INTRODUCTION TO PARASHAT HASHAVUA
Dedicated in memory of Florence Lipstein, whose yahrzeit is 25 Tevet
by Sidney and Cheryl Lipstein
The Ten Plagues: A Lesson in Faith
by Rav Alex Israel
The devastation that the ten plagues brought to Egypt was of epic proportion: the entire water supply of the country turning to blood, a plague of swarming lice, painful boils breaking out all over the body, total blackout and darkness. These plagues brought daily life in Egypt to a standstill. Pestilence destroyed the livestock of the country and locusts destroyed the crops. By the time we are finished, we can almost visualize this land, broken beaten and worn, in the aftermath of the most severe disaster situation ever experienced. It is not surprising that Pharaoh's aides say to him:
"How long will this be a trap for us? Let the men go to worship Hashem their God! Are you not yet aware that Egypt is lost?" (10:7)
Everyone in Egypt can see that "Egypt is lost," the country has been brought to its knees. Apparently, the plagues have achieved their aim.
ARE THESE PLAGUES REALLY NECESSARY?
But what of God? What is the aim of these plagues? What is their purpose? Traditionally, we assume that the plagues were utilized by God in order to gain Pharaoh's permit to leave the country. But does God need to bring such damage, chaos and ruin to achieve this goal? God should be able to do anything! If you are already doing miracles, why not put the Egyptians to sleep for a week and let the Jews walk out unnoticed? Why not make one catastrophic plague that would tip the balance in one fell swoop? Why plague after plague, an ongoing series of wreckage?
Indeed, we can strengthen our question by turning to another aspect of the plagues, that of God's psychological control over Pharaoh. Throughout this story (from the sixth plague and on) we see God "hardening the heart of Pharaoh." God toughens Pharaoh's will to enable him to withstand the pressures of the plagues, to weather the storm:
"God hardened the heart of Pharaoh and he did not listen to them" (9:12).
"For I have hardened his heart..." (10:1).
"And God hardened Pharaoh's heart and he did not set the Israelites free"(10:20).
If God's true desire is to free the Children of Israel, then why does he harden Pharaoh? Let Pharaoh break under the pressure! Let his rule crumble! The means are not important. We should be working to get the Israelites out of Egypt and slavery! Certain commentators suggest that God wants Pharaoh to remain balanced. He wants Pharaoh to make a decision based on rational argument, rooted in "free will," rather than under duress. But what is the point? God wants the Jews out! Why make things more difficult?
The text of the Torah gives us a clear answer to our question. It tells us that included in the strategy of the ten plagues was an educational objective.
"The Lord said to Moses, 'Go to Pharaoh. For I have hardened his heart and the heart of his courtiers, in order that I may display my signs amongst them, and that you may recount and tell your children and your children's children how I made a mockery of the Egyptians and how I displayed my signs amongst them - in order that you may know that I am the Lord.'" (10:1-2)
What is the stated aim of the plagues? It is so that we can tell future generations of the power of God. The ultimate purpose is that we should "know" God. Through the clearly miraculous events in Egypt, the Children of Israel witness a spectacle that will forge into their hearts the imprint of the Almighty. They witness this when they understand that God can harness both natural and supernatural forces directing and controlling their phenomenal strength and enormous power in the fulfillment of his word. A moment of realization of this sort is a moment of "knowing God."
MIRACLES AND FAITH
Nachmanides develops this idea further. He concludes his commentary on the plagues and the exodus saga with an interesting piece discussing the role of miracles in the furtherance of faith. In this context he talks also about the proliferation of laws in our Jewish tradition, which are explicitly aimed at preserving and perpetuating the exodus: "zekher le-yetziat Mitzrayim." Why do we need so many laws with this purpose in mind? The Ramban connects the two ideas (Commentary on Exodus 13:16):
"I will now state a general principle which lies at the foundation of many mitzvot (commandments).
"Since the introduction of idolatry into the world ... the attitudes of people, as regards matters of faith, have become confused and have diverged from the true beliefs. Some people believe that the world has been in existence eternally with no creation ... others feel that God exists but that he does not know the ways of man ... and that there is no reward or punishment. They say (Ez. 8:20) 'God has departed from the earth.'
"When God performs a miracle in the sight of a desirable collective or individual - a miracle that will affect a change in the laws of nature - these (false) attitudes of faith will be disproved in the clearest way. For the miracle demonstrates God's mastery over the world: his creation of it and his knowledge of, and involvement in its affairs. Additionally, when a particular miracle is preceded by a prophetic announcement, the existence of prophecy - that God speaks with man and tells him his secrets - will be proven and this in turn will prove the truth of the entire Torah."
According to the Ramban, a miracle manages to transform certain philosophical truths into reality. The person who experiences the miracle will be convinced, in the most powerful manner, of the existence of God, his involvement in the affairs of men and his ability to reward and punish. The Ramban feels that this was the purpose of the plagues.
We might put it in this context. The Children of Israel are at a fundamental nexus in their development. They are at the birth of their nationhood. They have had the foundation period of the forefathers. They have grown in size, but have been enslaved, in exile. Now is the moment that they are to emerge as an independent entity, as a nation who can control their own affairs. God wants this nation to be born in an atmosphere of faith. It is essential that the Jewish nation enter the stage of nationhood with the existence of God in the forefront of their minds.
The Ramban continues:
"... Seeing that God will not perform a sign or miracle in each and every generation, in the presence of any heretic or evil-doer, he commands us to continually create memorials and signs to that which we saw with our own eyes. Thus, we reproduce these events to our children, and they to their children, until the last generation. The Torah was very particular about this matter ... and commanded us to write about this miracles "on our hand and between our eyes" (tefillin see 13:9,16), and that we write about it on our doorposts (mezuza) and that we mention it at morning and at night (the Shema) ... and that we build a sukka each year, and so on, for all the laws that we have "zekher le-yetziat Mitzrayim" (to remember the exodus from Egypt)."
If a single miracle has the power to engender belief in God, then ten miracles of the magnitude of the plagues have a tenfold likelihood of establishing the basic tenets of faith. The preservation of this episode in the Jewish consciousness, an event that teaches the most crucial of theological lessons is of vital importance. We attempt to preserve the feeling and the memory of the exodus because they testify to the existence and providence of our God. We do this through our numerous religious acts that commemorate and preserve the memory of these events. Through all the practices in which we remember Egypt - kiddush, Pesach, mezuza, the shema, Sukkot and many others - we recall and try to re-live these thoughts and experiences which lead us so directly to a full belief in God.
THE PATTERN OF THE PLAGUES
Thus far, we have discussed the educational objective of the plagues as regards the Children of Israel (as found in 9:1-2). But if we look at the verses that describe the drama of the plagues, we shall soon see that there is a new dimension to the story with a very different educational agenda.
We read in the Passover Haggada how R. Yehuda would divide the plagues into three groupings, identifying each of the plagues by initials. The division (DeTZakh ADaSH BeACHaV) puts the plagues in this structure:
1. Blood Frogs Lice
2. Wild Animals Pestilence Boils
3. Hail Locusts Darkness
The plague of the firstborn
How and why did R. Yehuda divide the plagues in this way? Why not make two groupings of five or some other division? What is the unifying character of each group?
When looking closely into the text of the Torah, we can reveal a most deliberate pattern in the narrative of the plagues. It is a recursive structure. This table gives some indication of how the plagues are ordered in the text.
"station yourself ... in the morning"
"Go to Pharaoh"
"station yourself ... in the morning"
"Go to Pharaoh"
"station yourself ... in the morning"
"Go to Pharaoh"
What we see here is a recurring pattern, with the plagues grouped in threes. (We will ignore the plague of the firstborn for now and come back to it later. As we shall see, this plague is in a class of its own.) Each of these groups can be viewed as a "wave" of plagues. In each wave, the first two plagues are preceded by a divine forewarning while the third plague strikes suddenly, without a prior notice. We can also identify the cyclic rhythm in the language of the commands given to Moses. But what does it all mean? Why would three waves of plagues be necessary? Is there anything that differentiates one group from another?
SOME DISTINGUISHING FEATURES
It is interesting to note some of the features of this structure from within the descriptions of the plagues. We will give some examples.
In "Wave 2" it would seem that there is a detail that is stressed repeatedly: that the plague will strike only Israelites and not Egyptians. In the warning of the plague of wild animals God states:
"On that day I will set apart the region of Goshen, where my people dwell, so that no wild animals shall be there ... And I will make a distinction between my people and your people. Tomorrow this sign will come to be" (8:18-19).
In the next plague of this wave - pestilence - we see a similar stress in the details:
" ... the Lord will strike your livestock ... with a very severe pestilence. But the Lord will make a distinction between the livestock of Israel and the livestock of the Egyptians so that nothing will die that belongs to the Israelites. The Lord has fixed a time: tomorrow the Lord will do this thing in the land" (9:3-5).
Pharaoh even does a spot check to ascertain whether God is keeping to his word:
"When Pharaoh investigated, he found that not one head of the livestock of Israel had died" (9:7).
The third plague - boils - also affects only Egyptians (see 9:11). We can see a clear theme here. In this second wave, the theme of differentiation between Egyptian and Israelite is highlighted. A clear divide is being drawn, by God, between the two peoples. We will see why this is so, in a minute.
WAVE THREE - UNPRECEDENTED POWER
In the "Third Wave," a similar thematic makeup is apparent. This time the stress is on the uniqueness of the plague, or more accurately, its unprecedented power. All the plagues here will be unparalleled. The plague of hail begins this "wave." The warning to Pharaoh is expressed in the following way:
"I have spared you for this purpose: in order to show you my power and in order that my fame may resound throughout the world ... This time tomorrow, I will rain down a very heavy hail, such as has not been in Egypt from the day it was founded until now" (9:17-19).
And when the hail arrives, it is true to this forewarning:
"God rained down the hail upon the land of Egypt. The hail - with fire flashing in the middle of the hailstones - an exceptionally heavy hail such as had not befallen Egypt from the day it was founded until now" (9:24).
The same is true about the locust plague. Both in the warning and then when it happens, it is described as a swarm of locusts of such magnitude:
"Something that neither your fathers nor your fathers' fathers have seen from the day they appeared on earth to this day ... never before had there been so many, nor will there ever be so many again" (10:6,14).
And as for the plague of darkness where "for three days no-one could get up from where he was" (10:23), we clearly have a plague of unprecedented proportion. The linkage between the three plagues of this group is the magnitude of their power; each plague is on a scale inexperienced previously. Each plague is an unparalleled phenomenon.
Another point worth mentioning is how the third plague in each group attacks the human body itself whereas the preceding plagues attack property: houses, livestock and crops. Lice, boils and the darkness that you cannot move in (eating? going to the bathroom?) all represent very unpleasant bodily afflictions. It is as if in each wave, God gives certain chances, but by the time we reach the third plague of a group, we need no warning and the plagues are designed to really "hit home."
But where is this all leading? What are these three cycles of suffering?
THREE WAVES - THREE THEOLOGICAL LESSONS
We have seen that the "waves" or groups of plagues have unifying themes. In truth, we can say that for each of these three groups there is a distinct objective that relates to that theme. This aim is expressed in the opening warning of each group or "wave" of plagues. Let us see.
In the introductory warning to each plague grouping, God gives his motive for that "wave." The objectives relate to certain theological understandings that Pharaoh has to acquire through the process of the plagues. The motives read as follows:
For the first wave:
"Thus says the Lord "By this you shall know that I AM THE LORD'" (7:17).
The second wave:
"... that you may know that I am the Lord IN THE MIDST OF THE LAND" (8:18).
The third wave:
"... in order that you may know that there is NONE LIKE ME in all the world" (9:14).
God is teaching Pharaoh three theological lessons. It would seem that God wants to bring home to Pharaoh certain facts about God's nature and his power. There are things that he has to "know."
The first wave of plagues is aimed to demonstrate to Pharaoh the fact of God's EXISTENCE - "I am the Lord." The second group will teach of God's involvement in the affairs of man, that God has the ability to effect and control events "in the midst of the land." This lesson teaches of God's PROVIDENCE. The third wave is aimed at proving God's OMNIPOTENCE - that God has ultimate power high above any other being.
THEMES OF THE PLAGUES
This approach is borne out through the contents of each wave. In the first wave God begins to demonstrate his very existence. In the first two plagues, Pharaoh remains unimpressed as he watches his own magicians or holy men reproduce the plagues of blood and frogs. It is only when we get to the third plague that the magicians themselves acknowledge the existence of God. When they are confronted by dust turning into lice, a phenomenon that they cannot replicate, they exclaim:
"This is the finger of God" (8:15).
If the religious authorities recognize God, then Pharaoh's refusal to accept God must result from his stubbornness and nothing else. God has been given recognition.
The other "waves" express their themes rather elegantly. The second "wave," as we have noted, is animated by the notion of the distinction between Israel and Egypt. This is aimed at expressing God's INVOLVEMENT or PROVIDENCE. In these plagues God demonstrates that he has precise control over His actions in the world. He can differentiate between groups and individuals. He can time his actions with precision - each of these plagues is to be performed "tomorrow" - he can work within a worldly timeframe. In this group of plagues God shows his ability to be involved in the worldly arena.
The third group is designed to prove God's EXCLUSIVE POWER. To this end, God brings plagues which "never before had there been ... nor will there ever be" any like them. These plagues are unprecedented, unique in their style - ice and fire together in the hail - and in their force. God clearly shows that He is all-powerful.
Why do we need all three lessons? Why are these three points so important that God wishes to drive them home to Pharaoh? In fact, why are we bothering to "educate" Pharaoh at all?
When Moses makes his first approach to Pharaoh, he receives a sharp rebuff. Pharaoh rejects his request with a rejection of the Jewish God.
"Moses and Aaron went and said to Pharaoh, 'Thus says the Lord, God of Israel: Let My people go that they may celebrate a festival to me in the wilderness.' But Pharaoh said, 'Who is the Lord that I should heed him and let Israel go? I do not know the Lord, nor will I let Israel go'" (5:1-2).
Pharaoh's rejection of the Israelite plea for freedom is an outgrowth of his non-recognition of God. He does not accept the existence of God and certainly does not accept His ability to control him. As far as Pharaoh is concerned, the gods of Egypt are far more powerful than the God of Israel. The Israelite slavery testifies to that fact. If Egypt can enslave Israel then the Egyptian god must overpower the Israelite God.
There are three stages to Pharaoh's education. First, he has to admit the existence of this God. But he can still claim that this God is a transcendent God who has no involvement in human affairs and therefore can be effectively ignored. God comes to teach him of his ability to intervene in the most minor of details in this world. But still, Pharaoh might suggest that this God exists and is involved in human worldly events, but that the Egyptian gods are stronger, more influential and powerful. To this God answers with the third wave of plagues expressing God's exclusive and supreme power.
THE PLAGUE OF THE FIRSTBORN
At the beginning of this "shiur" we discussed the possibility of God bringing a single plague, a decisive blow, which would activate the freedom of the Israelites. We realize now that God had a very different plan in mind. But it would seem that the plague of the firstborn fits NOT into the educational model that we have just described but rather, to this category. The killing of the firstborn is designed to be the final blow, the last step to freedom.
This plague has been sitting on the sidelines exactly for this purpose from the very beginning. Even before Moses enters Egypt, God has told him:
"... say to Pharaoh 'Thus says the Lord: Israel is My first-born son. I have said to you: 'Let my son go that he may worship me,' yet you refuse to let him go. Now I will slay your firstborn son.'" (4:22-23)
Parashat Va-era, this week's Torah portion, is full of drama, including most of the 10 plagues needed to bring the Israelites out of Egyptian slavery. Moses has just been commissioned as God's mouthpiece (in last week's reading), designated to be the person to deliver the divine message of redemption to the people of Israel and to Pharaoh. Before the action, however, the parashah opens with God's private, even intimate, declaration to Moses:
I am Eternal God (Adonai), and/but I appeared [or in the wording of the Aramaic translation of the verse, "I offered a revelation of Myself"] to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob in [the name] Almighty God (El Shaddai); I wasn't known to them by my name Adonai.
Let's consider just two topics: first, what can we make of God's enigmatic self-introduction; second, what can we make of the way in which the Torah presents the plagues?
Naturally, you will have noticed the odd use of "and/but" in the translation of God's statement. Why didn't the editor of this week's commentary just pick one or the other? Well, because the Hebrew verse uses the letter vav. Although we are usually told that vav means "and," biblical Hebrew actually uses it to signify a wide variety of meanings, depending on the context. Read the whole sentence both ways: "I am Adonai, and I appeared . . . " or "I am Adonai, but I appeared . . . " and you will see that both make sense. So which should it be in this case?
Several well-known medieval Jewish commentators (including Abraham ibn Ezra, for example) focus on God's continuity over time. This is the same God who dealt with the patriarchal families, who promised that their descendants would become numerous and would inherit a homeland. The nature of God's relationship with the ancestral generations may have been different from what it would become in Moses's time or later. God may have been known by different names or may have related to humans by emphasizing different attributes as the times demanded. Nonetheless, Abraham's God and Moses's God are one and the same deity. By contrast, some modern exegetes focus on the discontinuity between El Shaddai of the patriarchs and Adonai of the Exodus generation. "Now I am Adonai, but I used to be something different." In fact, the verses of Exodus 6:2–3 form an important basis of the Documentary Hypothesis, a theory that stresses the differences among disparate parts of the Torah, distinguished partly by God's names.
The debate of whether the letter vav, in this case, should be understood as "and" rather than "but" highlights whether one stresses continuity or discontinuity. That determination, deciding which tendency we favor, may vary for each of us over time. Is the current situation one in which we need to underscore our unbroken ties with the past, or is it a time when we need to revive the past with creativity and freshness? This is the fundamental balancing act always facing the Conservative Movement. How do we reinvigorate the customs and behaviors of the past; how do we make them enrich the present without undermining their inherent past values? And/but, tradition/change, continuity/discontinuity. Our ongoing challenge is to find the balance point that fits best for the present.
So now, let's return to the action part of the Torah reading, the plagues. In effect, the plagues are an answer to the question Pharaoh posed to Moses (in Exodus 5:2, from last week's reading), after Moses and Aaron demanded the release of the Israelites: "Adonai, the God of Israel, says 'Send out My people so that they may have a celebration to Me in the desert.'" Pharaoh responded to that by asking, "Who is this Adonai that I should listen to Adonai's voice and send out Israel?" The plagues are God's response. At God's direction, Moses and Aaron use the plagues, invoking them—one at a time—to bring increasing pressure on Pharaoh to release the Israelites. Commentators over the centuries have analyzed the plagues and the highly structured way in which the Torah presents them, noting that the plagues are increasingly severe inducements to motivate Pharaoh's capitulation. Seven of the 10 plagues appear in this week's reading: blood, frogs, lice, swarms of insects (or beasts—traditions differ, with another interpretation and even a different order of plagues found in Psalms 105), animal disease, boils, and hail. When even those afflictions don't suffice to compel Pharaoh's release of the Israelites (although he comes close at times, but then reneges), next week he and Egypt undergo three more plagues: locusts, terrifying darkness, and finally, the death of firstborn sons, including Pharaoh's own son.
Why are the plagues brought only one at a time? Why not bring them on with full force all at once, or why not cut to the chase and just use the most damaging? We may be able to answer that if we realize what else is going on in the Torah reading at the same time. Moses is trying to negotiate Israel's freedom, using the plagues—the big guns, one might say—primarily to strengthen his negotiating position when words alone don't suffice. Moses makes his plea for the people's release, but Pharaoh merely scoffs. Then the first four plagues occur, after which Pharaoh is willing to negotiate, or so it seems. Moses asks for the Israelites' release to go celebrate to God, and Pharaoh agrees to let the people go sacrifice to God, but only within the land itself (Exod. 8:21). Moses says that isn't good enough; the people need to go a distance of three days' journey, since their sacrificing would be abhorrent to the Egyptians (Exod. 8:22–23). Success! Pharaoh agrees to let them sacrifice out in the desert, as long as they don't go "too far" away (Exod. 8:24). Something, however, causes Pharaoh to change his mind, and he refuses to release Israel. In next week's parashah, after three more plagues, Pharaoh will again negotiate, haggling with Moses and Aaron about which Israelites must be permitted to go out to sacrifice to God (Exod. 10:5–12). Pharaoh's offer is to release only the men; Moses says that all the Israelites must be permitted to go. Pharaoh refuses, but then changes his mind after yet another plague is brought upon Egypt. Pharaoh and Moses continue to negotiate (Exod. 10: 24–26). Then finally, after the last devastating plague, Pharaoh agrees to all of Moses's demands (Exod. 12:31–32), when the Israelites, under divine protection, are finally released.
Perhaps this is a lesson for today. Negotiations work, as long as there is sufficient force to back them up. And yet, despite the acrimony and force ultimately required for the release of Israel, later tradition reminds us that the angels wept at the unfortunate deaths of so many of the enemy. This week's haftarah, taken from Ezekiel 28–29 (many centuries after the events of the Torah reading), offers a fitting and timely summation of hope. The prophet proclaims that the House of Israel will be gathered back to its own soil, and "they shall build houses and plant vineyards and dwell on the land in security." We share the timeless message of unending hope.
The publication and distribution of the JTS Commentary are made possible by a generous grant from Rita Dee and Harold (z"l) Hassenfeld.