This week’s Parashah, Va-era, recounts the first seven plagues that God inflicted upon the Egyptians. It begs the question, why should innocent people suffer for the sins of their leaders?
Everyday, ordinary Egyptians of ancient Egypt had a hard life. They probably worried about food for their families, roofs above their families’ heads, their animals, and rain. They probably didn’t care about the imperial designs of the leaders, unless they were conscripted into the army. Slaves were owned by elite individuals or a community, but probably everyday, ordinary Egyptians did not own slaves.
It is probably the same for empires throughout history. Everyday, ordinary Assyrians did not care about the imperial designs of their leaders. Everyday, ordinary Babylonians did not care about imperial designs of their leaders. Everyday, ordinary Persians did not care about imperial designs of their leaders. For that matter, everyday, ordinary Frenchmen did not care about imperial designs of Napoleon. Why did the ancient Egyptians, if the Torah is correct, suffer for the sins of their leaders?
The ordinary Egyptians, according to the Torah, suffered losses of livestock and crops. Egypt suffered as a whole through the first nine plagues, and inflicting the first nine plagues on Egypt probably would impel a rational leader to propose a decision that was best for Egypt as a whole. The tenth plague was different. Everyday, ordinary Egyptians lost their first-born sons. Surely, God was powerful enough to make the Tenth Plague restricted to the households of policy-makers. The Tenth Plague losses would not propel ordinary Egyptians to have rebelled against Pharaoh. Why inflict the Tenth Plague on innocent people?
I don’t have an answer, but to say war inflicts suffering on the just and the unjust, and the Torah describes the Ten Plagues is a species of war. As Phil Ochs said, “It’s always the old to lead us to the wars/It’s always the young to fall.”