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Clutching at Straws

When warning Pharaoh (and his surrounding servants) about the forthcoming plague of the firstborns, Moshe announces that the plague is going to occur at ‘approximately midnight’ (‘kechatzos halayla’ 11:4). Why not say that the plague will occur at precisely midnight, as HaShem planned? (and the answer is not that Moshe was speaking according to Jewish Mean Time!) Rashi quotes the gemarra’s answer.[1] The gemarra says that Moshe knew that the plague would occur at exactly midnight, but was worried that the Egyptian ‘clocks’ (moondials?) would not be accurate, and so according to their time, the plague would occur a few minutes before/after midnight. So, if Moshe would say

that the plague would occur at midnight, they would then call Moshe (and thus HaShem too) a liar, for the plague ‘did not occur’ exactly at midnight. Therefore, Moshe said that the plague would occur at ‘approximately midnight.’ What is going on here? Moshe has a perfect track record; he has successfully reported each of the plagues accurately and precisely. Yet if Moshe correctly informs the Egyptians that there is going to be a smiting of the firstborns but seemingly gets one detail ‘incorrect,’ then rather than assume that their clocks are wrong, the Egyptians are prepared to brand Moshe a liar? The answer is our theme this week, and it crops up in countless places across the opening four sedras of Chumash Shemos. The answer is that the Egyptians were looking for any excuse to deny HaShem and Moshe, and any little ‘falsity’ they could latch on to would be enough to fuel their desire not to give in to recognising HaShem as Supreme.

We find a remarkably similar idea and occurrence at the end of last week’s sedra. Unlike the previous plague of boils, when HaShem hardened Pharaoh’s heart,[2] after the plague of hail, Pharaoh found room to harden his own heart.[3] Why? The Malbim explains that after Pharaoh had entreated Moshe to have HaShem cease the hail, Moshe promised that ‘the thunder will stop and (then) the hail will be no more’ (9:29). And, as pasuk 33 attests to, this is exactly what occurred; first the thunder stopped and then the hail stopped. However, since light travels faster than sound, Pharaoh first saw that the hail stopped, and only a few seconds later did he notice that the thunder had stopped. Thus, he thought that the hail had stopped before the thunder (pasuk 34). This meant that Pharaoh assumed that HaShem had not stopped the plague Himself, but more importantly, Pharaoh concluded that since the thunder was a sign of HaShem’s anger, the fact that the thunder lasted longer than the hail showed that the hail was not really from HaShem. This is because the hail stopped before ‘HaShem’s anger’ (the thunder) stopped; which ‘proved’ that the hail was not due to HaShem’s anger in the first place. So Pharaoh concluded that the hail was never caused by HaShem in the first place; he hardened his own heart.

How could Pharaoh be so creative to conclusively deduce all of this from one small detail (the hail stopping before the sounds), which Pharaoh was wrong about anyway? And how could he come to the conclusion that HaShem had not ‘been behind’ the miraculous hail when Pharaoh knew that HaShem had clearly caused the previous six plagues; and Pharaoh even admitted to Moshe that HaShem had caused the hail when he asked Moshe for HaShem to remove the hail a few psukim earlier? The answer is the same point. Pharaoh was desperate to hold on to his outlook in life, and was desperate to maintain his self-assessment as a god (Rashi 7:15). He was clutching at straws to try and ‘prove’ HaShem wrong.

There is yet another illustration of this principle, in next week’s sedra. The Ramban asks[4] why HaShem made there be a strong wind right before He split the sea? He answers that the reason was to fool the Egyptians into thinking that it was the natural wind, and not HaShem, which was splitting the sea, so that they would continue chasing Bnei Yisrael into the sea and ultimately be drowned. One can ask the obvious question. The Egyptians knew that wind cannot split the sea, especially not into twelve lanes as occurred. And besides, they knew that HaShem had just performed ten plagues in Egypt for the Bnei Yisrael; why should they think that it was not HaShem performing more miracles for His People now? Again, the answer is that the Egyptians went to any lengths to adamantly and stubbornly refuse to accept HaShem’s Kingship and Supremacy over the world. They believed what they wanted to believe, despite what reality told them.

And we find this phenomenon nowadays too. People like to believe what they want to believe, even if this flies in the face of reality. People have ‘re-interpreted’ the ten plagues and have attributed them to natural causes; claiming that a tsunami caused the sea to split (and somehow the tsunami stopped just as the Jews got out of the sea and the Egyptians were all in the sea). And what do people say about the manna that sustained us for forty years in the desert; how does one reinterpret that, and how exactly did one million (plus) people survive for forty years in the desert if manna was not miraculously provided by HaShem? And there are other realities that people like to ignore. Look at the miracles of the human body and how all its organs work together in perfect order. Or look at the miracles evident in the various wars Israel has fought in its short history; from the victory of unequipped holocaust survivors in 1948 to the miraculous lack of damage of the tens of scud missiles poured on us by Iraq in the 1991 Gulf War. The evidence is all there and manifest; it just needs people to be real and open enough to ingest it.

Perhaps one can add another point to this. If the Egyptians’ shortfall was their refusal to admit truth, what was the antidote? Let’s suggest that the antidote was unequivocal exposure to truth that they could not deny. The Or HaChaim notes[5] that the reason for HaShem personally performing the plague of the firstborns is deeper than it seems. Evil, he says, can only survive in this world if it is connected to good. Otherwise, it is severed from HaShem and has no survival or existence in this world. In the plague of the firstborns, HaShem simply revealed Himself to the Egyptian firstborns and naturally every spark of goodness the Egyptians had (i.e their souls) flew out to its Source (HaShem), and what was left was evil – which cannot survive. So the ‘natural’ result was death. In fact, a similar thing happened to the Bnei Yisrael when HaShem revealed Himself on Har Sinai; our souls naturally flew out to their Source, and we had to be revived. The point, as far as our theme is concerned, is that the correction for the Egyptians’ stubborn refusal to recognise HaShem, was the final plague in which He revealed Himself to them to the extent that their souls flew out to Him. This was an undeniable exposure to truth.

Therefore, in summary, let’s learn from the mistakes of Pharaoh and his people, and adopt HaShem’s agenda as opposed to stubbornly following our own. In the words of Rabban Gamliel (Pirkei Avos 2:4) ‘make your will like His (HaShem’s) Will,

so that He will make His Will like your will.’

Have a great Shabbos.

[1] Gemarra Brachos 4a

[2] Shemos 9:12

[3] Shemos 9:35

[4] Ramban Shemos 14:21

[5] Or HaChaim Shemos 11:5