Moses said, “This is what G-d has said; At about midnight, I will go out into the midst of Egypt. Every firstborn will die” (Exodus, 11:4-5)
Moses relays G-d’s message that the plague of the first-born will happen at midnight. However, he doesn’t say “midnight,” he says “at about midnight.” The Talmud notes this odd choice of words, which seems to imply that there was not a precise time when the plague would occur. Was G-d unsure, asks the Talmud, when He was going to inflict the plague? Why didn’t Moses say midnight, and Pharaoh and the Egyptians would know that at exactly midnight G-d will go out into the midst of Egypt. Furthermore, later on when the Torah actually describes the plague, it says It was exactly midnight and G-d stuck down every first born in the land of Egypt (12:29). Why did Moses choose an inaccurate time (“about” midnight”) when warning about that plague?
Rashi quoting the Talmud explains that Moses was concerned about human error. Although G-d had told him that the plague was scheduled to take place at exactly midnight, Moses feared the Egyptians would miscalculate the precise moment of midnight and say that midnight had already come and gone, and the firstborn of Egypt were still alive and well; it was only after midnight that the plague occurred and Moses would be accused of lying. Even though the plague would be exactly at midnight, Moses wanted to avoid the negative comments resulting from the miscalculation of the Egyptian astrologers.
This explanation is difficult to understand. Was Moses really worried about inaccurate time calculation? Even if the Egyptians erred and thought the plague was a false alarm, they would find out the truth two minutes later when the first-born began to die.
By making allowance for the margin of error, Moses demonstrated great insight into human psyche. When people hear something they don’t like, they will use any excuse to discredit it. If the Egyptians could come up with a way to discredit Moses, even by claiming a one or two-minute discrepancy, they would ignore the whole message and deny that G-d had sent him. They would neglect to consider that Moses had predicted the other plagues with precision and that their lives and land were in a state of crisis due to supernatural events that had occurred in the recent past. The fact is that Moses was off a minute or two would allow them to remain in denial, call him a liar, and thus conclude that they would not let the Jews go free.
People tend to see the value of their own position and immediately reject anything that negates it. This phenomenon is most clearly seen in politics on local, state, and federal levels. We might give a pass to a controversial action or statement made by man or woman we support, yet refuse to give credit to a member of the other party even though (s)he helped to write or pass legislation that affects one’s city, state, or the country in a positive way; last year you even expressed concern that such a bill should be written and ratified.
The same thing happens regarding family relationships. We are all familiar with the scenario that husbands and wives or parents and children are too busy defending their own positions to actually listen to what the other person is saying? Rather, because we are so set in our position and are just positive things are exactly as we see them that we look for an irrelevant inconsistency and use that as the weapon to destroy the other side’s argument or justify our own.
In The Shmuze, Rabbi Ben Tzion Shafier applies this idea to two other aspects of life. The first is when we set out to speak with others in order to open their mind to a new way of thinking-something that is in their best interest. If I truly want to help the person, I have to allow him or her to see things in a new light. That means that I cannot merely present my perspective, even if it is substantiated with facts and irrefutable data. Whether its speaking with someone about quitting smoking, changing an unhealthy diet, or pointing out a pattern of sabotaging relationships, I must realize that if I want to help the person, I cannot just present facts or even clear presentation of my case. If his or her ego gets in the way- there will be no communication. Regardless of how correct I am – I will be speaking to deaf ears. The same way that the Egyptians were not willing to listen to the voice of reason, so too is the case with some of the people in our lives. Before helping someone, I must determine if the person is open to listening and processing something that might be a challenge for him or her; only then will (s)he will hear what I say.
The second practical application of this idea regards me-or perhaps my ego. What happens when someone shows me that I was wrong; even when I know that (s)he is correct and is saying it for my good? How open am I to listening to him or her? Am I able to deal with the thought that maybe I was wrong? Part of becoming a happy person is the ability to be teachable and be smart enough to realize that not everything I thought was right necessarily is and not everything that someone else says-especially a parent or spouse- is automatically wrong.
What practical steps can we take to grow in this area? When someone points out something in my behavior that makes me feel uncomfortable, I need to consider three points: Maybe I’m wrong; I have been wrong in the past; I need to revisit the thought or situation in light of the new perspective that someone who cares about me has given (i.e. gifted) me.
When a person is open to the idea I may have erred, (s)he becomes a more pleasant and agreeable person but even more importantly, (s)he will get instant return on his or her investment of willing to listen by the feeling of happiness that comes with not having to be right all the time.
Years ago, I went to speak with a great educator to ask him about an approach to take with a behavioral challenge with one of my children. “Do you want to be right or happy,” he asked. This indeed is the question we need to ask ourselves whenever we have a conflict with the people in our lives who, we know, only want what’s best for us.