During a Passover Seder most Jews remove a few drops of wine from their goblets at the mention of each of the ten plagues that struck the Egyptians; thus symbolically reducing the joy of our celebration of our people’s liberation from slavery in Egypt. Sometimes freedom must be purchased with suffering, and even bloodshed. This may be necessary, and even good; but we should not overlook the suffering of others, even our enemies, that was a part of our liberation.
The Hebrew Scriptures states, “Do not rejoice over the downfall of your enemy, and do not let your heart be glad when he stumbles; for the Lord will see and be displeased, and will turn His anger away from him.” (Proverbs 24:17-18) The same lesson is also taught in the Talmud in two different places. (Megillah 10b, and Sanhedrin 39b) When the Egyptians drowned in the Red Sea, God prevented the angels from singing songs of praise, since “God’s handiwork drowned in the sea.” The Egyptians also are God’s children.
The suffering of the Egyptians is especially problematic since it is Pharaoh alone who has the power to let them go free. The Egyptians believed that Pharaoh was the Divine Son of the God Ra. After living in Egypt for many generations, every Jews knew that this belief was official state policy, as well as the religious belief of the Egyptian people. To empower the people with enough trust in the God of Israel, who had not down anything for them since they had become slaves many decades before, ((Exodus 6:9) it was necessary to publicly defeat and humiliate the Divine Pharaoh himself.
This is why the Torah says more than a dozen times that God hardened Pharaoh’s heart, so that he could be knocked down again and again. Each time Pharaoh is defeated the Jewish people, and many Egyptians too; become committed, and then more committed, to the God of Israel. After a long period of slavery the Jewish people needed time to grow in their faith. In the same way, a multitude of good hearted people among the Egyptians needed time to decide that when the Jews left Egypt, they would risk everything and go with them. (Exodus 12:38)
Indeed, several statements in the Torah show the growing split among the Egyptians. As plague followed plague many Egyptians did not follow Pharaoh’s stubborn path, and thus escaped his fate.”Those officials of Pharaoh who feared the word of the LORD hurried to bring their slaves and their livestock inside. But those who ignored the word of the LORD left their slaves and livestock in the field.” (Exodus 9:20-21)
This was all part of God’s plan from the beginning. Already at the burning bush God told Moses,” But I know that the king of Egypt will not let you go unless a mighty hand compels him. So I will stretch out my hand and strike the Egyptians with all the wonders that I will perform among them. After that, he will let you go. I will (also) make the Egyptians favorably disposed toward this people, so that when you leave you will not go empty-handed. Every woman is to ask her neighbor and any woman living in her house for articles of silver and gold and for clothing, which you will put on your sons and daughters. Thus will you nets’ail-rescue the Egyptians.” (Exodus 3:19-22)
When the Jewish slaves asked their neighbors to lend them something, they gave the Egyptians an opportunity to escape the worst consequences of the coming plagues. The Hebrew verb neets’ail means to rescue, deliver. save; and also less often, to exploit or utilize. In 1938 and 1939, thousands of English families took advantage of the opportunity to get as inexpensive house keepers and child care workers, high school and college educated Jewish women who were desperate to escape Nazi Germany. Did they exploit or rescue these woman? At that time it was both. In retrospect it was clearly a rescue.
Indeed, it is a major mistake to think of all the ten wonders as simply plagues. Some were clearly plagues, while others were strange, weird and awesome events; and like many sudden and overwhelming events they caused major disruptions and wide spread anxiety within Egyptian society. With the exception of the second marvel (frogs) that occurred only seven days after the end of the first uncanny event, we do not know how far apart the events were. Perhaps only a few months apart; perhaps a few years apart.
The first two plagues; blood red water pollution and frogs were strange more than awesome. They affected only the Egyptians at first, but then Pharaoh’s magicians did the same thing (to the Jews). The text does not say this explicitly, but only if the magicians added more frogs to bother the Jewish skaves would the Egyptians know that Egyptian magic was able to accomplish what it did. (Exodus 7:22 and 8:3) In the third event (lice) the Egyptian magicians fail to do the same thing to the Jews. (Exodus 8:14)
In the fourth (insects) and seventh (hail) events God makes the area where the Jews live (Goshen) off limits. The eighth event (locusts) is a severe plague and no mention is made of Goshen being off limits. But we are told that in the seventh event (hail, lighting and heavy rain) ”Those officials of Pharaoh who feared the word of the LORD hurried to bring their slaves and their livestock inside. But those who ignored the word of the LORD left their slaves and livestock in the field.” (Exodus 9:20-21)
The ninth event (tangible darkness) harms no one physically but is psychologically profound; “a darkness upon the land of Egypt, a tangible darkness” (Exodus 10:21) “People could not see one another…but all the Israelites had light in their dwellings.” (Exodus 10:23) All the Egyptians had to do was light their oil lamps so this darkness is a spiritual void.
Those Egyptians who never saw the Jewish slaves being oppressed, now felt ashamed and saw only darkness after eight plagues had occurred. They became very apprehensive and afraid. They became depressed and were touched by darkness. They could not see even one another to offer comfort so they could not see each other and touched darkness everywhere.
The Israelites because they reached out and touched their loved ones, had light in their dwellings. Those Egyptians who saw the oppressed Jewish slaves and tried to help them, saw hope in the future, so many of them became part of the mixed multitude (Exodus 12:38) that left Egypt with the Jewish people. The Torah teaches that “God had disposed the Egyptians favorably toward the people of Israel (Exodus 12:36) and to Moses (Exodus 11:3).
This is a reference to the Egyptians who could see during the Darkness and who ‘lent’ the Jewish people vessels of gold and silver (rarely) and copper and bronze (more frequently).These reparations saved (the word usually means rescued/saved and only rarely means exploited/spoiled) the supportive non-Jewish households from the tenth plague.
The Torah says that all the Israelites had light. This is because they all had hope. The Torah does not say all the Egyptians could not see one another because some could see hope and other people while others could not see either.
Darkness is not just the absence of light. Darkness and Evil are real; tangible, blinding forces. Evil corrupts even the bystanders who do not do anything evil themselves. If you are not part of the solution, you are part of the problem.