“Why Didn’t the Egyptians Rebel Against Pharaoh?”

by Rabbi Ephraim Z. Buchwald

In parashat Va’eira, we learn of the first seven plagues that struck Egypt: Blood, frogs, lice, wild animals, a lethal epidemic, boils, and hail. Egypt is down on its knees, the entire country is in ruins. Why is there no outcry from the Egyptian people?

Egypt was one of the most developed of the ancient civilizations, a wealthy and blessed country. In fact, scripture in Genesis 13:10 refers to Egypt as “K’gahn Hashem, k’eretz Mitzrayim,” the land of Egypt was like the garden of G-d! Its citizens were resourceful and intelligent, its powerful military forces subdued nation after nation. The Egyptian sovereign, Pharaoh, had more power than any of the ancient monarchs, and had a cadre of wise men and advisers who were among the best and brightest of the time.

Given this background, it is all the more perplexing that even after multiple disasters, Pharaoh stands firm in his stubbornness, refusing to let the Israelite people go. The Nile is now polluted with blood, the land is covered with frogs, the bodies of the Egyptians are afflicted with lice, their homes have become dens of wild animals, their livestock has succumbed to an epidemic, the flesh of their bodies is covered with boils, frozen hail with glowing fire has fallen from heaven destroying most of the land. And more plagues are still to come. And yet, Egypt refuses to yield.

If Pharaoh’s heart is as hard as a rock, where are the wise men of Egypt? And if the officers are impotent, where is the spirit of the people? Let them rise up and rebel against their officials who have brought ruin and destruction of unprecedented proportion upon this great land and its citizens.

The Midrash recounts that 85 years prior to the plagues, the Egyptian people rose up in rebellion against their king when he, acknowledging the country’s debt to Joseph for saving Egypt from famine, refused to attack the Israelites as the people had demanded. The masses at that time removed Pharaoh from his kingship for three months until he yielded. Hence the verse (Exodus 1:8): “Va’yakam melech chadash,” a new king (with a new spirit) arose. Now that the king has brought almost total destruction upon the people and the land, is it not time for the people to rise up again? While it’s true that from the sixth plague on, G-d hardened the heart of Pharaoh, He certainly did not harden the hearts of the people. Why are they quiet? Why do they passively accept such brutal punishment?

Rabbi Eliyahu Kitov, in his Sefer Haparashiot, provides extensive background information that helps explain the key role that the common Egyptian played in Pharaoh’s scheme to destroy the Jews. Even though, according to tradition, the plagues always struck Pharaoh, his servants and his ministers first, and only later the people of Egypt. Nevertheless, when it came to evil, Pharaoh was no worse than the people. To the contrary, the Egyptians were perhaps Pharaoh’s superiors in evil and wickedness.

What was the origin of this evil?

Its origins are ancient. In fact, the Egyptians were the virtual masters of evil and wickedness. The Midrash asserts that the Egyptian people were descendants of an ancient tribe whose members were physically short and weak, but quite powerful and resourceful when it came to scheming and intimidating their rivals. The original Egyptians were lazy people who hated to work. All their wealth and power stemmed from their ability to exploit others who would do the work for them. They themselves lacked knowledge and skills, but they were smart enough to capture the most clever and innovative among their enemies and to mobilize them to work for the nation and construct all the wondrous structures of Egypt. Using powerful enticements to lure creative people to their country, once they were in their net, the Egyptians would not let them leave. They would cruelly persecute their captives, until the latter were afraid to rise up against their masters. The Egyptians became experts at beating the slaves into submission and extinguishing through violence any element of rebellion before it could arise. Ultimately, Egypt became a brutal slave state, whose subjugated slaves were the real builders of Egypt.

It was not uncommon for an Egyptian to boast to his neighbors how many slaves he had killed on a particular day. “You killed five? Well, I killed more.” The Egyptian masters would sit leisurely and feast on gigantic meals, while the slaves, suffering from extreme malnutrition, languished before them. The three cardinal rules of Egypt were: A slave may never gain freedom. A slave may never leave Egypt. A slave may never rule. The prophet Isaiah (7:18) refers to the Egyptian kingdom as the fly in the outermost part of the rivers of Egypt. Just as a fly doesn’t work, but rather sucks the blood of others for nourishment, so too the Egyptians.

The patriarch of the Egyptians was Mitzrayim, the second son of Ham, the son of Noah. It was Mitzrayim (Egypt) who invented the brick, and was the first to enslave people and use them to build a tower. Until the invention of the brick, only able-bodied males could work in the quarries to produce the heavy stones necessary for building. But now, even women and children could be mobilized to work, since bricks were light enough to be carried by anyone.

While the great Tower of Babel was universally admired as one of the marvels of the ancient world, there was one man who quickly recognized the cruelty and the immorality involved in its construction. When Abraham saw that the heralded technology, the brick, was “worshiped” at the expense of the sanctity of human life, he could not tolerate it. It was not uncommon that when a brick fell during construction, the builders would stop to mourn, but if a human being died in a work accident, there was total indifference. The immorality of these ancient inventors shocked Abraham to his core. He consequently prayed that the tower and the city should crumble and that human dignity be restored. Only two refugees remained from that generation: Mitzrayim and Abraham. Mitzrayim (Egypt) subsequently built a kingdom based on the exploitation of human beings. In contrast, Abraham built a family of children and grandchildren who would go on to establish a kingdom of priests and become a holy people.

And behold, as fate would have it, the descendants of these two refugees arrive in Egypt. Mitzrayim’s children and grandchildren were to serve as the rulers of Egypt, and taskmasters lording over the Israelites. Although the Egyptians enslaved more than 70 different nations, they singled out the Jews for exceptional persecution. The Egyptians, who were concerned for the security of Egypt, were fearful lest a time of war come to the land and the Israelites join Egypt’s enemies.

There was a time when Pharaoh looked out over Egypt and saw that the seed of Abraham had virtually disappeared. Under the strong arms of the Egyptian taskmasters, the Israelites had almost entirely assimilated. There was little hope for them. But now, new Israelite leaders arrived on the scene demanding in G-d’s name that Pharaoh, “Let My people go,” so that they might worship G-d. These leaders were the direct descendants of their forefather, Abraham, who had smashed idols and broken the chains of slavery in Babylon.

“Who is G-d that I should listen to His voice” (Exodus 5:2), demanded Pharaoh. But even if Pharaoh were forced against his will to listen, the Egyptian people, who had become accustomed to their role as masters, were not prepared to do so. They were prepared to die a thousand deaths, rather than release a single slave.

And even when Pharaoh’s will was finally broken, still the Egyptian people refused to acquiesce. “Eternal slavery for the slaves!” cried the officers. “Not a single one of their slaves will ever leave Egypt!” cried the Egyptian taskmasters. “Let us all die. We will never submit to Moses and Aaron!” chimed in every firstborn from the highest nobleman to the lowest handmaiden. Pharaoh’s heart had already softened, but the hearts of his officers and nation were as hard as ever. They stood firm in their rebellion. The people refused to heed the word of G-d, even if it meant the total destruction of Egypt.

Why didn’t the Egyptian people rebel against Pharaoh? Because they hated the Jews and the G-d of the Hebrews bitterly, perhaps even more than did Pharaoh!

May you be blessed.