The plague of the firstborn was not limited to free Egyptians; even the firstborn of captives and slaves were killed as well. Rashi explains that they were punished since they too subjugated Bnei Yisrael and rejoiced in the latter’s misery. In other words, the slaves of Mitzrayim, who merely rejoiced at the fate of the oppressed, received the same punishment as those oppressing them. Why was this so?
The answer is because when someone is delighted and cheers a person on, he encourages that person. The Torah equates encouragement to actual active involvement. It is for this reason that those who encouraged the torturous behavior were punished as if they had actually performed it themselves.
Using similar logic, the Gemara (Shabbos 55a) says that a person who has the ability to rebuke and prevent another from transgressing and refrains from doing so will be held accountable and responsible as if he had transgressed himself.
We know that the measure of goodness is greater than that of punishment. We can therefore infer that a person who encourages and reinforces another to perform a good deed will be rewarded as if he had performed the deed himself. Indeed, we find this principle in many instances. For example, we are taught that those who support others who are learning receive reward as if they learned themselves.
This rule is not esoteric or mysterious; it is very logical. Encouragement is crucial for anyone to perform almost anything. Often the only thing preventing one from doing something is a bit of encouragement from another.
There are incredible stories that display how inspiration and reinforcement have actually saved people’s lives. One story involves a man who was given only a few days to live by his medical professionals, who, parenthetically, have no authority to hand out death sentences, only to heal. This man’s rebbe came to visit him, along with many chassidim. Naturally, the atmosphere in the house was extremely morbid as everyone was awfully depressed. After all, the father of the home had only less than a week to live. Before the rebbe left, he arose and exclaimed, “I hereby make a binding oath from the Torah that you will live for another six years!” Everyone was shocked! How could the rebbe make such an oath, and about such a person in such a predicament?
Six weeks later the terminally ill person died. The chassidim came to the rebbe bewildered. It is one thing to make such an oath, but it’s another when it does not come true. Did the rebbe do something inappropriate?
The rebbe explained that this person had only a few days to live, and the atmosphere in the home was so dire that he might have died even sooner. By making that oath, he said, he lifted the ill man’s spirits and those of his family. The positive encouragement that the rebbe’s oath gave to both the patient and his family kept him alive for another six weeks. And although swearing falsely is normally prohibited, the Torah says that to save someone’s life – even just to add a few temporary moments to it – we may transgress any prohibition in the Torah (except for three, illicit relations, avodah zarah, and murder). So although the oath turned out to have been false, it added many weeks to this person’s life and thus was surely permitted to utter.
This is but one example of how positive encouragement can make a tremendous impact on another. We must remember that by encouraging others to do the right thing, we will share in the reward that their actions yield.