In a recent discussion on Ravnet, the e-mail group for Conservative rabbis, one of my colleagues shared a question that was asked him by a young religious school student. Why was the tenth plague (death of the firstborn) necessary? Why didn't the Israelites just leave during the ninth plague (darkness)? After all, no one would see them go!
In some ways it's definitely a child's question. If you want to take it at face value, I suppose you could say that if it was too dark for the Egyptians to see the Hebrews sneak out of Egypt, it was also too dark for them to find their way out of the country. But another colleague writing into Ravnet said that our ancestors' failure to sneak out under cover of darkness was an example of slave mentality. They could not just leave, they had to have permission. And until Pharaoh told them they could go, they had to stay put. It was a rule.
But Pharaoh had the same sort of captive mentality. Already by the seventh plague, his advisors are urging him to capitulate and let the Hebrews go. Speaking of Moses, they say: How long will this man be a snare to us? Let the people go, so that they may worship the Lord their God. Do you not yet realize that Egypt is ruined?"
But Pharaoh cannot let the people go. Not because God has hardened his heart. But because he cannot do so. Let the slaves go free, and what happens next? The entire edifice of royal power will collapse. It is the same reasoning that prevented the British from letting the American colonies go free; and when the British finally did surrender, their military band played "The World Turned Upside Down."
Rabbi Jonathan Sacks writes: "Pharaoh remains an enduring symbol of a failure to listen to his own advisors. He could not see that the world had changed, that he was facing something new, that his enslavement of a people was no longer tolerable, that the old magic no longer worked, that the empire over which he presiding was growing old, and that the more obstinate he became the closer he was bringing his people to tragedy. Knowing how to listen to advice, how to respond to change and when to admit you’ve got it wrong, remain three of the most difficult tasks of leadership. Rejecting advice, refusing to change, and refusing to admit you’re wrong, may look like strength to some. But usually they are the beginning of yet another march of folly."
Our contemporary society could take a lesson from Rabbi Sacks' words. Politicians and officials dare not change their mind in the face of new circumstances or new information, lest they be accused of "flip-flopping" or of weakness. And thus, the march of folly continues.