Following the Exodus, when it became apparent that the Israelites had no intention of returning to Egyptian slavery, Pharaoh “took six hundred select chariots and all the chariots of Egypt, with officers over them all.”1

But where did the Egyptians get all their horses from? We know that during the various plagues, “all the livestock of the Egyptians died,”2 and it’s not exactly possible to wage war using dead horses!

Rashi explains that although many animals perished during the plagues, those belonging to the Egyptians who heeded Moses’ warning had their animals spared. Indeed, during the plague of hailstones, the Torah explicitly states that “those who feared the word of the L‑rd drove their servants and their livestock into the houses”3 to spare them from the onslaught that poured down from the skies.

So the pious Egyptians still had horses, which were used to chase down the fleeing Israelites. Rashi concludes his explanation with some very strong words: “From this Rabbi Shimon said that even the best of the Egyptians is to be killed.” By this Rashi means that if the horses used to chase the traumatized former slaves were provided by those who were supposedly G‑d fearing, then this suggests that even the best of them were no good.

Why Did Rashi Say That?

While we understand that Rashi felt compelled to explain how the Egyptians had all those horses, we are left wondering why he had to throw in the final line. It seems highly provocative.

This is all the more confounding when we consider that Rashi’s commentary was made to be studied even by young students.

Is It Even True?

Iis it even accurate to say that all ancient Egyptians were deserving of death? Weknow an earlier pharaoh protected Abraham,4 Joseph rose to great prominence in Egypt, and Pharaoh rolled out the proverbial red carpet for his brothers, situating them in the “best of the land”5 and encouraging them to benefit from the “fat of the land.”6

Not only that, but the Torah explicitly commands “Do not despise the Egyptian.”7 The Torah permits an Egyptian to convert and for the third generation to marry into the Jewish nation.8 How does this fit the blanket rejection of every Egyptian, and the notion that each and every one is worthy of death?

Alternative Text

Finally, one has to wonder why Rashi didn’t adopt a version of that comment that would have made it far less problematic. The version of the quote Rashi cites is from the midrash Mechilta.9 But the quote is recorded in Masechet Sofrim, followed by the words “in a time of war.”10 It is far less controversial to say that when there is a war going on, it is proper to kill an enemy combatant. Why did Rashi not add those words, which would have supplied much-needed context?

These questions are so severe, the Rebbe says, that it must be that there is something we are missing.

Not All Egyptians Are the Same

The reason for all our difficulties stem from an assumption that Rashi is making a general assertion about Egyptians. In reality, Rashi is only referring to the Egyptians of that time and place.

So there is no problem with the positive experiences with the Egyptians recorded in the Torah, nor that the Torah orders us not to despise Egyptians – they are not the same people that Rashi is referring to. But with regards to the Egyptians at the time of the Exodus, Rashi asserts, even those so-called G‑d-fearing ones could not be relied upon to refuse cooperation with the Israelites’ subjugators.

Why the Need to Say It?

Still, one might ask, what compelled Rashi to use such strong language? The main point was to explain where the horses came from, and that is sufficiently explained without a broad generalization about how evil the Egyptians of that generation were. He could have left out the quote entirely!

There is a major problem with the story of the incident at the Red Sea, and it is this that Rashi felt compelled to address. The Torah relates how the entire Egyptian army was wiped out as the waters of the parted sea came crashing down after the Israelites had made it safely through. So complete was the destruction, that “not a single one survived.”11

Reading of this total devastation, one is likely to ask: Was there not even a single person who deserved to be spared?

To answer this question, Rashi explains that, indeed, the Egyptians who pursued the Israelites were so corrupt that even the “pious” ones were no good.

To bring home that point, Rashi cites the comment from Rabbi Shimon, saying that the Egyptians of that generation were all complicit in the horrific crimes against the Israelites.

Rashi had no reason to say that the justification for killing the Egyptians was because it “was a time of war.” The issue here, according to Rashi, is not that there was a war raging. The real issue was the behavior of the Egyptians during the time the Israelites were enslaved. The punishment meted out at the Red Sea was a reaction to their perverse cruelty and injustice.

Herein lies a pertinent lesson: There are times when one is confronted by true evil, and no amount of appeasement will do. Nazi Germany comes to mind. But in our individual lives this applies as well. There are destructive temptations that risk bringing us down if allowed to attain a foothold in our lives. Against such dangers, we cannot afford to cede an inch. We all face a life struggle against our own internal “evil inclination” that seeks to corrupt us. When confronted with such a foe, only relentless commitment will protect us.

Adapted from Likutei Sichot, vol. 16, Parshat Beshalach I.