Parashat Beshalach opens with the Children of Israel leaving Egypt – the land which, 210 years earlier, had granted them refuge from famine, and which subsequently degenerated into a repressive slave-house.
Pharaoh, capitulating to G-d at the tenth Plague, the Slaying of the First-Born, had finally driven the Children of Israel out of his country in last week’s parashah, Bo (Exodus 12:29-33).
Now, after the original panic of that mass death had subsided, Pharaoh and his servants had a change of heart: “It was told to the king of Egypt that the nation had escaped, and Pharaoh’s and his servants’ attitude towards the nation changed, and they said: What’s this that we have done by driving Israel away from serving us?! (Exodus 14:5).
In fact, this was hardly surprising. After all, nine times before, during each Plague, Pharaoh had agreed to release the captive nation, each time the Plague subsided, and each time Pharaoh changed his mind as soon as the terror of the Plague desisted. The only difference was that in the tenth and final Plague, Pharaoh’s erstwhile slaves left his dominion before he had enough time to change his mind.
Old habits die hard, and now, consistent with his previous behavioural patterns, he regretted his decision. “He harnessed his chariot and took his nation with him; he took six hundred elite chariots, and all the chariots of Egypt, and commanders over them all” (Exodus 14:6-7).
Pharaoh enlisted the entire Egyptian nation into the task of pursuing the Israelites (Targum Yonatan, Bereishit Rabbah 55:8, Tanchuma Shoftim 13, Mechilta de-Rabbi Yishmael, Beshallach, Massechta de-Vayehi 1 s.v. ויסר את, Mechilta de-Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochay 14:6, et al).
In order to inspire the ordinary Egyptians by his personal example, he himself harnessed his own chariot. He made the recapture of the Children of Israel a national mission, in which the masses of Egyptians participated. He took the 600 elite chariots – the “Sayeret Matkal”, the Green Berets, the SAS of the Egyptian Army – to lead this national mission, and cajoled the ordinary Egyptians to participate in this campaign.
Hence the Egyptian forces which sallied forth to recapture the escaped slaves were a veritable “people’s army”.
Now the Midrash (Mechilta de-Rabbi Yishmael, Beshallach, Massechta de-Vayehi 1 s.v. ויקח שש) notes something puzzling:
Way back in the seventh Plague, Moshe had warned Pharaoh of the impending hail, unprecedented in its ferocity. “So now”, Moshe castigated him, “send and gather in your livestock and everything you have in the field; every person and animal which will be in the field, and which will not be gathered into the house – when the hail comes down on them, they will die” (Exodus 9:19).
If all the animals in the field died, then where did Pharaoh get so many horses from? How did not only his commando forces, but even the ordinary Egyptians, have so many horses?
The only possible answer is that they were donated by the Egyptians who believed Moshe, and saved their horses by bringing them in from the fields.
Who, then, were these Egyptians?
To answer this, we have to look back at the Plague of Hail.
When Moshe warned Pharaoh of the impending Plague, he used a surprising phrase: “Thus said Hashem:... This time I send all of My plagues against your heart and to your servant and to your nation” (Exodus 9:14).
Why so? Why does the Plague of Hail, of all the Ten Plagues, merit the sobriquet “all of My plagues”? Was hail equal to them all? And if any Plague qualified as being against the entire Egyptian nation, should that not be the last one, the Slaying of the First-Born? After all, it was in that final plague that every single Egyptian household had its own dead (Exodus 12:30).
What, then, was uniquely harsh about the Plague of Hail?
– In all the other nine Plagues, most Egyptians were passive participants. They had no influence over their king, they had no control over their own suffering. But in the Plague of Hail, every individual Egyptian could make a personal choice – to shelter in his house, to bring his animals into shelter, or to remain – he and his animals – outside in the field.
This was no simple choice. For an Egyptian whose religion prohibited him from sheltering animals (see Genesis 46:34 and Rashi there), the choice was between believing in his own gods, against believing in Hashem, the G-d of the Hebrews. The Egyptian who considered sheltering his animals had perforce not merely to take a precaution just in case Moshe, this Hebrew trouble-maker, might have some power; he had to violate his own Egyptian religion and believe in Moshe and the power of his G-d.
At the risk of belabouring the point, let us recall that the Egyptians were polytheists. For a nation who believed in, and worshipped, dozens of gods – sheep, mice, the Nile, the sun, Pharaoh, crocodiles, dead ancestors, scarab beetles, the list goes on and on – there was nothing startling about the Hebrews worshipping yet another deity. For them, Hashem was simply one more name to add to the long list of gods. In the Egyptian list of gods there was always room for one more, and in the alphabetical index Hashem could easily be inserted between Harpakhrad and Hathor; or in the chronological sequence, Hashem could just as easily be inserted between Atum and Kheper.
What put Moshe into irreconcilable conflict with Pharaoh was his insistence that Hashem was not simply one more god – He was, is, and always will be the only G-d; that all other gods are false.
This, for the Egyptians, was palpable heresy, an unacceptable violation of their religion.
And now, as the Plague of Hail approached, every individual Egyptian had to decide: Would he continue to believe in his multitude of gods? Or would he believe in Hashem, the G-d of the Hebrews, and thus negate his own pantheon?
Only those who believed so firmly in Hashem and in His messenger Moshe that they were willing to violate their own religion brought their animals into the protected places.
The Torah defines them as הַיָּרֵא אֶת דְּבַר ה' מֵעַבְדֵי פַּרְעֹה. This is universally understood to mean “those of Pharaoh’s servants who feared the Word of Hashem” (Exodus 9:20), though I venture to suggest an alternative rendering: “those who feared the Word of Hashem more than [they feared] Pharaoh’s servants” – meaning, those Egyptians who obeyed Hashem’s warning even though they knew that they were thus violating Egyptian law.
In any event, these were the best of the best Egyptians.
But when it came to a national military campaign, they put their horses at Pharaoh’s disposal. Even those Egyptians who defied their own deities and their own government because of their belief in Moshe and Hashem, nevertheless collaborated with Pharaoh and his army when the time came for a popular war against the Jews.
Hence the dictum of Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai: “In time of war, kill [even] the best of the heathens” (Soferim 15:10, and similarly in Mechilta de-Rabbi Yishmael, Beshallach, Massechta de-Vayehi 1 s.v. ויקח שש).
During the Second World War, an exceptionally brilliant analyst of national behaviour incisively noted “the overwhelming strength of patriotism, national loyalty. In certain circumstances it can break down, at certain levels of civilization it does not exist, but as a positive force there is nothing to set beside it…. Hitler and Mussolini rose to power in their own countries very largely because they could grasp this fact and their opponents could not” (George Orwell, The Lion and the Unicorn , part 1).
And other dictators, too – from Pharaoh to Yasser Arafat y”sh and beyond. Of course in time of war, every individual member of an enemy nation – as long as he identifies with his nation – will fight for his nation. And when a nation – any nation, even a pseudo-nation – is at war against Israel, then of course every individual, as long as he identifies with his nation, will raise his arms against Israel.
And this is why, in a time of war, even the best of the enemy is to be killed.
Does this then mean that no enemy civilian has any chance?
– Well no, because even in time of war, any enemy civilian can dissever himself from his nation. When the Children of Israel left Egypt, a “mixed multitude” left with them (Exodus 12:38) – assorted Egyptians and others who decided, for a variety of reasons, to throw in their lot with Israel.
How many were there in this “mixed multitude”? – The Midrash (Mechilta de-Rabbi Yishmael, Bo, Massechta de-Pis’cha 14, s.v. וגם ערב רב) cites three opinions:
According to Rabbi Yishmael there were 1,200,000. According to Rabbi Akiva there were 2,400,000. According to Rabbi Natan there were 3,600,000.
Yes, any enemy civilian has the freedom – even in time of war – to sever his ties with his nation and to join Israel. And if he does so, he is no longer an enemy. But as long as he identifies with his nation, and as long as his nation is waging a truly popular war against Israel – he is inevitably our enemy.