Pharoah’s magicians take pride in their profession. When Moshe and Aharon make a rod into a snake, they do likewise. And then, when the Nile turns to blood, and then produces frogs, they demonstrate that they, too, can turn Nile water into blood, and create frogs.
But as Rabbi Sacks points out, this is ridiculous. Why would someone countering Moshe and Aharon’s creation of blood and frogs make more blood and frogs?! It just made a bad situation worse!
Instead of playing a game of “me, too!”, the magicians could have tried to counter, by trying to end the plagues. And when they failed to do so, then Egypt could have acknowledged that the Jews indeed had a powerful G-d, and they would be free to leave. The whole story could have been a lot shorter and less painful!
But the magicians did not try to counter Moshe and Aharon. They were playing for far smaller stakes, and so missed what was actually going on.
Imagine, if you will, being a court magician in ancient Egypt. You have prestige and pride, and you can do things that nobody else can.
One day, some amateurs with no pedigree walk in and show off their own set of tricks! This cannot be tolerated! It is no less than a threat to your professional status and job security! So instead of working on behalf of the client (Pharoah or Egypt), you immediately go on the defensive. Don’t try to get rid of the blood or frogs – show that you are just as good as those imposters. Otherwise you might be replaced by those walk-ons!
There was a big story going on, but the magicians could not see it. They were told why Moshe and Aaron were there, and what they said they were trying to achieve. But the court magicians simply could not believe it. They had, in the age-old practice of finding conspiracies under every rock (especially in a royal court), rejected the obvious, and sought instead to show the superiority of their own guild.
The Torah is teaching us a very important lesson about entrenched bureaucracies of every kind. While someone may work as a scientist or as a teacher or as a truck driver, once that professional class has organized, the scientist stops working for truth, the teachers no longer represent the children, and the truck drivers don’t work for the customer. Instead, the privileged working class aims to preserve and grow its own privileges and status, regardless of the longer term consequences or the larger story.
And so we have teachers’ unions who don’t educate children, and bakers’ unions who would rather be unemployed rather than accept a benefits cut. And it is hardly limited to those who work for a living: unemployment is apparently also a destiny worth defending. We have populations who will riot to protect their monthly welfare checks, immune to the reality that money does not grow on trees. There is almost always a bigger story, but when people see themselves as Pharoah’s magicians do, then there is no limit to their eagerness to add more blood and frogs to a disastrous situation rather than seeing the big picture.
The Torah is warning us of the dangers of a silo mentality, showing us that the wisest of Pharoah’s advisers plunged headlong into a seductive but foolishly self-destructive pattern. This is the mindset that has destroyed empires throughout time: Chinese, Egyptian, and Roman empires all succumbed to internal entitlement-seeking just as surely as did great corporations such as RCA and General Motors.
And it is the mindset around the world today that is dominating Europe and the United States. The majority no longer cares that the economy cannot persist and grow on infinite debt; they just want to defend their own privileges and entitlements. As the Torah teaches us through the magicians and the plagues, it never ends well.