Stockholm Syndrome

Throughout this week’s parsha of Vaera, the Torah repeatedly mentions the goals of the horrific plagues that God brought upon the Egyptians. These goals are consistently addressed to Pharaoh and the Egyptians: “you will know that I am God” (7:17), “you will know that I am God in the midst of the land” (8:18), and “you will know that there is none like Me in all the land” (9:14). Only the final three plagues, listed in next week’s parsha of Bo, include any mention that the plagues are to have some effect on the Israelites as well: “and that thou may tell your son and grandson what I have wrought upon Egypt, and My signs which I have done among them; that you may know that I am the God” (10:2) “so that you know that God distinguishes between Egypt and Israel” (11:7).

The existence of so many goals for the plagues deserves its own treatment; clearly, the notion that the plagues were engineered simply to get the Israelites out of Egypt falls well short of explaining all ten. The harsh educational impact of the plagues were manifold and incremental – each new lesson built on the previous one. Yet, one may ask why the Torah was interested in teaching these lessons to the Egyptians. After all, the Israelites were the ones with a future as God’s chosen people; why was it important that Egypt, on the brink of destruction, be made aware of God’s existence and hegemony?

In certain cases, prolonged captivity or enslavement can produce a psychological phenomenon known as ‘Stockholm Syndrome’, in which the victim begins to identify and sympathize with the powerfully aggressive perpetrator. It generally applies to individual victims of a small group of abusers, but it can just as well pertain to large groups who are enslaved and robbed of their identities by a larger, more powerful group.

The Israelites in Egypt, or at least some of them, may have suffered from Stockholm Syndrome. Indeed, a number of them complained, even after more than a year in the desert, that they would have been better of staying in Egypt, a land of ‘milk and honey’ where the fish was free (see Bamidbar 11:5, 14:3, and 16:13). The generation of exiles, despite everything, never completely freed themselves from their identification with Egypt.

Thus, a series of terrible (super)natural disasters to put the fear of the Lord into the Egyptians was actually the best way to get that message across to the Israelites themselves. If the Egyptian perpetrators were cowed into submission before God, then perhaps the Israelites could internalize the same messages. As they learned about God, they would gradually dissociate from Egypt and begin to identify with God, as His nation.

These sentiments were eloquently stated by John Donne in Holy Sonnet XIV:

Yet dearely'I love you, and would be lov'd faine
But am betroth'd unto your enemy
Divorce me, 'untie, or breake that knot againe
Take me to you, imprison me, for I
Except you 'enthrall me, never shall be free
Nor ever chaste, except you ravish me

Similarly, the finale of the Exodus narrative, when Israel beholds the drowning of the Egyptian military in the Red Sea, enables the Israelites to truly become God’s people:

…and Israel saw the Egyptians dead upon the sea-shore. And Israel saw the mighty hand which the God used upon the Egyptians, and the people revered God, and they believed in God and in His servant Moshe

(Shemot 14:30-31)

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