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Dedicated in memory of  כתריאל ליב בן מנחם מאניש, Carl Goldstein ז"ל by Warren Goldstein & family. 

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We know about Pharaoh’s obstinacy in refusing to free the Jews, despite the fact that his obstinacy was destroying Egypt.

That obstinacy may have been divinely inspired or it may have resulted from a blinding evil that precluded a realization of his society’s collapse.[1]

What, though, about greater Egyptian society? They must have realized that Egypt was imploding. Despite that realization, not until the seventh plague[2] do we see Egyptians questioning Pharaoh’s obstinacy - and nowhere do we see them flouting Pharoah’s obstinacy. Why didn’t they protest earlier on? And why didn’t they flout Pharaoh and free the Jews themselves?

And, on another level, why did they allow Pharoah to persecute an innocent people in the first place?

But then we read Milgram’s study on obedience[3] and we understand.

Stanley Milgram, a Yale University psychologist, placed ads in the local newspaper requesting volunteers for a Yale research project.

Milgram’s volunteers were partnered into pairs with one partner assuming a “student” role and the other assuming a “teacher” role. The partners drew lots to determine which partner assumed which role.

In truth, many of those “volunteers” were actors and the lots were fixed to ensure that all student roles were given to actors.

All teacher roles, though, were allotted to real volunteers.

Once roles were assigned, the students studied the “curriculum.”

Upon completing the curriculum, the students were strapped into chairs with electrodes. The teachers then went into adjoining rooms that contained electric shock generators that ranged from 15 volts (Slight Shock) to 375 volts (Danger: Severe Shock) to 450 volts (Danger: Very Severe Shock).

The teachers then questioned the students on the curriculum.

The students - who, as mentioned, were actors – deliberately erred when answering the questions. For each error, Milgram ordered the “teacher” to administer increasingly severe shocks that ranged all the way up to the maximum 450 volts.

The students/actors weren’t really being shocked - but the teachers thought that they were.

The result?

65% of the teachers continued administering shocks to the deadly, highest level of 450 volts. All participants continued administering up to 300 volts.

The conclusion?

All too many people – probably because they are conditioned to follow their leaders - will follow a leader’s orders even when those orders entail murder.

This experiment explains why those Egyptians - and why so many others - followed their leaders towards terrible destinations. It also illuminates why class bullies rule playgrounds and how rabble-rousers rile up communities.

The Torah’s concern about - and its efforts at contravening - unhealthy obedience is displayed in so many ways.

It is displayed in the halachic arena where we are taught: “There are no messengers for sin.”[4] This means that when someone hires a murderer, the obedient murderer – not the one who hires him - is liable for murder[5] because unhealthy obedience does not absolve one of sin.

It is displayed in the judicial arena where we are cautioned not to listen to a mistaken court: “You might think that we (listen to the courts) even when they say that right is left …. no, we only listen when they say that right is right.”[6]

And it is displayed in the many Torah stories about humans who question Hashem.

When Hashem tells Avraham about S’dom’s impending destruction, Avraham responds: “Will you also destroy the righteous with the wicked?”[7]

When the Jews continue to suffer in Egypt, Moshe asks Hashem: “Why did you harm this people?”[8]

Enigmatic as these stories are, they teach us to question leadership if we feel that leadership is wrong.

Questioning leadership does not mean that we don’t need leadership.

We do, of course, need leadership.

We just need a leadership that leads us in the right direction.

Rabbi Weber, founder of Ohr Tzvi Montebello-Monsey, is a rav to the young men and women at Kochvei Ohr and Ateres Bais Yaakov and is Rabbi Emeritus of Toronto’s Clanton Park Synagogue. Please visit his website, ohrtzvi.org, to sign up for his weekly email message or for information on his live or zoom shiurim. Rabbi Weber will be mara d’asra at the Hudson Valley Resort for Pesach. For information, please email or call (845) 794-6000.

[1] See Shemos 10:1 and commentaries there

[2] See Shemos 7:3 and Rashi, Ramban, Ibn Ezra and other commentaries there. See also Rambam, Teshuva 6:3.

[3] “The Perils of Obedience,” Milgram 1963

[4] Kiddushin 42b

[5] Kiddushin 43a

[6] Yerushami Horiyos 1,1. Although see a contradictory reading in Sifrei, Devarim 154.

[7] Bereishis 18:24

[8] Shemos 5:22



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