After the Makkah of Dever, Pharaoh commissions a search to see if any Jewish (Israelite) livestock were killed. The Pasuk says (9:7), “Vayishlach Pharaoh, Vehinei Lo Meit Mimikneh Yisrael Ad Echad, Vayichbad Leiv Pharaoh Velo Shilach Et Haam,” “And Pharaoh sent, and behold, none of the livestock of the Jews died, up to one. And Pharaoh’s heart was hardened, and he did not send away the nation.” We may pose two questions on this Pasuk. First, what is the meaning of the words Ad Echad, “up to one?” Additionally, the Pasuk mentions the hardening of Pharaoh’s heart immediately after he hears that none of the Jews’ livestock had died. What connection is the Pasuk implying between these two events? If anything, the news Pharaoh received should have had the opposite result!
Addressing the first question, most commentators interpret Ad Echad as meaning “except for one,” which would suggest that there was one animal or one group of animals that did, in fact, die. But how could this have happened? Are we not told that Hashem protected the Jews from the effects of Makkat Dever (9:4)?
One answer to this question, suggested by numerous commentators, is predicated on Ramban’s statement that before Matan Torah, Jewish identity was determined by the father, not the mother. There was one case in which a Jewish woman, Shelomit Bat Divri, married an Egyptian and had a son (who later became the Mekallel; see Vayikra 24:10-11). According to the system at that time, he would not have been Jewish, and his livestock would not have been spared. It was therefore his livestock to whose death the report referred.
Ohr Hachaim believes that the Pasuk refers to the livestock of Egyptians who tried to “beat the system” by selling their livestock to the Jews, intending to revoke the sale after the plague. Despite this ploy, these animals were killed in the plague.
Chatam Sofer offers a third explanation based on the statement of Rashi (11:4 s.v. Kachatzot) that the Egyptian astrologers were only able to approximate time, but could not pinpoint it exactly. Hence, their calculation of when the Makkah of Dever started was not exact. If we assume that a Jew’s animal died of natural causes between the time the Egyptians thought the Makkah started and the time it actually did start, the Egyptians would have thought that one animal of the Jews was killed as part of the plague.
Chatam Sofer also offers another interpretation of Ad Echad, saying that the messenger who told Pharaoh really meant that “not even one” animal died, but Pharaoh misinterpreted the message (perhaps deliberately) to mean that there was, in fact, one animal that died. Others (including Abravanel, Toldot Yitzchak, and the Vilna Gaon) interpret Ad Echad according to a variation on the Chatam Sofer’s second explanation. They say that Pharaoh saw what he thought was Egyptian livestock survive the plague. In truth, these animals were owned jointly by Egyptians and Jews, and the partly Jewish ownership caused these animals to live through Makkat Dever.
All of these explanations lead to the same answer for the second question, namely that Pharaoh’s erroneous evaluation of the plague led him to say that the plague was not real. After all, Moshe specifically told him that none of the Jews’ livestock would die, and Pharaoh perceived that this did not come true! However, it seems rather silly to come to this conclusion. Is it really so inconceivable that one animal would have died for a reason unknown to Pharaoh? What about the fact that the rest of the Jews’ animals remained alive while all of the Egyptian animals died? It is therefore clear that Pharaoh was just being stubborn and refusing to see the truth. Not only was Pharaoh stubborn enough to ignore the suffering of his people; he even rationalized his obstinacy by pretending that the plague was not his fault!
We can see from here how powerful obstinacy can be. Even when a person knows he is wrong, he will find some way of claiming he is right and will then proceed as before. This type of behavior can lead to personal destruction and can have a great negative impact on others, just as Pharaoh’s stubbornness led to the destruction of Egypt.
Midrash Lekach Tov takes this idea a step further, claiming that Pharaoh had a perfect understanding of what happened and realized that it really was an act of God. Instead of acknowledging his mistake, though, he decided to try to “save face” by continuing on his path of refusal to free the Jews. He hardened his heart and prepared to accept the consequences. Unfortunately for the Egyptians, this meant that five more Makkot would follow and that Egypt would be destroyed.
We have seen all too many public and prominent figures try to cover up their mistakes by making more of them. Politicians, for example, have often lied about their past misdeeds to prevent a scandal, only to find that that their mistakes come back to haunt them with double the force. While we are quick to criticize these people, the real question is: Do we really see our own mistakes? Or are we too wrapped up in our mistakes to notice them? There is a famous saying that everyone has 20/20 hindsight, but that does not always seem to be true. We do not reflect on whether our past decisions were the right ones and whether we can make changes for the better. All too often, we ignore the advice of others who see things more clearly, whether they are parents, rabbis, friends, colleagues, or even children. Instead, we continue to make the same mistakes, get the same results, and wonder why. It is a difficult task to consider whether we are doing what is best for ourselves, our families and our communities, but it is also a necessary one. It is only if we challenge ourselves to acknowledge our mistakes and correct them that we will be able to change our lives and those of others for the good.