"How could God kill all those Egyptians? What if some were innocent? Should they die with those who were truly evil?"
As I prepare for Passover this year, I'm haunted by these questions from Charlotte Davies, an insightful and sensitive 13-year-old girl (delivered at her recent bat mitzvah ceremony.)
Looking at the role of Germans during the Holocaust, Charlotte wondered: If there were Germans who risked their lives to save Jews, were there not "righteous gentiles" among the Egyptians who looked upon the Hebrews with compassion? And if there were, shouldn't we tell their story?
Hearing her questions, I imagine that many rabbis and learned Jewish folks would respond by reminding her that during the Seder there is a tradition to express sadness at the demise of the Egyptians. The joy of the celebration is diminished at every seder by recalling the impact of each plague on ordinary Egyptians. As every plague is read, a drop of wine is removed from the cup, and at the mention of the final plague --the death of the Egyptian firstborn -- our joy is diminished doubly as we remove two drops of wine from our cups.
But are two drops of wine enough of a memorial for the death of thousands?
Prompted by this question, I returned to the perspectives of the ancient Jewish commentators on the Passover story. I wanted to know: Were they bothered by the death of so many Egyptians? How did they view the story?
For more than 2,000 years Jewish sages have wondered what was happening within Egyptian society and have written midrash (literary explanations) about factors that are not in the Bible but might explain the Egyptians' plight. After searching through dozens of interpretations, I came across a number of them that radically changed the way I have come to understand the story:
When God sent the plague of the firstborn ... all the firstborn Egyptians went to speak to their fathers and said "Everything which Moses has said has come true, don't you want us to live? Let us get the Hebrew slaves out of our homes now. Otherwise we are dead."
The fathers answered "even if all of Egypt dies they are not leaving."
All the firstborn gathered in front of Pharaoh and screamed "Please remove the Hebrews, because of them evil will befall us and you." Pharaoh said to his servants, "Remove the protesters and break their knees." What did the young Egyptians do? Each took a sword and killed his father.
(Midrash Tehillim 136:6; Tanchuma, Parshat Bo 18)
If, according to this interpretation, the first-borns all killed their fathers, then they were all guilty of murder. They likely were all sentenced to death and killed by Pharaoh's army. In other words, in the eyes of this midrash, the firstborn of Egypt are killed because of the stubborn patriarchs and authoritarian leadership.
Not only does this midrash give us a story in which responsibility for the death of the firstborn is shifted away from God, but it creates a dynamic in which the firstborn of Egypt rebel against the decrees of Pharaoh.
In another text, this one from the mystical work the Zohar, we learn that Pharaoh himself turns on his own people:
On the night of the Exodus ... Pharaoh, on seeing the havoc wrought upon his own household, himself arose and with bitterness and fury smote those princes and nobles who had advised him to persecute Israel.
Reading of an angry Pharaoh murdering his own advisors it is hard not to think of Hitler and the Night of the Long Knives on which he executed German political rivals, including many within the Nazi party.
These midrashsim help us to understand the violence and chaos within Egyptian society and put to rest a simple "God killed them all with a plague" explanation. But they do not go far enough in answering the question as to whether there were "righteous gentiles" among the Egyptians that should be remembered in the Passover story.
Reading further sources, however, I realized that there is actually a rather prominent Egyptian who is, according to the ancient rabbis, an ally of the Hebrews. Bat Paro, the daughter of Pharaoh, was, according to the midrash, spared the horrors of the plagues (Exodus Rabbah 18:3). Because she defied her father's decree to drown Hebrew boys and adopted Moses, she not only avoided the suffering of her father's household, but she accompanied the Hebrews in the exodus from Egypt. For her bravery and compassion, she is called Bat Yah, the "daughter of God." Maybe we should place a vase of reeds on our seder tables to remember the Egyptian woman who saw a basket floating in the reeds and chose to defy Pharaoh.
There is one other, perhaps more complicated, response to Charlotte's questions. We read in the Torah, in Exodus 12:38 that a number of Egyptians chose to join the Hebrews. These are labeled the erev rav , the mixed multitude, and even though there was not a formal conversion process at the time, Moses accepts this mixed multitude into the people. Most rabbinic commentators, however, argue that these were Egyptian nobles, sorcerers or criminals, who saw that they could take advantage of the fleeing Hebrews. This group of Egyptians who join the Hebrews is responsible for much of the turmoil that takes place between Egypt and the return to the homeland.
So, does Passover celebrate the death of innocent Egyptians?
The short answer to that question is no. It celebrates the defeat of a murderous despot and his narrow-minded, bloodthirsty army. It commemorates a tragic tale when fathers refused to listen to their children's pleas. And it marks the long road to freedom as the Hebrews let go of their slavery mentality. But the death of ordinary Egyptians is not marked by joy.
Charlotte ended her bat mitzvah talk by reminding the community of a teaching from the Talmud (Megillah 10b) about God's reaction when the Hebrews began to celebrate the drowning of Pharaoh's army:
"How can you sing as the works of my hand are drowning in the sea?"
The Passover story is one of terror and suffering for both Egyptians and Hebrews. This year, however, we should also remember the voices of the Egyptian youths who challenged their own fathers and Pharaoh, as well as the actions of Bat Paro, the righteous Egyptian woman whose story and spirit is still with us.