Moshe comes to Pharaoh and declares that, once and for all, Egypt will be destroyed. “At midnight, God will kill every firstborn in this land!” he boldly announces to Pharaoh and his advisers. And with that statement, he turns around and leaves the palace. The king’s men begin to entreat him. “We don’t want to die. We don’t want our children to die.” But Pharaoh is defiant. He hasn’t listened to God until now, and he has no intention of changing his mind.
The firstborns of Egypt are not prepared to let this one go, however. They’ve seen every prophecy of Moshe come to fruition and know that this time will be no different. If Moshe has declared, then it will come to pass. They gather together outside the royal palace and begin to protest. Slowly but surely, the crowd grows. Before long, they’re numbering in the thousands. And the palace guards are no match for the power of the mob. They storm the grounds and a massive battle ensues between those loyal to Pharaoh and those concerned for the lives of their loved ones.
The Great Egyptian Civil War ends up inflicting greater damage upon the country than any of the heavenly plagues. Each year, we commemorate this extraordinary event on the Shabbat before Pesach. We call it Shabbat HaGadol, the Great Shabbat.
מַתְנִי׳ לֹא יֵצֵא הָאִישׁ בְּסַנְדָּל הַמְסוּמָּר. גְּמָ׳ סַנְדָּל הַמְסוּמָּר מַאי טַעְמָא? אָמַר שְׁמוּאֵל: שִׁלְפֵי הַשְּׁמָד הָיוּ, וְהָיוּ נֶחְבָּאִין בִּמְעָרָה, וְאָמְרוּ: הַנִּכְנָס — יִכָּנֵס, וְהַיּוֹצֵא — אַל יֵצֵא. נֶהְפַּךְ סַנְדָּלוֹ שֶׁל אֶחָד מֵהֶן, כִּסְבוּרִין הֵם אֶחָד מֵהֶן יָצָא וְרָאוּהוּ אוֹיְבִים וְעַכְשָׁו בָּאִין עֲלֵיהֶן. דָּחֲקוּ זֶה בָּזֶה וְהָרְגוּ זֶה אֶת זֶה יוֹתֵר מִמַּה שֶּׁהָרְגוּ בָּהֶם אוֹיְבִים. רַבִּי אִילְעַאי בֶּן אֶלְעָזָר אוֹמֵר: בִּמְעָרָה הָיוּ יוֹשְׁבִין, וְשָׁמְעוּ קוֹל מֵעַל גַּבֵּי הַמְּעָרָה. כִּסְבוּרִין הָיוּ שֶׁבָּאוּ עֲלֵיהֶם אוֹיְבִים. דָּחֲקוּ זֶה בָּזֶה וְהָרְגוּ זֶה אֶת זֶה יוֹתֵר מִמַּה שֶּׁהָרְגוּ בָּהֶן אוֹיְבִים. רָמֵי בַּר יְחֶזְקֵאל אָמַר: בְּבֵית הַכְּנֶסֶת הָיוּ יוֹשְׁבִין, וְשָׁמְעוּ קוֹל מֵאֲחוֹרֵי בֵּית הַכְּנֶסֶת. כִּסְבוּרִין הָיוּ שֶׁבָּאוּ עֲלֵיהֶם אוֹיְבִים. דָּחֲקוּ זֶה בָּזֶה וְהָרְגוּ זֶה אֶת זֶה יוֹתֵר מִמַּה שֶּׁהָרְגוּ בָּהֶן אוֹיְבִים.
MISHNA: A man may not go out on Shabbat with a spiked sandal. GEMARA: What is the reason that the Sages prohibited going out with a spiked sandal on Shabbat? Shmuel said: They were those who fled an antisemitic decree, and were hiding in a cave. And those hiding said: One who seeks to enter the cave may enter, but one who seeks to leave the cave may not leave. It happened that the sandal of one of them was reversed, the front of the sandal was in the back, and his footprints appeared like the steps of one leaving the cave. They thought that one of them left and feared that their enemies saw him and were now coming upon them. In their panic, they pushed one another and killed one another in greater numbers than their enemies had killed among them. Rabbi Elai ben Elazar says they were sitting in the cave and heard the noise of a spiked sandal atop the cave. They thought that their enemies had come upon them. They pushed one another and killed one another in greater numbers than their enemies had killed among them. Rami bar Yeḥezkel said they were sitting in a synagogue and they heard noise from behind the synagogue. They thought that their enemies had come upon them. They pushed one another, and killed one another in greater numbers than their enemies had killed among them.
The Gemara narrates three almost identical stories. In each event, just like the firstborns in Egypt, the conflict within led to greater destruction than any external threat. Certainly, the Gemara wasn’t looking merely to fill space. Each story offers an additional dimension to the conversation.
In the first story, one fellow is wearing his shoe backwards. Consequently, the hiders see before them footprints coming towards the cave and going away from the cave. This leads them to conclude that someone has been leaving the cave and returning, which would suggest the presence of a spy in their midst. They begin their investigation into who the ‘enemy within’ might be. Suddenly, what was previously a cohesive group has now become a motley bunch of individuals, none of whom trusts the other. They’re all watching one another suspiciously. And then the allegations of traitorship begin to fly. Before long, the fear has skyrocketed, and they end up killing one another.
Shmuel’s tale is an unfortunate, but all-too-typical depiction of the inner workings of a group of likeminded individuals. They come together with a common goal of surviving, or even defeating, the enemy ‘outside’ their midst. But instead of concentrating their efforts on strategies to achieve victory over their common foe, they expend all their energy on infighting. You find this phenomenon particularly amongst political parties. Before they’ve even begun their campaign against the other political party, they’ve jockeyed with one another for internal power. In the process, they’ve developed such distrust that they’re no competition whatsoever for the external enemy. The enemy outside doesn’t need to touch them; they’ve already destroyed themselves.
In the second story, despite the lack of evidence of any coming and going, there’s still ‘noise’ that leads to them destroy each other. Sometimes we imagine an enemy in our midst that doesn’t exist. We become so worried about our own status that we imagine that others in the group are posing a threat to our position. Rumours begin to circulate. Accusations and finger-pointing follow. Internal group cohesion breaks down. And once again, the enemy doesn’t need to lift a finger.
A good example of such a sad state of affairs is office politics and internal organizational cohesion. The goal of all employees should be to produce the finest goods and services and maximize market share. But sometimes, we spend so much time and focus on ensuring we’re beating the competition in the next cubicle and office. Meanwhile the real enemy – our business competitor – is on the rise, with no need to worry about our products and services.
In the third story, Rami reminds us that these tragic tales are not legends that take place in a mythical cave somewhere. Or to a political party or competitive firm. Sadly, these internal rifts happen even in our shuls and communities. We all know that the enemy is outside. And we know that the enemy is formidable. Whether that enemy is one of literal antisemitism or the threat of assimilation, all too often we get sidetracked with internal communal and congregational politics and infighting. Instead of working together to maximize our ability to overpower the enemy, we destroy ourselves from within. When our coreligionists and children see these terrible games, they’re repulsed by our behaviour and get turned off their Judaism. The enemy didn’t need to lift a finger – we successfully killed one another, all by ourselves, sitting right there in shul.
In life, not only is conflict inevitable, it is vital. The Kabbalists compare each person’s internal struggle between their good and bad inclinations to a city over which two armies are battling for control. But beyond our internal psychological struggles, the world is filled with competing ideologies and warring groups. Hopefully, these battles are nonviolent.
The most important thing to keep asking yourself is who the real enemy is. If you’re expending all your efforts on foolish intra-group struggles, then you’ve lost your way. Your teammates must be supported and encouraged. It’s the other team that you need to focus your combative efforts upon.
There is no need to do battle with your teammates. When you put your personal issues aside and work to build internal cohesion, you will find that your influence within the group will grow organically. May you focus all your energies on increasing the strength and cohesiveness of your community so that you can maximize your ability to battle the real enemy!