12/27/2013 10:37 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

Egyptians Under Pharaoh? ( Va'era , Exodus 6:2-9:35)

The death of Nelson Mandela has taught us to count the blessings a great leader brings his country. It was said that with whomever Mandela talked, he always spoke to the best in that person. He made everyone part of his vision.

But what about a bad leader? Pharaoh is an archetype of those who have the opposite effect: a gift for speaking to the worst in people.

The 10 Plagues are generally read as a duel; Pharaoh and the Egyptians are on one side, God and the Children of Israel on the other. But what is the moral situation of ordinary Egyptians? Are they simply part of the collateral damage? Are they no less the victims of Pharaoh's hard heart than the Children of Israel? Or do they deserve every whit of what they get? None of these possibilities makes for comfortable exploration.

At first glance, it seems easiest to regard the average Egyptian as merely a victim. Only a callous mind can suppose that populations receive the rulers they deserve. "A new king arose over Egypt," explains the Torah (Ex. 1:8); there is no suggestion that the population had any say in the matter. Pharaoh did have an entourage of magicians and advisers, but, at least until the eighth plague, there is no suggestion that they are anything more than yes-men. They are like the ministers Osip Mandelstam described as surrounding Stalin in the ode that indirectly cost the poet his life:

Ringed with a scum of chicken-necked bosses

He toys with the tributes of half-men...

(Selected Poems, trans. Clarence Brown and W. S. Merwin)

But half-men are dangerous and, beginning with them, it is not easy to remove a widening circle of the Egyptian populace from some degree of moral responsibility. The "new Pharaoh" is not stupid. Starting with his first address to the nation, he makes the populace complicit in his policies. "Come, let us deal wisely with them," he urges, as if to say, Don't you think, like me, that there are too many of these Israelites here? Can't you see, like me, how discretion requires us to safeguard our own interests? (paraphrasing Ex. 1:10). Racists always appeal to the lowest moral denominator; and those who provide it cannot be considered totally blameless.

The local population stands to gain, and quickly, from the subjugation of the Hebrews. The high taxes they pay bolster the economy; their slave labor enables the swift completion of national projects like Pithom and Ramses, new storage cities. If I benefit by the injustice inflicted by my government on another racial group, can I really maintain that it has nothing to do with me, that I am innocent because I had no choice?

Collective guilt deepens with Pharaoh's order to all his people that they throw the Hebrew male babies into the river (Ex. 1:22). No doubt many found ways to ignore the command. Ovadiah Seforno suggests that there were Egyptian midwives who refused Pharaoh's command that they throttle the infants on the birth-stool (Ex. 1:16). Pharaoh's own daughter comes to mind; had it not been for her and her attendants' intervention, Moses would not have survived (Ex. 2:10).

Later, too, there are Egyptians who listen to God rather than to Pharaoh. Before the plague of hail, Moses tells Pharaoh's servants to hurry their cattle and servants indoors; those left in the fields will die. "Those who feared the Lord among Pharaoh's servants" quickly heed the warning. Thus there were God-fearing Egyptians (Ex. 9:19-21).

But rabbinic tradition does not credit them with pure motives. Where did Pharaoh find the horses for the chariots to pursue the departing Israelites? Weren't they all killed off in the hail? No, explains the Midrash; the surviving animals belonged to those Egyptians who "feared the Lord" and saved them from the fatal hail. But they were perfectly willing to provide them to Pharaoh later (Tanhuma Beshallach 8). Their fear of God consisted not of a sense of social justice, but of anxiety about losing their livestock. In this harsh reading, the rabbis may have had their contemporary persecutors, the Romans, in mind.

Thus, everything points towards collective guilt. But it would be merciless -- and foolish -- to regard this as the whole truth. One can be both a victim and responsible at the same time.

When I returned to London from my first visit to Germany, I was asked how I had felt. My parents both fled the Nazis in their teens and lost members of their wider families, but they never brought me up to hate everything German, and I have never harboured such feelings. Rather, I distinctly recall thinking how grateful I was to live in a country in which the law does not allow us to do the worst of which we might prove capable. I would not want to predict what kind of person I might become if I were incited and encouraged to do evil.

Judaism isn't romantic about human nature. Recognizing how easy it is to be seduced into wrongdoing, the Torah expressly enjoins the individual "not to follow the many to do evil" (Ex. 23:2). All the greater is the pull when it comes from the very top, the leaders and legislators of the nation. When the crowd takes up the slogan, fear sets in, and the price of noncompliance may become life itself.

Wicked leaders are guilty both for their own deeds and for those they engender in their followers. Great leaders bring blessings both through their own actions and through those they inspire in others.

ON Scripture -- The Torah is a weekly Jewish scriptural commentary, produced in collaboration with Odyssey Networks and Hebrew College. Thought leaders from the United States and beyond offer their insights into the weekly Torah portion and contemporary social, political, and spiritual life.