“Don’t get mad,” said the philosophers of the eighties, “get even.”
I am not sure if the objective of the ten plagues was for the Almighty to get even with the nation that had enslaved His people. Certainly there are Midrashic sources that correlate the ten plagues as direct punishment for Egyptian crimes against the Jewish people. (Tana D’bei Eliyahu Chapter 7) So perhaps we might say that the Jewish people got even.
There is, however, no scriptural reference to the fact that they got mad. In fact, each time Moshe went to Pharaoh a serene and calculated negotiation occurred. “Let My people serve Me,” Moshe commanded. When Pharaoh refused his obstinence was met with a clear and calculated threat. “If you refuse to allow the people to leave, I will send the following plague in you land.” And so it went. Sometimes a plague immediately followed a warning, other times plagues came with no warning at all. When Pharaoh found Moshe and arranged for a cessation of the scourge, Pharaoh reneged on his commitment soon after. Moshe became frustrated, perhaps he even became impatient, but there was no anger until the final plague. Then, he not only got even, he got mad.
Moshe warned Pharaoh with the words of Hashem, “At about midnight, I will go out in the midst of Egypt and every firstborn in the land of Egypt shall die.” (Exodus 11:4) Though Moshe detailed the ramifications of the plague he was greeted with an apathetic response.
Finally the Torah tells us, that “Moshe left Pharaoh in burning anger” (Exodus 11:8) Why, only then did Moshe storm out in a rage? Was he not accustomed to the callous recklessness of the Egyptian leader? What irked him during the last encounter more than any of the previous ones?
The great physicist Albert Einstein escaped the Nazi inferno to find a haven in the United States. During World War II his letter to President Roosevelt initiated the effort that spurred the creation of the atomic bomb. His theory of relativity was a prime factor in its development, and Einstein knew the destructive power that his ideas could potentially release. When Einstein heard in an August 6, 1945, radio broadcast that an atomic device was dropped on the city of Hiroshima, he reacted with stunned silence. After a moment of somber reflection he only found two words to say. “Oy vey!”
Rabbi Shimon Schwab (d.1994) explains that Moshe had patience with Pharaoh up to a point. Throughout the ordeal, the reckless king’s obstinate decisions caused a great amount of discomfort to his people. Even when his advisors pleaded, “How long will this man [Moshe] be an obstacle, let them [the Jews] serve their G-d,” Pharaoh refused. His recalcitrance brought plagues of pestilence, boils, locust, and darkness — in addition to blood, frogs, and lice. All of these afflictions were vastly uncomfortable — but not fatal. Even the fiery hail did not harm the G-d-fearing Egyptians that sought shelter.
The last, the Plague of the First Born, had the most devastating ramifications. It meant the deaths of thousands of Egyptians “from the firstborn son of Pharaoh to those of the maidservant who was behind the millstone.” It was devastation so powerful that the Torah says that “such has never been and will never be again.” (Exodus 11:6) Pharaoh was able to stop the imminent destruction with one simple word — “Go.” Yet he chose to remain steadfast in his denial, bringing the downfall of his people and the death of innocents. And that callous and reckless behavior infuriated Moshe, whose compassion for the simplest of beings earned him the right to be the leader of the Jewish nation. The stark contrast displayed by his nemesis appalled him to the point of rage. The Torah commands us, “do not to hate the Egyptian, for you were a sojourner in his land.” (Deuteronomy 23:8) The Torah’s attitude toward a nation that held us captive is even more compassionate than that of its own leaders. Barbaric leaders egging on many simple people throughout the world, to act in a self-destructive manner are reminiscent of the Pharaoh who destroyed his own family to save his ego. It’s enough to make anybody — even the most humble man who ever lived — very angry.
Text Copyright © 1996 by Rabbi M. Kamenetzky and Project Genesis, Inc.
The author is the Dean of the Yeshiva of South Shore.