“Any last requests?” questioned the officer.
“A glass of water please,” answered the inmate.
“We can certainly provide that.”
A cup of water was promptly served. The prisoner accepted the beverage with quavering hands. A few minutes passed, and the prisoner still trembling, had not yet taken a sip. The contents of the glass began to slop from side to side.
“What’s the matter?” asked the officer
“I’m nervous,” responded the prisoner. “I worry that you will shoot me before I finish my drink.”
“You can calm down; there is no need to fear. Take as much time as you need.”
“Will you promise,” implored the prisoner “that you won’t shoot me until I have finished drinking this entire cup of water?”
Buoyed by the officer’s assurances, the prisoner promptly turned the cup up-side-down, emptying its contents. The water quickly seeped into the dirt floor. The convict gleefully jumped up and down, pointing his finger at the officer. “You swore to stay the execution until I finish that glass!”
Pharaoh, King of Egypt, seems to suffer the same bird-brained mentality. This wicked tyrant sought to persecute the Jews in a manner which would escape G-d’s discipline.
“R. Chama ben Chanina said: Pharaoh said ‘Come and let us outwit the Saviour of Israel’. With what shall we afflict them?
If we afflict them with fire, it is written: ‘Behold the Lord will come with fire.’
If we afflict them with the sword, it is written: ‘By His sword with all flesh.’
Let us afflict them with water, because G-d has already sworn that he will not bring a flood upon the world.” (Sotah 11a)
Hashem metes out justice Midah K’Neged Midah – measure for measure. Accordingly, if the Egyptians were to hurt the Jews by fire, there was reason to fear retribution by fire. Egyptian thinking expected Hashem to be restricted by Midah K’Neged Midah; G-d can only evoke the appropriate corollary. Therefore, the Egyptian’s worked backwards – from punishment to crime. Since Hashem had promised long ago – in the days of Noach – not to flood the planet, they incorrectly argued, that there would be no Divine consequence for drowning Jewish children.
But surely, G-d’s control of the universe is not constrained, by the process of Midah K’neged Midah. A case in point is executing a murderer. G-d’s will – as recorded in the Torah – codifies an appropriate punishment for killing, yet, if necessary, the Beis Din are empowered to use alternate methods.
I only know that a murderer may be executed with the death that is decreed for him; if you cannot execute him with that death, you may execute him with any other death. ‘He that smote him shall surely be put to death’, implying in any manner possible (Sanhedrin 72b)
How can this mortal despot, Pharaoh, honestly believe that he is beyond the Divine grasp? And even if we were to accept, that no judgment can be rendered in this-world, undoubtedly, in the World-to-come, justice awaits.
Egypt was thoroughly convinced in the justice of their cause. If we do not destroy the Jews, they reasoned, the Jews will unite with our enemies and overcome Egypt. This warped logic justified genocide. Nonetheless, one notion disturbed their conscience. Pharaoh was aware that interpersonal actions between man-and-man are not to be taken lightly. It is possible to act with the loftiest intentions, but, if they cause pain to other humans, there will be repercussions. The ends do not justify the means.
Reb Chaim Shmuelevitz explains the rationale for this concept. Just as one who places their hand in fire will be burnt, one who hurts his fellowman will suffer. These are realities engineered into the universe, they are not punishments.
He cites the example of Penina who provoked and embarrassed Chana so that she should pray for children. Although Penina had pious intentions she did not escape punishment – her ten children died. (Paraphrase from Sichos Mussar)
This same issue concerned Pharaoh and plagued him to no end. Even though he was thoroughly convinced of his moral, ethical and lawful rights to purging Jews, Pharaoh was worried. It might be the responsible thing to do, but if I kill, proverbially, I will be sticking my hand into the fire.
Pharaoh, however, realized, that there is a Divine method to punishment. The punitive measures follow a chartered course – Middah K’negged Middah. The responses have been plotted in Creation and subsequent natural order. Every action brings a reaction: A does not cause B, A cause’s negative-A, or the reflection A. Thus Pharaoh erroneously thought he could evade the system: If Hashem had already promised He would not bring a flood, that there will be no means of chastening Egypt for throwing Jewish boys into the Nile.