Photo Credit: Wikipedia
The-Plague of Darkness by the artist Gustave Dore

How did the Jews find grace in the eyes of the Egyptians, when they were the source all the plagues and destruction to begin with? It is true that the real blame should have fallen on Pharaoh; but it is hard to imagine that they saw it from such an enlightened perspective.

Different answers are given. And in this case, they show as much about the commentators who give them as they do about what actually happened: Maharal suggests that the Egyptians were highly impressed by the Jews not stealing from them during the plague of darkness. For it is not just in ancient times that poor people cannot resist the temptation to steal when they know they will not get caught. It is a highly disciplined society in which looting is not an aftereffect of a catastrophe that leave stores unmanned and unprotected. Even in the United States, it is only prevented by bringing in the National Guard. With the Jews in Egypt, the temptation was probably even greater. For it would have been quite easy to justify grabbing whatever they could, in exchange for all of the wages that they should have received during all of the years of slavery. And whether it was what impressed the Egyptians or not, it was truly an admirable display of moral fortitude.

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Netziv however credits the Jews with something even more remarkable. He points out that since the darkness paralyzed the Egyptians for three days, one might have expected them all to die of starvation. The fact that they did not means that someone else had fed them and taken care of their other needs during that time. And since there was no one else around to do it, says Netziv, it must have been the Jews. Indeed, Netziv writes in several places about the appropriateness of concern for all people. Since God created them and keeps them alive, we have to do everything we can to benefit them as well. And that, he says, is what brought them favor in the eyes of the Egyptians.

While the logic of the above answer may sound impeccable, it is not the only way to explain the Egyptians’ survival. Since the paralyzing darkness was a miracle, its effects could have been miraculous as well. On a quasi-natural plane, the Egyptians could have been put into a state of hibernation, obviating any need to eat or drink.

The fact that Netziv’s approach is not inevitable and was skipped over by others actually serves to give us an insight into this Torah giant. For most others, the Egyptians’ horrible treatment of the Jews could not allow them to imagine the Jews would turn around and take care of them at their time of need. At best – as per Maharal – the Jews could be admired for not hurting the Egyptians or stealing their property. For that was ultimately a moral issue regardless of who was involved: God does not allow taking the money of others or punishing them without some sort of proof and trial that such is warranted. But to actually go and feed one’s tormentors is something that simply could not cross the mind of most others. (Of course, even Netziv would presumably limit his approach to Egyptians who were not known to personally be planning to hurt the Jews.)

That Netziv could think in these terms is not just a credit to his own tremendous generosity of spirit, it is a tribute to the Jewish people more generally. For no matter how magnanimous he might have been, he could not have imagined such a thing unless it was at least a remote possibility. That is to say that it wasn’t only a possibility that he saw from a close reading of the text, but also something he could imagine from the Jews that he knew. It is thankfully also something that we can imagine from Jews today. The medical and other aid which Israel has afforded Syrians throughout their civil war is a shining case in point. Those helped certainly did not start as friends of Israel. But just as the behavior ancient Israelites inspired admiration from their enemies, so is it today.

Friends and enemies alike are impressed when we show that our morality is not dependent on whether it is in public or not. And thankfully, there are still many among us who behave in such a way. But perhaps now – when so many icons have been shown to only be moral when they think others are aware of it – more than ever, it is only with such a standard that we can impress mankind with what it means to be a holy nation.

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