Staying in Harm’s Way - The Jewish Press 7.16.2014

One of the saddest elements of Operation Protective Edge (as well as prior Israeli responses to Gazan missile attacks), and the part that may contribute most directly towards twisted anti-Israel sentiment, is Hamas’ willingness to use their civilians as human shields. They build command centers in residences and position weaponry near schools, hospitals and other communal institutions. Throughout each military excursion, Israel has demonstrated incredible restraint, avoiding civilians wherever possible (including not attacking strategic targets as a precaution) and even notifying innocent bystanders of impending attacks (at the risk of compromising their war effort). It’s as if Hamas has pulled a page out of Pharaoh’s handbook.

We are well aware that Pharaoh had no desire to let the Jews walk free from Egypt, despite numerous pleas from their leadership. He even went so far as to challenge God’s supreme power and His right to demand His nation’s release. “And Pharaoh said, “Who is the Lord that I should heed His voice to let Israel out? I do not know the Lord, nor will I let Israel out.” (Exodus 5:2)

Of course, God could easily have compelled the Egyptian monarch to let the Jews out. But that would not have achieved His true purpose of teaching Pharaoh and his people how to see the folly in their ways and seek atonement. In the words of Seforno (Ibid, 7:3):

God desires the repentance of all men, not their destruction… (His goal was) to bring the Egyptians to teshuva through showing them His great power… If God had not strengthened his heart, Pharaoh would have released the Jews, but not out of any desire to turn to God… rather out of an inability to stand up to the pressure; and that would not have been teshuva at all… This was a lesson to klal Yisrael… to teach that God does go a distance with a human being in order to bring him back to true repentance…

Only after the seventh plague, that of hail, did Pharaoh finally acknowledge his error. “So Pharaoh sent and summoned Moses and Aaron and said to them, ‘I have sinned this time. The Lord is the righteous One, and I and my people are the evil ones.’” (Ibid, 9:27) “Never before did Pharaoh say that God is just. This was achieved only here at barad.” (Tanchuma, Vaeira 20)

What was so special about the hail as to cause this seismic change in attitude? And why were we now dealing with a conversation of righteous versus evil, rather than a straightforward clash of wills?

A close look at the warning that preceded the plague actually indicates that something special was on the way, something that would force a paradigm shift in the way that Pharaoh approached the Jewish G-d and His people. “This time, I am sending all My plagues into your heart and into your servants and into your people, in order that you know that there is none like Me in the entire earth.” (Exodus 9:14)

In fact, God was setting Pharaoh up for an expose, in which his true rebellious intentions would be revealed.

If you still tread upon My people, not letting them out, behold, I am going to rain down at this time tomorrow a very heavy hail, the likes of which has never been in Egypt from the day of its being founded until now. And now, send, gather in your livestock and all that you have in the field, any man or beast that is found in the field and not brought into the house the hail shall fall on them, and they will die. (Ibid, 17-19)

With a clearly articulated option to avoid damage, one would have thought that Pharaoh and the Egyptian people would have sheltered their animals. But they did not. “He who did not pay attention to the word of the Lord left his servants and his livestock in the field.” (Ibid, 21) “This refers to Pharaoh and his people.” (Exodus Rabbah 12:2)

As the plague approached, Pharaoh found himself in a bind. He had committed, ideologically and addictively, to a path of rebellious resistance. “Are we now going to pay attention to Ben-Amram after all this?” (Midrash Shochar Tov, 78:14) He had no choice but to hold out further, knowing good and well that everything left outdoors was doomed. When God’s promise came to pass, Pharaoh was exposed as a true rebel without a cause; he had no choice but to admit to the wickedness of his actions and reverse his position. So much so, that this same person would one day rise again as king of Ninveh (Yalkut Shimoni, Exodus 176), and would serve as a paradigm for proper repentance (see Pirkei D’Rabbi Eliezer 42).

The situation in our holy land is acute. After nearly three weeks of searching, praying and doing everything possible to bring a positive conclusion to the kidnapping saga, our people now endure an endless barrage of rockets, physical as well as in the political and journalistic arenas. Let us hope that the outcome that we witness will contain some of the same redemptive qualities as the last time that our foe put his own people in harm’s way to fulfill his twisted agenda.