Pharoahic or Phyrric Victory
In this week's portion Moshe warns the Egyptian nation about the last and
most devastating of the ten plagues - Death of the First Born. Therefore, he
tells the Egyptian ruler, "Thus says Hashem, 'At about midnight I will go
about Egypt and strike the first born'" (Exodus 11:4)
The vague expression "about midnight" is noted by Rashi who quotes the Talmud
in Tractate Berachos. In actuality, it was the plague occurred exactly at
midnight (Exodus 12:29).
Why then, would Hashem Whose all encompassing magnifying eye can discern
milliseconds as if they were eternities, need to identify the time of
striking with the vague reference "about midnight." Why didn't Moshe warn
the Egyptians that at the exact strike of midnight Hashem would smite the
Surely the indefinite timing was not done to catch the Egyptians off guard.
Hashem could have told them the exact second and they would have been
helpless and defenseless in an attempt to stop Him!
The Talmud explains that Moshe was reluctant to say that Hashem would strike
at midnight. He suspected that the Egyptians with their fallible timepieces
would miscalculate the hour of attack. Then they would then point their
fingers and scoff, saying that the attack was off by several moments and
question the accuracy of both Moshe's prediction and Hashem's ability to
execute precisely as predicted. Therefore, Moshe gave the fuzzy reference
"about midnight" even though the actual attack occurred precisely at that
When I learned the Rashi and later the Talmudic source that he based his
explanation on, I stood in wonder.
On the night of one of the most calamitous events in Egyptian History, how
can we fathom a skeptical reaction based on the mere miscalculation of at
most a few seconds. Which Egyptian would actually care enough to even
discern if there were a discrepancy of a few seconds. More so, after losing
thousands of firstborn children, which Egyptian would have the audacity to
mock Moshe by saying that the attack was mistimed?
Clearly, definitive judgment was an eternal hallmark of G-d's Divine
judgments. There cannot be even an iota of room for question. But how would
the Egyptians even think to find skepticism in an ever so powerful and
disastrous calamity that clearly is stamped with the Seal of the Divine?
An old story I heard, at least in one variation begins with a foolish
smuggler who was caught with thousands of dollars worth of contraband
merchandise being accosted by his vicious captor. The accused man refuses to
divulge any information about the source of the bounty so the officer decides
to play hardball with him.
He forces the poor man to stand behind a solid white line and threatens him
with physical violence dare he crosses the boundary. "If I catch you
stepping over that line," he shouts, "I'll break every bone in your body!"
The frightened fool is stuck behind the line while the sadistic official
demolishes every bit of the booty. He rips the cloth, smashes the pots and
pans, and shatters the glass items.
Suddenly the pathetic victim begins laughing. He slaps his sides in
astonishing indifference to the havoc and destruction being wreaked upon his
Finally, the officer stops smashing the merchandise and screams at the
"Hey you! What do you think is so funny?"
The poor punch line has the feeble victim mocking the officer. "Ha Ha!" he
shouts. "While you weren't looking, I stepped over the line three times!"
There is a pathetic nature often associated with defeat. The loser tries to
find solace in the phyrric, meaningless victories of tiny nothings. The
world may be collapsing around him yet he will grasp the tiniest solace in
his brilliant accomplishment by finding a meaningless point of an imagined
breach in an all-encompassing armor.
The people of Mitzrayim (Egypt) were reeling from the greatest tragedy in
history, yet they would search to find a discrepancy of a few seconds to
justify their desperate attempt at defiance.
How often do we revel in our phyrric victories when they are nothing more
than Pharaohic victories?
Dedicated in memory of Ruth Wohlfarth by Eva and Keith Staiman & Family
Copyright © 2002 by Rabbi M. Kamenetzky and Project Genesis, Inc.
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The author is the Associate Dean of the
Yeshiva of South Shore.
Drasha is the e-mail edition of FaxHomily, a weekly torah facsimile on the weekly portion which is sponsored by The Henry and Myrtle Hirsch Foundation