Collective Punishment and Collective Responsibility

Did all Egyptians deserve to be punished?


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Although the plagues that God rains down upon Pharaoh and all of the Egyptians in Parashat Vaera and Parashat Bo seem almost grotesquely farcical in their nature–blood? frogs? fiery hail?–they raise complex and nuanced questions about collective punishment and collective responsibility.
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They seem, from the outset, to be a form of collective punishment that is deeply unjust. Moses begs Pharaoh to free the Israelites from their bondage, and when he says no, all of Egypt is punished over and over again—from blood to the slaying of the first-born children. The medieval commentary Sforno says that the verse, “from the first-born of Pharaoh…to the first-born of the captive,” which describes the scope of this last plague, is shorthand for a more accusatory phrase: “from the most guilty of parties [Pharaoh] to the least guilty of parties [the children of the captives who were sitting in the dungeon].”

Sforno’s comment highlights the fact that these “least guilty” were neither in a position to enslave the Israelites initially nor to free them in order to stop the plagues, yet they were punished collectively with those, such as Pharaoh himself, who were. It was outright punishment of the innocent.

Making Sense of It All

Setting aside the fundamental question of why innocent children should suffer for the sins of their parents, why must the powerless slave woman suffer along with the all-powerful Pharaoh in the slaying of the first-born? What sense can we make of this collective punishment?

Rashi circumvents these questions, saying that the Egyptian slaves and captives lost their first-born children in the plague because “they, too, enslaved [the Israelites] and took joy in their suffering.” According to Rashi, the plague of the first-born was a punishment for each Egyptian who participated in the oppression of the Israelites, and not collective punishment with all of its unjust implications.

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Adina Gerver, a freelance writer and editor, is studying at the Advanced Scholars Program of the Pardes Institute in Jerusalem. She has served as assistant director of the Skirball Center for Adult Jewish Learning and program officer at the Covenant Foundation.

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