We have questioned the business of Pharaoh’s “hardening of the heart” from many different aspects over the years. But there is another entity that we haven’t looked at – the average Egyptians themselves! Did they know why all of these “plagues” were happening to them while Goshen remained unscathed? Were they aware of Pharaoh’s attitude? Didn’t it seem strange to them that Pharaoh, their friendly, neighborhood god, could not or would not consider THEM in his calculations? Or, for that matter, did they not wonder why their Pharaoh couldn’t stop these plagues?
Parshat Vaera (Exodus 6:2-9:35) presents the first seven plagues. Parshat Bo, which we will read next week, will tell us about the last three. The first two Hebrew letters of “Vaera” (Vav Akef) add up to 7. The two letters of “Bo” (Bet Alef) add up to three, yielding a total of 10. Hmmmm. Interestingly enough, the classic commentators didn’t write much about the individual Egyptians. Some of the historical fiction we have seen, particularly in motion pictures, picture the Egyptians appealing to Pharaoh for help, but with Pharaoh, in his present state, was more interested in dueling with Moses than caring for his subjects.
But there is another angle. In the verses warning of the plague of Burning Hail, the rabbis teach that the verse: “Whoever among the servants of Pharaoh feared the word of God chased his servants and livestock to the houses. And whoever did not take the word God to heart – he left his servants and livestock in the field.” (9:20-21). The implication is that Pharaoh knew enough about Moses and God, that upon the declaration of the plague of hail, he moved his people, his food stuffs, and his animals under cover. Whether the warning about the coming hail storm went out across Egypt, we don’t know, but those who were “in the know” also moved their servants and livestock under cover. But then, in spite of witnessing six other plagues, those who would not consider the word of God as having any validity did not, and as a result, they experienced “catastrophic loss.”
According to the rabbis, there were three kinds of people who failed to heed Moses’s warnings. There were those who were completely indifferent, dismissing the plagues as freaks of nature with no connection to the God of Israel or, for that matter, Pharaoh himself. There were those who felt that their man-god, Pharaoh, and his magicians would somehow dispel the plague, so there was no need to take any precautions. Finally, there were those in complete denial of the whole business. The water went bad. So what! That caused the frogs to come out, the bugs to eat the dead frogs, with the bugs carrying disease to the cattle and made boils on the skin of people whom they bit, the wild animals came through because it was their season. So what if there was going to be a hail storm! They’d seen that before — if there was one, it wouldn’t be all that bad! Besides, it would be a lot of work to bring the flocks and the shepherds in from the fields! As it has been suggested by Rabbi Safran: “It was not callousness, nor foolishness nor arrogance nor pragmatism that held the servants of Pharaoh at bay; it was the simple human tendency to deny the reality before them.”
I would add a fourth type of person. Pharaoh, having “inside information,” saved his personal wealth and the wealth of his court, while his “indifferent” and his clueless followers suffered. Also, communications being what they were back then, it is not far-fetched to surmise that the warning about the hail didn’t really get out to the average Egyptian at all, which left them completely unprepared! All the while, all was quiet in Goshen! The hail miraculously missed them!
I suppose we need to look at Pharaoh’s reckoning of his position here. With each plague, Pharaoh “hardened his heart” and would not let the Children of Israel go out to worship God. In my opinion, to acquiesce to a massive foreign presence living in his kingdom was not in the cards for him as Absolute Ruler. We witness Pharaoh’s concern, with no corroborating evidence to bear it out, that the Israelites would side with Egypt’s enemies in the event of war. This means that, as powerful as Egypt was, there were credible threats to its security in the area. Letting the Children of Israel go would lessen his position, show him as “weak”, and would destroy the economy of Egypt, which depended upon the slave labor of the “Hebrews.” It was enough to make Pharaoh forget their potential value to the Kingdom, and forget what Joseph had done for Egypt. Instead, he succumbed to paranoia and excessive greed – enough to ignore the illogic of his actions and the consequences, thereby giving God a “handle” to manipulate his decision-making. If anyone was responsible for the sufferings of the average Egyptian, it was Pharaoh. He could have stopped it all with a word!
There are multiple lessons for all of us in here. It’s hard to bottom-line it because we are not finished with this story yet. What is being shown to us, though, is not only the power of God, but the foibles which confound human existence, and the mistakes in leadership (or lack of it) that people are willing to endure before change is perceived as necessary. Of course, not all the Egyptian People believed what Pharaoh was putting out, but I am sure that the Egyptian in-the-street had little choice in that action. Leadership does affect everyone and we have to hold them accountable to make decisions that help and not harm.