Parshas Bo – I Can See You
Egypt’s admiration of the Jews
The Egyptians were at the end of their rope. They really couldn’t withstand the Plagues much longer. Their agriculture was in ruins, their livestock was devastated, and all the wealth of the Nile had been depleted. Even Pharaoh’s own servants begged him to release the Jews (10:7). One would have expected that there would be great resentment against the Jews for being the cause of all of this suffering, loss, and death. And yet, not once, but twice, does the Torah state that Hashem caused the Egyptians to harbor the exact opposite, great admiration and affection for the Jewish people, before they left Egypt.
The first citation of this was right after the Plague of Darkness. In explaining to Moshe what was about to transpire, Hashem told Moshe that the Jews would request items from the Egyptians before their departure. The Torah then states (11:3), “וַיִּתֵּן יְקֹוָק אֶת־חֵן הָעָם בְּעֵינֵי מִצְרָיִם” – “Hashem placed the nation’s ‘חן’ (favor or appeal) in the eyes of Egypt.” Even Moshe, says the verse, became a hero in the eyes of all of Egypt, including Pharaoh’s own servants.
The second time we read about this “חן” is when the Jews actually leave and they ask the Egyptians for parting gifts (12:36): “וַֽיקֹוָק נָתַן אֶת־חֵן הָעָם בְּעֵינֵי מִצְרַיִם וַיַּשְׁאִלוּם וַינַצְּלוּ אֶת־מִצְרָיִם” – “Hashem placed the nation’s ‘חן’ in the eyes of Egypt, and so the Egyptians granted their requests; the Jewish people thus despoiled Egypt.”
Why turn Egypt against it’s ruler?
I would have understood the Egyptians giving parting gifts to the Jews out of fear, intimidation, and a desire to abate their own suffering. But that was not their motivation; as the Torah states, and as Hashem had promised to Moshe at their first meeting by the Burning Bush (3:21), the Egyptians would be so filled with admiration for the Jewish people, they’d actually feel good about giving the Jews parting gifts. As the commentaries ask, how could this be, that the very people who were responsible for bringing the Plagues and all the suffering upon the Egyptians, would now be the object of their admiration and affection?!
A slew of commentaries suggest that this was part of the miracle of the Exodus. Just as Hashem manipulated Pharaoh’s emotions and hardened his heart, Hashem also melted the hearts of the Egyptian people, forcing them to like the Jews for the first time. But if this was truly a miracle, I don’t see why it was at all necessary for Hashem to perform this miracle. The Egyptians could have just as easily given the Jews great wealth out of intimidation and fear, and the resulting benefit would have been the same. Why was it so important for G-d that the Egyptians actually like the Jews before the Exodus?
Egyptian soul searching
The Ramban (to 11:3) does not believe that this newfound affection was a miracle. Rather, it was a reflection of the Egyptians’ soul-searching and coming to the realization that they were the bad guys. They realized for the first time how truly cruel they had been to the Jews. They unfairly exploited them and persecuted them. The Plagues spurred the Egyptian to come to terms with their own guilt and their crimes against humanity. Their affection for the Jews was compassion for their own victims.
There’s a syndrome called “Lima Syndrome.” It is “the phenomenon in which abductors develop sympathy for their captives, named after the abduction of the Japanese Ambassador’s Residence in Lima, Peru in 1996 by members of a terrorist group. Within a few days, the hostage takers set free most of the captives, including the most valuable ones, due to sympathy.” Essentially, it is the inverse of Stockholm Syndrome. It would seem that the very first case of Lima Syndrome occurred in ancient Egypt.
Rabbi Shmuel David Luzatto (19th cent.) takes this one step further (in his Torah commentary to 11:3). He observes that at the same time that the Egyptians came to terms with their own evil, they also recognized that these Hebrew slaves were actually human beings. They came to this realization by seeing that one of the “gods” took a concern in their welfare to the point where He was willing to move heaven and earth in order to save them. This raised the esteem of the slaves in the eyes of the Egyptians. Whereas before, they had viewed their slaves as sub-human, they now saw them as their peers, as fellow human beings, who were deserving of compassion and fellowship.
The Shada”l concludes that this is true of the human condition everywhere. The lower class is usually viewed as being “other” and ”less than” because of their poverty. But when it is shown that this lower class of people have intrinsic value, they become more visible to the upper class as fellow human beings. This is why, for example, after Yoseph proved himself to be of value in Potiphar’s house, that Potiphar’s wife started to view Yoseph not just as a slave, but also as a real “man,” and that is why she became so attracted to him.
The light of humanity
Perhaps we can now understand why this concept of “חן” appears in the Torah right after the Plague of Darkness, even though that “חן” would not become manifest until the Jews were ready to leave Egypt several days or weeks later. In this Plague of Choshekh, the Torah states (10:23) “לֹא־רָאוּ אִישׁ אֶת־אָחִיו” – “No man could see his brother” due to the great darkness.
How was this Plague appropriate for the Egyptians? It was a result of their blindness to the Jewish people as being truly fellow human beings. They failed to recognize the humanity of the Hebrew slaves, despite their inherent value. That is why the Torah states in the same verse, “וּלְכָל־בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל הָיָה אוֹר בְּמוֹשְׁבֹתָם” – “But the Jewish people possessed light in their dwellings.” It was this light of humanity, this tremendous benefit that the Jewish people brought to society, that the Egyptians tragically failed to see, because they were shrouded in the darkness of their own selfishness and cruelty.
Lack of humanity & the Holocaust
This is how the Nazis were able to justify treating the Jews of Europe with such cruelty. Take away their humanity, treat them like vermin, and you can justify any atrocity against a fellow human being. This is how slave owners treated their black slaves in the Southern U.S. during the 19th century. Fortunately for the Jews, reparations came quite swiftly after WWII. The world, after witnessing the horrors of the Holocaust and Germany’s great defeat and humiliation, had great affection and sympathy for the Jewish people, and this triggered the founding of the State of Israel. Germany itself has paid tens of billions over the years in war reparations, as a way of paying “moral and material indemnity” for the “unspeakable crimes…committed in the name of the German people” during World War II. Sadly, it took a lot longer for the US to recognize the humanity of the black man, and that is why this injustice has lingered to this day.
Human suffering -our reaction
Finally, I believe that Hashem specifically desired for the Egyptians to have great admiration and affection for Bnei Israel, because without it, the objective of having a Chosen People would have been defeated. If the world does not look upon the Jewish people positively, then how can we possibly fulfill our role as a “light unto the nations” (Is. 42:6 and 49:6) whose role is to positively influence mankind to recognize G-d? If Jew hatred and resentment runs rampant, we have no hope of helping mankind. This narrative of the Jewish people’s “חן” is therefore a portent for future redemptions in Jewish history. When it is time for our ultimate redemption, the world will once again admire the Jewish people and desire attachment to us. We are already seeing this phenomenon in our days, and we can only pray for brighter days ahead.
Human suffering may not be in our control. But how we react to that suffering is up to us. Those with a stronger and broader spirit have used challenging times to have greater compassion for the family of man, and to reduce those artificial barriers which divide us. The benefit and often the very objective of suffering is to help reorient our vision, and to realize that the “other” is also a person. Only by taking a concern for others will we be able to emerge from suffering as better people.
I can see you. Can you see me? May our improved vision bring us to the Redemption, bb”a.