Sunday, April 13, 2014

Why were Pharaoh and the Egyptians punished for what they did to the Israelites?



One of the major themes of the Haggadah is that of divine justice; the Egyptians oppressed us in numerous ways and they received payback through the ten plagues and the miracles by the Yam Suf for their wicked deeds. This theme is not just limited to the Egyptian oppression but to every nation throughout history who has attempted to destroy the Jewish people; reaching its climax when after the meal we open the door for Eliyahu the prophet to herald the final redemption and beseech Hashem to pour out his wrath against the nations that know him not, שפוך חמתך.

There is one obvious question when studying this theme especially in reference to the Egyptians and other nations in Tanach whose oppression of the Israelites was divinely foretold and in some cases even applauded by the prophets. Why should the Egyptians (or Babylonians or Assyrians) be punished for what they did against the Jewish people if they were merely carrying out God's will? If Hashem told Avram at the Covenant Between the Parts that his descendants will be oppressed and enslaved in a strange land than shouldn't the Egyptian oppressors be rewarded for carrying this out? This question becomes even more pronounced in later prophecies. Jeremiah singles out Nebuchadnezzar and the Babylonian empire by name as the people who will lay waste to Judea and Jerusalem, destroy the temple, and exile the Jewish people. Why then is Nebuchadnezzar and his people worthy of punishment for fulfilling this prophecy?

This question is not my own. It was famously asked by both the Rambam and Ramban. In the shiur below, I present this question and go through some of the answers given by these classical commentaries and their significance for us. I am not sure if every one of their answers is satisfactory to me but I believe this is a very cogent question, unfortunately as relevant today as in more ancient times. Please watch the shiur and go through the sources below and feel free to continue this discussion at your seder and summarize any interesting insights you gain in the comments to this posting.

I am indebted to Mrs. Racheli Weiss who shared with me the Ramban that became the basis for this shiur and to my students in 10T1 Nach in The Frisch School who persisted in their questions as we studied Jeremiah Chapter 25 which introduced Nebuchadnezzar as the tool of divine wrath. It was their vigorous questioning which compelled me to research this issue further.

 היינו דאמר ר' חנינא הרבה למדתי מרבותי ומחבירי יותר מרבותי ומתלמידי יותר מכולן 
תלמוד בבלי תענית דף ז עמוד א-

That is what Rabbi Hanina says: I have learned much from my teachers, and even more from my friends, but I have learned the most from my students.



No comments:

Post a Comment