Promise of Redemption
Israelites don’t listen because their spirits were crushed by cruel bondage
Eighty year old Moshe resists God’s command to speak to Pharaoh pleading that his lack of self-confidence (speech impediment) makes him ineffective
His 83 year- old brother Aharon is sent along to do the talking
Genealogy of Moshe and Aharon
Aharon turns a staff into a crocodile for Pharaoh, who remains unimpressed, because his Egyptian wizards, magicians and sorcerers are able to create the illusion of converting staffs into snakes (which are then swallowed by the crocodile
The first seven plagues (each believed to have lasted a week):
Water turns into blood
Invasion of frogs
Infestation of lice(gnats, fleas) causing severe itching
Swarms of harmful creatures (mixture of beetles or of wild animals)
Epidemic of fatal animal disease
Hail of ice and fire mixture
The “Names” of God
The Parsha opens with God identifying Himself to Moshe as “I Am Y-H-V-H” and informing him that “I revealed Myself to Avraham, Yitzchak and Yaakov as El Shaddai, and did not allow them to know Me by my name Y-H-V-H”. God introduced his communication to Avraham and Yaakov with the identifying statement “I am El Shaddai”.
The Tetragrammaton Name (which may not be pronounced) —yud and hay and vav and hay—denotes God’s utter transcendence (Kuzari) and His creative forces that do and will continue to constantly sustain the universe (Aryeh Kaplan).The name was known to the Patriarchs, but not its inner significance including God as a fulfiller of His promises. The Patriarchs were given assurances that a new nation would be born from them, but they did not live to see the fulfillment of these promises.
The nature of Man’s relationship with God changed over time. The Patriarchs’ faith was pure and unquestioning. They never asked for nor had any need for public miracles to prove God. But for the skeptical Israelites in Egypt it was essential to define and to demonstrate God’s Essence--His Existence, His Involvement and His Omnipotence.
The Lubavitcher Rebbe explains that one needs God’s assistance to become truly and totally dedicated to Him “…it is only through the revelation of Y-H-V-H—a name which represents God as He transcends all limits—is it possible for a person to become truly committed to God, beyond the limits of his own personal agenda.”
The Purpose of the Plagues
As the confrontation between God and Pharaoh begins in earnest, there is the need for this series of devastating events to…
• Punish the Egyptian pantheon
• Demonstrate God’s infinite power and constant presence
• Educate both the Israelites and the Egyptians about God’s Control of Nature
Abraham Shalom Yahudah (1877-1951), a Biblical scholar who studied the language of the Torah and its relation to Egyptian society (cited by Rabbi B.S. Jacobson) provides archaeological evidence to support the thesis that the plagues were a “provocative punishment of the Egyptian pantheon”.
The Nile was the foundation of the Egyptian society (its agricultural economy was dependent upon irrigation) and, as such, was venerated as a major deity. Moreover, Pharaoh viewed himself as a deity (“the son of god, his own bones and flesh”).Turning the Nile into blood not only crippled the economy, but also demonstrated the failure of the Egyptian deity in the presence of God, the Creator and Master of the universe.
Frogs were considered to have life-giving powers in Egyptian mythology. The image of woman with a frog head represented the fertility goddess whose function it was to protect midwives. Pharaoh had ordered the midwives to kill Israelite male babies. The frog/Egyptian deity that was a symbol of fertility and blessing turns into a widespread, dreadful affliction emerging from the Nile. God turns loose the “life-giving” frogs to become a destructive force.
Unlike the first two plagues, Pharaoh’s magicians were unable to reproduce plague number three(lice), exclaiming to Pharaoh that “This is the finger of God”. This idiomatic expression connotes total helplessness in the face of an invisible dreaded enemy and is derived from a myth in which a particular Egyptian deity thwarted the plans of an enemy by dressing up as a hog, sneaking up on the enemy and scratching out one of his eyes with his finger without the victim realizing what happened. Vermin were prevalent in Egypt but Priests shaved their entire bodies to protect against contamination. Now, however, all precautions failed and these religious leaders were reduced to the same status as commoners. They were appalled by their inability to remain protected and realized that their so-called special status would not save them from the dreaded plagues.They were filled with dread as they suffered through the subsequent plagues like everyone else.
In addition to punishing Pharaoh and his people for their cruelty to the Israelites, the plagues fulfilled the Divine promise that “…against all of the gods of Egypt I will execute judgments.”
Abravanel thinks that the plagues served to undermine the fundamental religious beliefs of the Egyptians…
The first group of three plagues was designed to establish God as the Prime Cause and Creator of the Universe
The second set was to demonstrate His involvement in worldly events and His role as Protector of Israel
The third set was to show His Omnipotence and the inability of any force to succeed against Him.
Structure of the Ten Plagues
Rabbi Günter Plaut sees the plagues as “a rising tide designed both to punish and to instruct” in a pattern of increasing intensity. It …
Starts with inconvenience and nuisance (scarce drinking water and the stench of dead fish when the Nile turned to blood; frogs running wild)
Ratchets up to bodily discomfort and attacks on person and property
Culminates in the most horrible…
• Terror of darkness (solitary confinement)
• Death of the firstborn
Rabbi Plaut further notes that the ten plagues can be divided into five groups of two each:
Nile River-related (blood and frogs)
Vermin and insects
Pestilence and boils (each similar to one another and aimed at attacks on person)
Hail and locust (both directed at crops)
Darkness and death
More familiar to us is the division in the Midrash that is cited in the Haggadah: “Rabbi Yehudah would list the initials of the plague in acrostic abbreviation:
The tenth plague is in a class by itself; it is the climactic event that leads to Israel’s liberation. The punishment of the firstborn is the Meeda C’neged Meeda payback for the cruel treatment of the Israelites, God’s “firstborn” (“Israel is my son; my firstborn…let my son go so that he may serve me…I will slay thy son, thy firstborn”).
The plagues have a framework. Moshe announced plagues number one, four and seven (the first of each grouping) to Pharaoh in the morning on the banks of the Nile River. (Pharaoh exalted himself as master of the Nile Deity. Some suggest he was there to inspect the Nile River to determine its level and the quality of the water, since the Nile was so critical to Egypt’s agricultural economy.)The first two plagues in each unit came with a warning, unlike the third one which did not.
Did Pharaoh Have Free Choice?
When God selected Moshe and Aharon to demand of Pharaoh that he free the Israelites, He told them “I will harden (akshe) Pharaoh’s heart [i.e., make him obstinate], that I may multiply My signs and marvels in the land of Egypt”. This Divine assertion may be the Torah’s way of telling us that at some point in the future-- after his multiple refusals to free the Israelites, despite the enormous pain that will have been inflicted on him-- Pharaoh’s harshness will have been so deeply ingrained that he will be emotionally unable to change his behavior. This real life personality dynamic is euphemistically communicated by the phrase “I [God] will harden his heart” because personality changes derive from God and how He created our psychological makeup.
After each of the first five plagues, Pharaoh elects to remain resolute in his refusal to free the Israelites. It is only starting with plague six that the text states that it was God who “hardened Pharaoh’s heart”. The more one behaves improperly, the greater concentration of Evil builds within to a point where one no longer has the ability to change for the better (i.e., the choice of how to act no longer exists). Rambam maintains that free will and t’shuva can be taken from those whose sins are grave enough. This was Pharaoh’s situation that he brought upon himself by his own behavior. [Note: Did Hitler have the ability to repent?]
Sforno (Italy, 1475–1550) presents an alternative view, arguing that ironically the hardening of the heart is the only means to ensure and enhance free will: Had Pharaoh's heart not been hardened, he would have let the Israelites go, but only because he was forced to because he could not bear the suffering of the plagues. So God gave him the inner strength and courage to enable him to endure the plagues and to not be coerced into letting the Israelites go. God wanted Pharaoh to choose, of his own free will, to sincerely repent; to submit to the Divine Will and to acknowledge His Greatness and Goodness.
Building on this concept, Rabbi David Fohrman focuses our attention on the various Hebrew words that are employed in the text to communicate Pharaoh’s resistance or change of mind. The root word kavayd means hard/heavy and communicates heavy-with-stubbornness (negative connotation).It appears in the plague narrative ten times—five referring to the plagues themselves and five describing Pharaoh’s heart. It is never described as an emotion directed by God.
The root word chazak means strong/strength and communicates courage (positive). During the first five plagues Pharaoh had enough internal fortitude and strength to, on his own, defy God and His wishes that the Israelites be set free to worship Him in the wilderness. So the Torah states that he, Pharaoh, “hardened his heart” (i.e., withstood God on his own). But once his confidence faltered under the cumulative hardship of the plagues the Torah states that it was God who hardened Pharaoh’s heart i.e., gave him the additional courage to continue in his defiance of God even as his resistance weakened.
The plagues had as one of their purposes to teach Pharaoh that seemingly independent forces of Nature were controlled by God. The goal was for Pharaoh to choose, not react to external stimuli. He needed to conclude on his own (and not because he was being beaten into submission) that God is the Almighty Who Controls Nature. Finally, after the seventh plague of hail when the fire deity was encapsulated within ice deity (an alliance between polar opposites that could only be created by a Supreme God) Pharaoh realizes and then admits that “I am guilty this time. God is in the right and I and my people are in the wrong”.
But once the hail ceases Pharaoh reverts to his stubbornness and again musters the courage to continue to resist God.