The story of our suffering in Egypt was foretold to Avraham Avinu at the celebrated event of the B’rit Bein Habetarim (B’reishit 15:13-16). Included in this disclosure is Hashem’s promise “V’gam Et Hagoy Asher Ya’avodu Dan Anochi”, that I will “Dan” the nation that they shall serve. Rashi (ad. loc. Pasuk 14 s.v. V’gam) explains the word “Dan” to mean punish. According to this approach Hashem notifies Avraham hundreds of years before the Egyptian exile and enslavement that He will punish the Egyptians for enslaving us.
This interpretation is quite problematic as it appears unfair to punish the Egyptians for executing Hashem’s will. Hashem revealed to Avraham that his descendants will be exiled, enslaved and will suffer. It would seem that the Egyptians were performing a Mitzvah when they enslaved us and even when they made us suffer since they were fulfilling Hashem’s plan.
The Egyptians would seem analogous to the Beit Din employee who administers Malkot (the punishment of flogging, see Devarim 25:3) to one who deserves such punishment according to Torah law. The one who administers Malkot is not punished for his deed; then why should the Egyptians be punished for doing precisely what they should have been doing?!
Rambam (Hilchot Teshuvah 6:5) solves this problem by asserting that unlike the individual who administers Malkot in Beit Din, the Egyptians were not commanded to harm the Jewish People. Rambam argues that Hashem merely informed Avraham Avinu what would happen to his descendants. He believes that each Egyptian had the choice whether to enslave the Jews or not. If Rambam were to have been asked by an Egyptian living in the time of the enslavement as to whether he should enslave his Jewish neighbor, Rambam would have replied that he should not and Hashem will punish him for doing so. According to Rambam, the Egyptians were punished for having made the poor choice of enslaving us.
A proof to Rambam might be drawn from the fact that Hashem does not specify a nation in the B’rit Bein Habetarim. Just as no specific nation was supposed to enslave the Jews, so too no specific individual was bidden to enslave and harm us. An analogy may be drawn to a sociologist who predicts that there will be ten murders in a certain city during a certain period of time. This prediction certainly does not exonerate those who made the bad choice to murder.
Ramban (B’reishit 15:14) vehemently disagrees with Rambam. He argues that it was a Mitzvah for the Egyptians to enslave and make us suffer, similar to the one who administers Malkot in Beit Din. Ramban solves our problem by interpreting the word “Dan” differently. He understands it to mean “judge”. According to Ramban, Hashem tells Avraham Avinu that he will judge the Egyptians in the manner in which they executed the divine decree of our suffering in Egypt. If it will be determined that they did not make us suffer excessively and if their intentions were limited to carrying out the divine will and not to serve their own interests, they will not be punished.
Ramban explains that the Egyptians were punished because of their excessive torment. The specific example he gives is their throwing Jewish baby boys in the Nile. The Egyptians certainly exceeded their mandate in this regard since they were never supposed to kill us. We may add that the straw decree of Shemot chapter 5 seems also to constitute an excessively brutal exercise that the B’rit Bein Habetarim did not call for. Ramban implies that we can even say that the enslavement described in Shemot 1:11 might be construed as “reasonable” within the bounds of the B’rit but already at the more intense stage of slavery described in Shemot 1:14 the Egyptians had exceeded their mandate.
Ramban’s Application to Yirmiyahu and the Babylonians
Our question may also be asked about the Babylonians regarding whom Yirmiyahu repeatedly announced that Hashem had sent them to take control over Eretz Yisrael and vanquish any rebellion (see, for example, Yirmiyahu chapter 27). The Babylonians even explicitly acknowledged these prophecies (Yirmiyahu 40:2-3). Yet, Yirmiyahu warns (Yirmiyahu chapter 50 and particularly Pesukim 17-18) that the Babylonian empire will be crushed due what they had done to the Jewish People. Why should, however, they be punished for doing exactly what they were supposed to do.
Ramban explains that this was for two reasons. First, the intention of the Babylonians in their conquest of Israel was simply to expand their empire and not to fulfill a divine mission. Second, they exceeded their mandate by inflicting far too much pain on the Jewish People.
Why Should a Murderer be Held Accountable?
Ramban also asks why a murderer should be held accountable for killing someone if the victim’s fate was written on the previous Rosh Hashanah. Ramban responds by presenting three criteria for when one is excused (and even rewarded) for harming others in the context of performing Hashem’s will - a Navi (prophet) must report the divine decree, one’s intention must be to fulfill Hashem’s will, and he performs precisely what Hashem has ordered without reaching beyond the parameters of the command.
TABC Talmid Shai Berman notes the incredible implication of this Ramban. It appears that Ramban believes that the Egyptians were aware of the B’rit Bein Habetarim since he writes that the Egyptians could have been excused for enslaving us. They would not have been excused had they not been aware of the prophecy received by Avraham Avinu at the B’rit Bein Habetarim, according to Ramban’s criteria. This might, however, be explained in light of the Midrash (Shemot Rabbah 5:18) that the Jews in Egypt had Megillot (scrolls) of Sefer B’reishit that they would gather and read every Shabbat. Accordingly, it is not particularly surprising that the Egyptians discovered the secret of the B’rit Bein Habetarim.
Ramban provides an example of one who was rewarded for carrying out a divine decree to kill conveyed by a Navi. Yeihu (one of the kings of the Northern Kingdom, Melachim II 10:30) was rewarded for eliminating the royal household of Achav. We may add the same applies to our ancestors involved in conquering the land of Canaan, described in Sefer Yehoshua.
The Ba’al Shem Tov’s Compromise Solution
The Ba’al Shem Tov (cited in Rav Yehudah Nachshoni’s Hegot B’farshi’ot Hatorah 1:50) offers a compromise approach to our dilemma. He invokes the principle articulated in the Gemara (Shabbat 32a) of Megalgelim Chov Al Yedei Chayav and Megalgelim Zechut Al Yedei Zakai, Hashem chooses evil individuals to execute bad things and righteous individuals to implement positive events.
This principle helps resolve the classic tension between divine foreknowledge and free will. For example, if one asks why a murderer should be punished for killing someone whom Hashem decreed be slain, the response is that Hashem brought about this tragedy through this evil person. The murderer is punished by Hashem for having been an evil individual deemed sufficiently unworthy to have carried out the terrible deed.
Similarly, if one asks why a lifeguard who saves someone from drowning is deemed to have performed a Mitzvah, in light of the fact that Hashem decreed that the person be saved, the response is similar. The rescuer is rewarded for having been that righteous individual whom Hashem arranged to perform the meritorious deed. Our responsibility is not to execute punishments and rewards. Our job is to develop ourselves into the finest people possible. Hashem will then position us to help others, for which we will be richly rewarded by Him.
The Ba’al Shem Tov applies this principle to the Egyptians’ punishment. He explains that Hashem chose the Egyptians to enslave and make the Jews suffer due to the fact that the Egyptians were an evil nation. Indeed, Sefer B’reishit portrays Egyptian society as corrupt by contrasting the manner in which Sarah and Avraham were treated in Egypt (12:10-20) with the way they were treated in Gerar (chapter 20). Yosef is also unjustly imprisoned by the Egyptians in B’reishit chapter 39.
The Egyptians according to the Ba’al Shem Tov’s approach were carrying out a divine decree, as Ramban believes. Nonetheless, he believes that the Egyptians’ enslavement of the Jews would constitute a criminal act even had the Egyptians not made us suffer excessively, in accordance with the view of Rambam.
Practical lessons may be derived from Ramban’s approach to our issue. For instance, we sometimes might have to report poor behavior of another individual. The Chafetz Chaim (Hilchot Isurei Rechilut 9 and Hilchot Lashon Hara 10:2) insists that such reporting is acceptable (or even a Mitzvah) only if it is done purely for the sake of heaven and only if he reports that which is absolutely necessary, among his other requirements.
Similarly, the individual who administers Malkot is required (Makkot 23a) to be an exceptionally learned individual. Rav Aharon Lichtenstein explains that this is necessary in order to insure that the person administer Malkut only for the sake of the Mitzvah and not to satisfy a lust for violence. Rav Lichtenstein urges his students who serve in the Israel Defense Forces to bear this in mind during their military service. The soldiers’ activity must be limited to only that which is necessary and conducted solely due to the need to protect the lives of the residents of Eretz Yisrael. It must not emerge from a desire to inflict harm on others.