Torah Temima, Shemot 10:14, note 1
quotes a statement of the Tanna Debei
Eliyahu that offers an explanation as to why God particularly brought the
plague of locusts against
Upon reading this most interesting statement, I thought it presented an obvious example of God acting to ensure that a choteh, a sinner, should not be niscar, benefit from his sin. Throughout the Talmud we find conclusions challenged with the question of choteh niscar; is it proper for a sinner to benefit from his/her sin.1 The obvious answer is no and so, when this question is raised, it presents a major challenge to a conclusion that would yield such a result. It would seem that the Tanna Debei Eliyahu is informing us that the plague of locusts reflects the same principle. It would not be proper for the Egyptians to benefit from their sinful subjugation of the Jewish slaves and so the results and potential benefits arising from this oppression also had to be destroyed. God did not want to allow a case of choteh niscar; this seemed to me the obvious lesson of this midrash. I was, thus, surprised to find that the Torah Temima, as it first seemed to me, had another explanation.
The Torah Temima writes that the Egyptians specifically enslaved the Jewish People through working the land so that the slaves would be home less, with a resultant effect on their ability to procreate. It originally seemed to me that the Torah Temima was stating this to inform us as to why God brought this terrible plague on the Egyptians. Because the Egyptians tried to limit the population of the Jewish People through forcing our forefathers to work the land, the complete result of this work on the land was to be destroyed. That, though, seemed a bit forced. How was causing a limit to pru u’rvu connected to this punishment of the complete destruction of the crops? I then thought that maybe the Torah Temima was simply explaining the Egyptians specifically imposed farm work on the Jews. The reason for the complete destruction of the crops, though, was obvious; to prevent choteh niscar. Regardless of why the Jews were forced to work the land, the reason the produce of this work was to be destroyed was to prevent choteh niscar. Why, though, would it be important to the Torah Temima to inform us of why the Egyptians gave the Jews farm work? Whatever the reason the Jews were working the land, God wanted to ensure that the results of this work, the produce of the land, would not benefit the Egyptians. It still seemed to me that in the view of the Torah Temima there was some connection between the Egyptian wish to limit the population of the Jewish People and the plague of locusts.
Working the farms was clearly not the only forced labour imposed upon the Jews. In response to Moshe and Aharon’s first encounter with Pharaoh, the Egyptian King decided to increase the work of the Jews by demanding the same number of bricks even though straw, a raw ingredient in these bricks, would no longer be supplied.2 Since building edifices of bricks is not an agricultural endeavour, it is clear that the slave nation’s jobs were not only in the field; in fact, given that Pharaoh focused on the bricks in his response to Moshe and Aharon, one could clearly contend that, in fact, it was this work with bricks that was the primary task of the slaves. Strangely, though, there is nothing that points to these buildings built by the Jews being destroyed. If God was concerned for choteh niscar, should He have not brought a plague that would also destroy the products of this forced construction labour? It would seem that the only products of the forced enslavement of the Jews that were destroyed were the agricultural ones. God, it would seem, was only concerned about choteh niscar in regard to the work done by the Jewish People in the fields and not, for example, in construction. The Torah Temima’s argument for the significance of the farm enslavement, specifically in that it lessened the procreative ability of the nation, could, perhaps, be an explanation for why God was specifically concerned about choteh niscar in this case. Still, why would God not be concerned for this in the case of construction? It seems that in certain cases God is concerned about the Egyptians continuing to benefit from the slavery of the Jews while in other cases He is not. The simple question is why.
What exactly would be the sin of slavery? The basic response would seem to be that there is something wrong in forcing people to work against their will, on behalf of another, without compensation.3 Now there may be questions as to when this might be permitted and when it would not be, but, clearly, if we do declare an act of enslavement to be wrong it would be for the reasons just mentioned. What if, though, there would be compensation, in fact forced compensation against the will of the master? Would that change the way we view this evil? This is, of course, exactly what happened here. Shemot 12:35 informs us that the Jewish People requested gold and silver from the Egyptians upon leaving and T.B. Brachot 9b presents a view that the Egyptians met these requests under duress. Could the use, by the Egyptians, of the general products of the Jewish slavery, as such, still be a case of choteh niscar? While the payment to the Jews would not mitigate against the evil that the Egyptians did, one could no longer say that the continued use by the Egyptians of the results of the Jewish labour would be a case of choteh niscar. The sinner did end up paying. In fact, the very continued existence of these products of the Jewish slave labour further marked this. They become further proofs that crime does not pay, for the products of their enslavement of the Jews eventually cost the Egyptians all their money. Paying for the produce of the agricultural work, however, would not have been enough. The sin in this enslavement included an attempt by the Egyptians to destroy the Jewish family. In the spirit of avoiding choteh niscar, that one should not benefit from this non-economic sin, it was necessary that the product of this specific labour be destroyed.
Rabbi Benjamin Hecht
1 See, for example, T.B. Ketubot 36b, T.B. Avodah Zara 2b.
2 Shemot 5:6-8.
3 Of course, the essence of this evil is in the forcing of the other individual to work against his/her will. Whether the slave does receive compensation or not, or whether the slave’s efforts were actually beneficial to the master or not, are really not of the essence. These factors, though, do play a role in this discussion.
4 See Torah Temima, Shemot 12:36, note 216 regarding how to reconcile the two differing views, one saying that the Egyptians gave under duress, the other saying they gave willingly.
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© 2010 NISHMA