We find that the plague of the killing of the firstborn sons was not limited to Egyptians; the firstborn of the captives and of the slaves were killed as well. Rashi explains that they were punished for they, too, subjugated Bnei Yisrael and rejoiced in the latter’s misery. It seems that the slaves of Mitzrayim who were merely rejoicing received the equivalent punishment as the actual oppressors.
The reason for this is because when someone is delighted and cheers another person on he encourages them. 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.
Similarly, the Gemara in Shabbos 55a says that one 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 one who encourages and reinforces another to perform a good deed will be rewarded as if he had performed the deed himself. Indeed, we do find such a concept in many instances. One example is regarding those who support others who are learning, who, we are taught, receive a reward as if they were learning themselves.
This concept is not esoteric or mysterious; rather 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, do not have the authority to hand out death sentences, only to heal. This man’s rebbe came along with many chassidim to visit him. Naturally, the atmosphere in the house was extremely morbid and everyone was awfully depressed. After all their husband/father only had 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 and asked for an explanation. It is one thing to make such an oath, but it’s another thing when it does not come true. Did the rebbe do something inappropriate?
The rebbe explained that this person was given but a few days to live. And the attitude and atmosphere in the house indeed would have killed him in that time or shorter. By making that oath he lifted his spirit and the spirits of his family. Undoubtedly the positive encouragement that the rebbe’s oath gave to both the patient and his family kept him alive for another six weeks.
As far as transgressing the prohibition of swearing falsely, the Torah says that to save someone’s live, even just to add a few temporary moments to their life, we may transgress any prohibition in the Torah (except for three: illicit relations, avoda zara, and murder). In this situation making an oath that may have turned out to have been false, added many weeks to this person’s life, and thus was surely permitted.
This is one example of how positive encouragement can make a tremendous impact on others. We must remember that by encouraging others to do the right thing we will share in the reward that their actions yield.