preoccupied with their own troubles, which were about to worsen. Or perhaps another of their flaws was that they only saw what mattered to them.
But the blindness I find most interesting is the one that would allow them to ignore all they’ve seen, to fasten on the one fact that many Jews were killed in darkness, as proof it wasn’t the Jews’ God bringing all this on them. With all the signs Moshe had offered, the plagues he predicted and then ended on demand, with the Jews spared all those plagues, Jews dying (during a plague when Egyptians weren’t dying) would have been enough to lead them to insist this couldn’t be Hashem acting.
Laying a Trap for Par’oh
When Hashem tells Moshe to have the Jews travel back and camp in front of בעל צפון, Ba’al Tsefon, Rashi says this would mislead Par’oh into thinking the Jews were lost and therefore vulnerable. Tradition had it that this was also the only idol left after the Exodus; seeing the Jews stumble into its’ territory, the Egyptians could fool themselves into thinking this idol had power over them.
Sforno thinks Hashem expected the Egyptians to assume Ba’al Tsefon had closed the desert on the Jews, and to bemoan their failure to seek help from it earlier. Kli Yakar adds that they had always seen this as the god of gold and silver, who would take umbrage at Hashem’s having let the Jews plunder the Egyptians’ gold and silver, and would now help overcome Hashem and the Jews.
For all that they had been brought low slowly and methodically, stripped of all assumptions and arrogance, three days later they were ready to fool themselves right back to where they started. Because faith can be fragile, ours no less than theirs.
Leaving on Good Terms
When the Jews asked the Egyptians for their gold and silver, 12;36, the verse comments that Hashem put the people’s favor into the Egyptians eyes; Ramban takes their readily handing over their prized possessions as showing that they looked well upon the Jews and Moshe, that they understood they had been wrong to treat the Jews as they had, and acknowledged the Jews’ worthiness of being chosen as Hashem’s nation.
It didn’t last, as we see at the Sea. Watching the Exodus, the Egyptians show us they had more power to halt their downfall than they recognized; were too ready to watch immorality happen without protest (and, sometimes, willingly participated); continued to be certain they knew how to handle what came their way, even when it manifestly did not; and, even when dragged to see certain truths, were always ready to jump on the slightest counter-evidence to return to their old way of seeing the world.
In building our picture of whom we would have been in the Exodus, we have one more reminder of mistakes to avoid. But the best (and final) teacher in that regard is Par’oh, to whom we turn next.