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Were the Egyptians Right?

 

I. Enslaving the Jews

Were the Egyptians right in enslaving the Jews? The question seems outrageous at first. However, Pharaoh and the Egyptians fulfilled G-d’s prophecy to Avraham that his descendants would be enslaved in a foreign land (Gen. 15:13). Why, then, were the Egyptians punished? Ramban’s answer to this question reflects a broader opinion of his that is much-criticized but under-appreciated.

Rambam (Mishneh Torah, Hilchos Teshuvah 6:5) answers that while G-d’s plan includes people enslaving Jews, it does not specify who will serve this evil role. Every individual has the choice of doing good or bad and receiving appropriate recompense. The Egyptians chose to enslave the Jews rather than allowing another nation to do so. Therefore, they deserved punishment.

Ramban (Gen. 15:14) rejects this approach. The Egyptians fulfilled G-d’s prophecy, accomplishing His express will. Doing so is a mitzvah, not a sin. Rather, the Egyptians were punished for going beyond the prophecy, for overly oppressing the enslaved nation. Had they merely fulfilled the prophecy, they would presumably have been rewarded. However, because they went too far, they sinned and were punished. The Ramban, at the end of his words, adds another explanation: The Egyptians had the wrong intention. They wanted to hurt the Jewish people, not to fulfill G-d’s will. Therefore, their actions were considered a sin rather than a mitzvah (see also Ra’avad’s gloss to Mishneh Torah, ad loc.).

II. Fulfilling G-d’s Will

Ramban’s approach is surprising but intuitive and consistent. You can ask why people should feel obligated to instantiate a prophecy. Isn’t that G-d’s business? Indeed, many commentators ask this question on another passage where the Ramban adopts this approach. The answer to that question explains the Ramban’s view here, as well.

Why did Yosef refrain from immediately revealing his identity when his brothers appeared before him in Egypt? Ramban (Gen. 42:9) explains that Yosef wished to fulfill his dreams that his brothers and father would bow down to him. He deceived his brothers so they would bring Binyamin, and eventually their father, to bow down to him in Egypt. Why, many commentators ask, should Yosef feel obligated to ensure the dreams come true (e.g. Akeidas Yitzchak 29; Toras Moshe, ad loc.)?

The Vilna Gaon (Aderes Eliyahu, ad loc.) says simply that Yosef did not want to contradict G-d’s will. His concern was not specifically with serving as the defender of G-d’s words. Rather, he just wanted to be sure that he was on G-d’s side, doing what the Boss wanted. Fulfilling G-d’s will is not merely praiseworthy; it is a life goal to which all people must strive. Yosef refused to violate G-d’s will by attempting (presumably futilely) to circumvent the prophecies.

With this idea, we can better understand Ramban’s position (Gen. 49:10) that the Hasmoneans were punished for taking the kingship, which is reserved for the tribe of Yehudah and not priests like them. Why should they be punished when only a prophecy declares this, and not a command forbidding members of other tribes from taking the monarchy? As above, G-d’s will was revealed in a prophecy. Regardless of whether it was commanded, we must certainly strive to guide our will toward G-d’s. As the Mishnah (Avos 2:4) states, “Make your will like G-d’s will.”

Similarly, the Egyptians should have desired to fulfill G-d’s will, which the Torah tells us included enslaving the Jews. Had they not been overly zealous, their doing so would have been a mitzvah, an accomplishment that moved the divine plan forward.

III. Commandments and

Divine Will

This position is so compelling that, to defend the Rambam, the Meshech Chochmah (Gen. 15:14) had to add another component. Granted, we must strive to fulfill G-d’s will, but we cannot make any such calculations when facing an explicit command to the contrary. The Meshech Chochmah posits that the Egyptians were forbidden to enslave the Jews. Therefore, their doing so, even in fulfillment of G-d’s will, was a punishable sin.

What law did the Egyptians violate by enslaving the Jews? The Meshech Chochmah suggests that the Egyptians violated one of the seven Noahide commandments, that of dinim (laws). He adds that they exhibited ingratitude because Yosef had saved the Egyptians from starvation. This is puzzling because it is entirely unclear how enslaving Jews violates the command of dinim and how ingratitude fits into that commandment. Rav Yehudah Cooperman, in his notes to the Meshech Chochmah, quotes the Ramban’s own words (Deut. 23:5) that Noahides are obligated to show gratitude. Therefore, the Egyptians were obligated to respect the Jewish economic salvation of Egypt, even in the face of a prophecy to the contrary. G-d’s apparent prophetic will cannot set aside His explicit legal will.

We all want to be on the right side of history. Presumably, siding with G-d’s prophecies guarantees this. However, before we start calculating what G-d wants in a broader sense, we have to fulfill our local duties, obeying His will in that sense and, if need be, allowing others to accomplish His will. G-d will do what He wants but we may not always be able to play a role in that.