After a “Natural” disaster people speak with much greater reverence. Even normally arrogant people, after living through a hurricane, tidal wave, or earthquake, have a very real sense of humility and reverence—their reality has been changed, and they view life differently. Yet that wasn’t the reaction of Pharaoh and Mitzraim to the Maakos.
The Egyptians lived through the most powerful manifestation of HASHEM’s might ever shown to man. For months they were afflicted while HASHEM “played with Mitzraim”. Two powerful points were made clear: HASHEM is the Master of creation, and Moshe was the messenger of HASHEM. Everything that he said would happen, happened—with precision and exactness.
Now, HASHEM told Moshe that the final, and most potent Makkah, would come. “Tell Pharaoh that exactly at midnight, every first born in Mitzraim will die.”
Yet, when Moshe approached Pharaoh, he changed the message; he said at “approximately” midnight the first born will die.
Rashi is bothered by the question: why did Moshe change from the words that HASHEM used. He answers that Moshe was afraid that Pharaohs’ astrologers would make a grave error. They would be watching the clock to see if Moshe was accurate. Even though the first born would die exactly at the stroke of midnight, the astrologers might have the wrong time, and mistakenly assume that it wasn’t midnight. They would then accuse Moshe of being a liar. To prevent this from happening, Moshe said, approximately at midnight.
How did they tell time in the Ancient world?
This Rashi is very difficult to understand when we take into account the historical reality.
Today, we live with a great awareness of time. We have clocks all around us: in every room and in every car; on pens, microwaves, computers and cell phones. We can’t buy groceries, or go to the bank without a date and time stamp adorning our receipt. We are constantly reminded of our point in time. And our chronometers are precise: down to the nano-second. For under a hundred dollars you can purchase a radio synchronized, atomic clock that guarantees to be accurate to within a second every two thousand years! In short we have good reason to assume that our sense of timekeeping is accurate.
How accurate were the time pieces in ancient Egypt?
However, that wasn’t the way it was in the ancient world. The way that they kept time was quite different. During the day, they used a sun dial, which might have been somewhat close to almost accurate– sort of. At night the only way to tell time was by gazing at the stars. Without out aid of computers and optics, measuring objects light years away was a highly inaccurate science.
This last Makkah was to begin at night. Even if the Egyptians prided themselves on ingenuity and advancements, they had to know that they were mostly likely wrong when it came to accurately knowing when midnight was. If so why would the Mitzrim assume that they were right and Moshe was wrong? If everything he has said up until now had been true, and they didn’t have a reliable way to know what time it was,why should they assume they were right and he was wrong?
Answer: we humans don’t like to be wrong.
The answer to this question is based on a quirk in human nature: we assume that we are right—and we don’t like to hear otherwise. The ironic part of is that we assume we are right whether we are justified or not. We assume we are right; whether we really thought out our position, or not. We assume we are right; whether we really have evidence to the facts, or it just happens to be the first thing that came to our mind. We assume that the starting position that we have is correct—that’s just a given. And it is very difficult to get us to change our mind. Facts aren’t that influential. Reality isn’t that convincing. Once we have made up our mind that is the way it is. We are heedless in the formation of our opinions, but once they are formed we defend them as if our very life depended upon it.
The root cause of this is arrogance. An arrogant person is not open to change. An arrogant person is not open to hearing that he isn’t right. And an arrogant person has great difficulty learning—because he already knows everything there is to know.
The Mitzrim are a fantastic illustration of this concept. Moshe was afraid that if there was a discrepancy between his time and theirs- they would assume they were right and he was wrong. Even though he had proven himself again and again, even though every other part about the first born dying was completely correct, there wouldn’t have even been a question in their minds. It was now precisely 11:45– fifteen minutes before the prescribed time. If the first born started dying now, clearly Moshe is a liar. Because of this, Moshe used the expression approximately, so that they shouldn’t come to this mistake.
The application to our lives
This concept has great relevance to us on two levels. The first is when we set out to influence others. If I view things differently than another person and my goal is to move him over to my way of thinking, I have to be sensitive the nature of changing another person’s opinion. I have to help him see things in a new light. What will allow him to see things from my perspective isn’t simply the facts, and it often isn’t even the clarity with which I present my case. If his ego get’s in the way- there will be no communication. Regardless of how correct I am – I will be speaking to deaf ears. For that reason it is imperative for me to allow the other person to gracefully maintain their position, while gently moving them along, allowing them to presume this was the way they thought all along. Only then will I be able to convey to them a different approach.
The second area is in regards to myself. What happens when someone points out to me that I was wrong? What about when I know that they are correct? What about when I know that they are only saying it for my good? How open am I to hearing this? Am I able to deal with the concept that maybe I was wrong? Part of becoming a bigger person, is the ability to be teachable, to be big enough to understand that not everything I thought of is right. And not everything that someone else says is automatically wrong- because it isn’t my way. Some of the most critical words for growth are: Maybe I’m wrong. I have been wrong before. Let me see.
When a person opens themselves up to the idea that I may have erred; they become far more pleasant, far more agreeable and are now on the path to true growth.
שמות פרק יא
ד) וַיֹּאמֶר משֶׁה כֹּה אָמַר יְדֹוָד כַּחֲצֹת הַלַּיְלָה אֲנִי יוֹצֵא בְּתוֹךְ מִצְרָיִם:
רש”י על שמות פרק יא פסוק ד
ור”ד כמו כבחצות הלילה ואמרו שאמר משה כחצות דמשמע סמוך לו או לפניו או לאחריו ולא אמר בחצות שמא יטעו אצטגניני פרעה ויאמרו משה בדאי הוא אבל הקב”ה יודע עתיו ורגעיו אמר בחצות
For more on this topic please listen to Shmuz #136 – I’m Never Wrong
Rabbi Shafier is the founder of the Shmuz.com – The Shmuz is an engaging, motivating shiur that deals with real life issues.
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