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11.01.2021 11:29    Comments: 0    Categories: Weekly Parashah      Tags: torah  shabbat  parasha  vaera  

Why Were Many Plagues Needed?


Of the ten plagues visited on the Egyptians, nine appear altogether superfluous.  If the aim was to convince Pharaoh to free the Israelites from bondage, the first nine plagues could not persuade him to give up the Israelite work force; several great natural disasters do not merit attention when compared to the economic loss the Egyptian economy would suffer from letting six hundred thousand slaves go free.[1] Only loss of life, especially of first-borns, could justify removing the factor that led to such loss.

To take the Israelites out of Egypt without Pharaoh’s consent, only one plague would have been necessary—that of darkness, as described in Scripture:  “Moses held out his arm toward the sky and thick darkness descended upon all the land of Egypt for three days.  People could not see one another, and for three days no one could get up from where he was; but all the Israelites enjoyed light in their dwellings” (Ex. 10:22-23).  Such darkness as tied the Egyptians down wherever they were and at the same time did not limit the movement of the Israelites at all provided adequate conditions for the slaves to get up and clear out.[2] Moreover, a sudden departure would be very likely to succeed, for Moses had not announced to Pharaoh the onset of the plague of darkness, and Pharaoh would not have taken any precautions to forestall them from fleeing.

Thus it is clear that the Lord did not lack the necessary might, and with one blow the people could have been freed.  However the Lord informed Moses beforehand that there were additional objectives in taking the people out of Egypt.  One of them was that Pharaoh and Egypt, the most advanced power in the world at the time, should progress towards knowing the Lord, towards the goal of all mankind acknowledging Him.

As the plagues proceeded, the Lord revealed another objective, namely to deliver the Israelites spiritually out of the Egyptian culture:  “That you may recount in the hearing of your sons and of your sons’ sons how I made a mockery of the Egyptians and how I displayed My signs among them—in order that you may know that I am the Lord” (Ex. 10:2).[3] The educational objective regarding the Israelites was revealed only after several plagues, because first they had to cease being in fear of their enslaving master before they could become free of their master’s values and beliefs.

We must remember that originally a clan numbering seventy souls of the house of Jacob went down to Egypt, and there, while absorbing elements of Egyptian culture, they became a people.  The culture they absorbed included positive elements essential for forming a state, such as advanced technology and governmental apparatus and organization.  Also obedience and subordinating the individual to commands issued from above would serve as preparation for accepting the burden of heavenly dominion.[4] However pagan Egyptian culture also contained quite undesirable elements, and therefore the process of the nine plagues was designed to cleanse the people of the base elements in them.

Reeducating, in contrast to physically taking out, cannot be down in a single blow.[5] Therefore many plagues were necessary, like “teaching by repetition to one’s children,” so that the Divine message would be fully taken in both by the Egyptians and by the Israelites.[6]

Pharaoh claimed, “I do not know the Lord, nor will I let Israel go” (Ex. 5:2); but the Israelites, as well, did not know the Lord and did not feel connected to Him.  Moses presented himself to them not as the emissary of G‑d, but as the emissary of the G‑d of their ancestors:  “The Lord, the G‑d of your fathers, the G‑d of Abraham, the G‑d of Isaac, and the G‑d of Jacob, has sent me to you” (Ex. 3:15, also 3:13, 3:16, 4:5).  Only after they were taken out of Egypt would the Israelites acknowledge that He was also there G‑d, as it is written, “And I will take you to be My people, and I will be your G‑d.  And you shall know that I, the Lord, am your G‑d who freed you from the labors of the Egyptians” (Ex. 6:7); and in the wake of this would come the proclamation at Mount Sinai:  “I the Lord am your G‑d who brought you out of the land of Egypt, the house of bondage” (Ex. 20:2).

What did the people know about the G-d of their fathers?  They knew that Abraham called him “G‑d Most High, Creator of heaven and earth” (Gen. 14:22), and that this G‑d delivered the three patriarchs from those seeking to harm them.  However the reality of life for the Israelites in Egypt was not one that encouraged faith in Him.  The fact that He created heaven and earth was of no use to them in their time of bondage and hardship, which had persisted for over eighty years.

As for stories of past deliverance, they were likely to ask, as Gideon had, “If the Lord is with us, why has all this befallen us?  Where are all His wondrous deeds about which our fathers told us?” (Judges 6:13).  Likewise, it was clear to them from the stories of the patriarchs that Egypt was not under the G‑d of their fathers but rather had a law unto itself, for the Nile had been the source of abundance and deliverance for the patriarchs in time of famine.  Was this not proof that the gods of Egypt were true gods?

Therefore we find that the Israelites did not cry out to the G‑d of their fathers in their time of trouble:  “The Israelites were groaning under the bondage and cried out” (Ex. 2:23)—they groaned and cried out, but their cries and groans were not specifically directed; only by chance, as it were, did they reach the right spot:  “and their cry for help from the bondage rose up to G‑d” (ibid.).

For this very reason the process of severing the Israelites from the beliefs of their enslaving nation begins with the plague on the water of the Nile and the fish living there, which provided the primary source of livelihood and economic strength in the land of Egypt.  The people saw that the gods of Egypt had failed to prevent the plague, even though it had been announced in advance.  Next came several plagues that vexed the Egyptians and were implemented by means of living creatures—frogs, lice, and mixed beasts—and lastly the livestock of the Egyptians was smitten by plague.

The focus on animals in these four plagues is not incidental, for one of the salient characteristics of Egyptian faith is identification of many of their deities with animals.  Therefore, in reforming the Israelite’s spiritual identity, the people had to rid themselves of their admiration for the gods of Egypt; hence these gods had to be exposed as unable to protect those who served them, on one hand, while being turned into a tool of wrath in the hands of the Lord, on the other.

This objective is exemplified by mockery of the frog, representing the Egyptian goddess Heket, thought to protect women in childbirth.  Great powers of fertility were ascribed to this goddess, also reflected in the hieroglyph sign—a tadpole or frog—denoting the number 100,000.  Therefore, frogs were made to multiply in such vast numbers that they made the lives of the Egyptians intolerable, so much so as to lead to Pharaoh’s partial submission, requesting that they be removed.  Another, ironic hint was immediately apparent to the Israelites, for they fulfilled the saying, “But the more they were oppressed, the more they increased and spread out” (Ex. 1:12).

The case with lice was different.  No Egyptian deity has the form of a louse, but it can be said that at this stage the G‑d of the Hebrews appeared in Egyptian eyes like a louse—a nuisance that one can live with and that does not require changing one’s pattern of life; therefore Pharaoh did not ask Moses to take away this plague.  The message to the Israelites, however, was quite different:  the Israelites had been made as lowly as dust, but up from the dust, like the lice, would arise a force not to be taken lightly.  This force would begin to physically torment the Egyptians, and even their magicians, symbol of the strength of the Egyptian faith, would have to admit, “This is the finger of G‑d” (Ex. 8:15).

Boils paralleled the plague of lice.  Its onset, too, came from something negligible—a handful of soot from the kiln—but its affliction of the human body was greater than that of more impressive plagues in terms of quantity, such as frogs, beasts, and plague.[7] As with the plague of lice, here too the impact of the plague on the magicians is stressed:  “The magicians were unable to confront Moses because of the inflammation, for the inflammation afflicted the magicians as well as all the other Egyptians” (Ex. 9:11).  The helplessness of the magicians proved to the Israelites the hollowness of their faith.

The plagues were delivered in a specific sequence in order to achieve educational objectives.  At the beginning of each series of three plagues the Lord defined the message He wished to convey to the Egyptians and the Israelites, as hinted at by the shorthand of Rabbi Judah:  DeTzaKh, `ADaSH, Be-AHaV.[8] As a general rule, the plagues showed that the G‑d of their forefathers was indeed “G‑d Most High, Creator of heaven and earth”—higher than all the forces of nature in heaven and on earth, and delivering the descendants of the patriarchs from every affliction He visited on the Egyptians, in defiance of all the laws of nature.

Therefore, after nine plagues, the Israelites were prepared to come out of spiritual bondage.  Their life as independent beings began to find expression in rebelling against Egyptian customs:  they prepared to make the Pascal offering, they marked their bodies with the sign of circumcision, and they got ready, shoes and walking stick in hand, to embark on a new road.  However, it was only after the plague of the firstborns and the splitting of the Red Sea, when they saw with their very own eyes how the Egyptians and their army amounted to nothing—it was only then that their spiritual liberation from Egypt was completed; then it was said of the Israelites, “they had faith in the Lord and His servant Moses” (Ex. 14:31).

Translated by Rachel Rowen

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