“And Moshe said, so says Hashem, ‘At about midnight (kechatzot) I shall go out in the midst of Egypt. Every firstborn in Egypt shall die, from the firstborn of Pharaoh who sits on his throne to the firstborn of the maidservant who is behind the millstone and all the firstborn of the beast…” (Shemot 11:4–5).
As we approach the 10th and final plague, Moshe’s lack of precision in declaring that the plague will occur “at about midnight” is difficult to understand. If Moshe was just repeating what he had been told by Hashem, it could be dangerously understood that Hashem did not know when exactly the plague would occur. Alternatively, if Hashem said the plague would be at midnight, but Moshe changed it to “at about midnight,” it seems as if Moshe doubted Hashem’s ability to keep to His exact word. Either way we look at it, it is difficult to understand.
Rashi (based on the Gemara, Berachot 4a) explains: “And they (our Sages) said that Moshe said ‘at about midnight’ which means close to it—either before or after—and he did not say ‘at midnight,’ in case Pharaoh’s astrologers would err and claim that Moshe is a liar,” (Rashi, Shemot 11:4).
Indeed, Moshe changed Hashem’s words from “at midnight” to “at about midnight,” but not for a lack of faith. Rather, he was concerned that the Egyptian astrologers would erroneously make a slightly different calculation as to when exactly midnight was and would claim that Moshe was a liar.
Whilst solving the difficulty in the wording of the verse, this remains troubling. After all, even if the astrologers made a slightly inaccurate calculation, only a moment later, Egypt was struck with the ultimate plague that affected every firstborn and family in the land. Surely, that would have given Moshe the last word on the matter—why was he so concerned about the astrologers’ momentary smirk?
Reb Elya Meir Bloch, zt”l (of the Telshe Yeshiva), explains that Moshe was not concerned about what cynics would say about him personally—but, about what he represented and the potential chillul Hashem. If Hashem said He would strike at midnight, and people would be sitting around looking at their clocks thinking that He was late, that would be a chillul Hashem. Though it may only have lasted a few moments before the arrival of the devastating plague; every effort must be made to prevent chillul Hashem—even for a moment.
From Moshe Rabbeinu, we learn to do everything in our power to avoid even the slightest chillul Hashem. The damage inappropriate actions can cause should never be underestimated. May we succeed—not only in avoiding chillul Hashem—but in making a tremendous kiddush Hashem whenever possible.
Rabbi Danny Mirvis is the Deputy CEO of World Mizrachi, and the Rabbi of Ohel Moshe Synagogue in Herzliya Pituach. He is a member of the Mizrachi Speakers Bureau (www.mizrachi.org/speakers).