Sotah 11 - 17
"They were cooked in the pot they prepared for others." This is how Rabbi Elazar explains what Yitro said about the Egyptians drowning in the Yam Suf, the "Red Sea" (Shemot 18:10). They planned to destroy the Jewish people by drowning their male children, and they were punished measure for measure by being drowned.
This theme of poetic justice is taken further by Rabbi Chiya bar Abba. He cites Rabbi Simoi's statement that Pharaoh plotted to commit genocide through water in the hope that Hashem would not punish him through water, because Hashem had made an oath to Noah not to bring another world-destroying flood:
"Three people were consulted in that plot -- Bilaam, Iyov and Yitro. Bilaam, who advised implementing it, was eventually slain by the Jews; Iyov, who remained silent, was inflicted with severe bodily pains; and Yitro, who fled, was rewarded with his descendants sitting in the Sanhedrin in the Beit Hamikdash."
These three wise men were certainly capable of pointing out the fallacies in Pharaoh's reasoning which our Sages mention -- that Hashem's oath not to bring a flood was only in regard to the entire world, but not to a single nation, and that there is a difference between flood waters coming upon a land and a nation of pursuers rushing into the water. But to disagree with a despotic autocrat like Pharaoh, even if he accepted their argument, would mean certain death, as in the case of Ketiya bar Shalom and the Roman emperor (Mesechta Avoda Zara 10b).
Rabbi Yitzchak Zev Soloveitchik, the Rav of Brisk, offered a beautiful explanation of the measure for measure aspect of the retribution meted out for the various reactions to this challenge. For actively advocating the slaying of Jewish children, Bilaam was slain. Iyov maintained silence rather than protest and flee like Yitro because he felt that Pharaoh's mind was made up and that his outcry would be an exercise in futility. Hashem taught him a lesson by inflicting him with severe boils all over his body. When a person suffers such severe physical pain he cries out, even though his outcry does not in any way heal him. So too, when a person sees mass murder being planned he must cry out, both because it hurts and because there is still the possibility that it may help. Yitro showed great courage in protesting and fleeing for his life because it meant foregoing the great privilege of sitting in the king's palace as a senior adviser. His reward, measure for measure, was that his descendants had the privilege of sitting as judges in the most important royal palace, the Beit Hamikdash.
- Sotah 11a
Three Decrees and Three Challenges
In his wicked desire to limit the Israelite population in his land the Egyptian ruler, Pharaoh, issued three successive decrees. First he ordered the midwives to kill every male child born to an Israelite mother. When this proved ineffective because of their lack of cooperation, he appointed officers to cast into the Nile waters every Israelite son. The day Moshe was born, Pharaoh's astrologers told him that the redeemer of the Israelites had come to the world, but they were not certain whether he was Jew or Egyptian. The king thereupon decreed that every child born that day, even those of his own people, be drowned.
When Moshe's father, Amram, divorced his wife as an expression of the futility of bringing children to the world only to have them drowned by the Egyptians, his example was followed by the other Jews because he was the spiritual giant of his generation. His daughter, Miriam, challenged his decision with the arguments which, Maharsha explains, correspond to the aforementioned three decrees.
Your decree, she told him, is more severe than Pharaoh's, because he only decreed against the males and your decree affects females as well. This corresponds to the initial decree of infanticide limited to sons.
His decree, she added, only affected the lives of those children in this world while yours denies these unborn children both this world and the World to Come. (Since they will never be born they cannot enter the World to Come -- Rashi.) This corresponds to the second decree about drowning the children and came to stress the belief that even those who drown will enter the World to Come as is stated in the passage "I shall return (the dispersed of Israel) from the depths of the sea. (Tehillim 68:23 - See Mesechta Gittin 57b where this passage was cited by the oldest of the Jewish children being shipped to Rome for immoral exploitation as an assurance that their martyrdom in leaping into the sea would not deny them entry into the World to Come.)
Pharaoh's decree, concluded Miriam, may or may not be fulfilled while your's is the decree of a tzaddik and will certainly be fulfilled by Hashem as we learned in the Book of Iyov (22:28) "You shall decree and it will be fulfilled." This was directed at the third decree which affected the Egyptians as well. There is no certainty, Miriam pointed out, as to whether the Egyptians will be so patriotic as to go along with a royal decree condemning their own sons to death and they may well bring about the abolition of that decree. Your decree, however, is certain to be fulfilled.
Amram accepted her arguments and remarried Yocheved; following his example, all the other Jews reestablished family life in Egypt.
- Sotah 12a