Moshe said: “So said Hashem, ‘At about midnight, I shall go out in the midst of Egypt.’ ” – Shemos 11:4
After months and months of Hashem showing the Mitzrim that He alone controls every aspect of Creation, Moshe was instructed to warn Pharaoh that if he still wouldn’t let the Jewish people go, then exactly at the stroke of midnight every firstborn in Mitzrayim would die. Yet when Moshe appeared in front of Pharaoh, he changed the message and said, “If Pharaoh doesn’t free the Jews, then approximately at midnight every firstborn will die.”
Rashi is troubled by why Moshe would change Hashem’s wording. He explains that Moshe was afraid that if he gave an exact time, the Mitzrim would be watching the clock and might miscalculate. Rather than assuming they were wrong, they would attribute the error to Moshe and think he was a liar. To remove this potential pitfall, Moshe changed what Hashem said and told Pharaoh that at around midnight the firstborn would begin dying.
This Rashi seems quite difficult to understand. In our times we have precise instruments to measure time – clocks, watches, chronographs. In the ancient world, timepieces were crude. During the day, a sundial might provide some degree of accuracy, give or take a few minutes. But the makkah of b’choros was at night. The way the Mitzrim would tell time at night was by gazing at the stars. They would look up at the stars’ alignments and approximate the time. How accurate could this possibly be? The telescope had yet to be invented; sophisticated mathematics was yet to be discovered. So how could they assume they were right and Moshe was wrong?
What makes this even more difficult to understand is that for close to a year Moshe and Aaron appeared in Pharaoh’s palace, miraculously foretelling what would happen if Pharaoh didn’t allow the Jews out of Mitzrayim. Time after time, events occurred exactly as Moshe predicted. So why would the Mitzrim assume they were correct and Moshe was lying?
The answer to this question is based on human nature. We tend to assume our opinions are correct, regardless of the evidence against us and irrespective of whom we might be arguing with. While we may not have given much thought to how we arrived at our understanding, once something becomes accepted as our opinion, it becomes very difficult to change.
Moshe was afraid the Mitzrim would calculate the time and, despite the questionable accuracy of their calculations, jump to the conclusion that Moshe was wrong. To prevent this, Moshe gave an approximate time.
But even if the Mitzrim thought Moshe was off by a few minutes, what would that prove? Everything he had said until then had come true. And every firstborn would have died exactly as he had warned. So why would Moshe change the words Hashem said to him?
Here again we see another human tendency. Moshe was afraid he’d be discredited. Once the Mitzrim thought they’d caught him in a lie, nothing he said would have any credibility. Rather than carefully going back to see that the basis of their opinion was highly speculative, the Mitzrim would assume Moshe was wrong despite the overwhelming evidence against it.
This concept has great relevance to us both on the receiving as well as on the giving end. To be effective, truthful people we must recognize our tendency to be biased. When we find ourselves in a disagreement with others, it is difficult to hear their position, regardless of the logic or evidence in their favor. Whether it’s politics, sports, the economy, or what color tie best matches our suit, we tend to be heedless in the formation of our opinions. Yet when challenged, we become locked in and almost incapable of hearing the other perspective.
On the other side of the coin, this idea has great impact when it is our goal to convince others. Whether it is a co-worker we wish to influence on a religious matter or a child on the importance of acting responsibly, the more clearly we understand human nature the more effective we can be.
The operating principle is that arguing will bring the opposite reaction I am seeking. The more directly I confront a belief you hold, the more you will resist giving it up.