Following are some of the ideas, insights and interpretations that emerge from our weekly Chumash learning group at the Young Israel of Oceanside, Long Island. We cite sources when possible. Some of our interpretations derive from ideas we may have seen elsewhere, possibly without attribution. Or we may simply have forgotten the source. For this we apologize. We invite your comments, observations and participation.
Continuing dialogue between G-d and Moshe…Moshe and his brother Aharon are appointed as redeemers…genealogy of Moshe and Aharon… G-d predicts that Pharaoh will refuse Moshe’s demands to send the children of Israel out of Egypt to worship Him in the desert…Moshe and Aharon are 80 and 83 years old, respectively, when they approach Pharaoh…Aharon turns a staff into a snake for Pharaoh, who remains unimpressed…The first seven plagues (each lasting a week?): the Nile turns into blood; infestation of frogs; infestation of vermin; infestation of insects/beetles (or wild animals, according to some); a cattle-killing disease epidemic; skin boils; hail that kills humans and animals.
Structure of the Ten Plagues
Each plague increases in intensity, starting with the inconvenience and nuisance of the smelly dead fish when the Nile turned to blood; ratcheting up to bodily discomfort and attacks on person and property; and culminating in the most horrible discomfort of the final two plagues : terror of darkness (solitary confinement) and then death of the firstborn.
Rabbi Günter Plaut notes that the ten plagues can be divided into five groups of two. The first two deal with the Nile (blood and frogs); then vermin and insects followed by pestilence and boils (each similar to one another and aimed at attacks on person); hail and locust (both directed at crops); and then the grouping of darkness and death.
More familiar to us is the tripartite division in the Midrash Sifray on Sefer Devarim that is cited in the Haggadah: “Rabbi Yehudah would list the initials of the plague in acrostic abbreviation: Detasch (Dam; TZvardaia, Kinim); Adash (Arov; Dever; SHechin); and Be’achav (Barad, Arbe, Chosech, macas Bicoros).” But, as Rabbi B.S. Jacobson notes, the tenth plague is in a class by itself; it is the climactic event that lead to Israel’s liberation. The punishment of the firstborn is the Meda C’neged Meda payback for the cruel treatment of the Israelites, God’s “firstborn”, as Moshe announced at his first audience with Pharaoh before any plague is mentioned: “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 announces 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, whereas the third one took effect without warning.
The Purpose of the Plagues
As the confrontation between God and Pharaoh begins in earnest there is the need for a series of devastating events to punish the Egyptian pantheon; to demonstrate God’s infinite power and constant presence; and to teach the Israelites.
Although there appears to be no explicit mention of this execution of judgment, A.S. Yahudah (cited by Rabbi Jacobson) provides archaeological evidence to support the thesis that the plagues were in fact a “provocative punishment of the Egyptian pantheon”. (Abraham Shalom Yahuda (1877-1951) was a Biblical scholar who studied the language of the Torah and its relation to Egyptian society.)
The Nile was the foundation of the Egyptian economy (in that the agricultural society was dependent upon irrigation from the Nile) 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 Hashem, the Creator and Master of the entire universe.
The fertility goddess to protect midwives (whose image is of a woman with a frog head) is the object of the second plague. Pharaoh had ordered the midwives to kill Hebrew male babies. The frog/Egyptian deity that was a symbol of fertility and blessing turns into a widespread, dreadful affliction emerging from the Nile. Also, in Egyptian mythology frogs were considered to have life-giving powers. Now G-d has turned them loose to become a destructive force.
Unlike during the first two plagues, Pharaoh’s magicians were unable to reproduce plague number three, vermin, exclaiming to Pharaoh that “This is the finger of G-d”. 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. With the Egyptian deities unable to protect them, 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.”
Abrabanel opines that the plagues served to undermine the fundamental religious beliefs of the Egyptians. The first group of plagues was designed to establish G-d 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.
Did Pharaoh have free choice to act?
When G-d selects Moshe and Aharon to demand of Pharaoh that he free the Israelites, He tells them “I will harden (akshe) Pharaoh’s heart, that I may multiply My signs and marvels in the land of Egypt”. I think that this may be the Torah’s way of predicting for 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 and so dramatically influenced his persona that he will be emotionally unable to change his behavior. This real life personality dynamic is euphemistically communicated by the phrase “I (G-d) will harden his heart” because personality changes derive from G-d 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 after plague six that “G-d hardened Pharaoh’s heart.” We are taught that S’char avera, avera”(“the reward for a transgression is another transgression”).This means to me that as one behaves improperly, a momentum of negativity 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). This was Pharaoh’s situation.
The lesson for us is to focus on our behavior since ours is a religion of deed, not creed. “S’char mitzvah, mitzvah” (“the reward for a mitzvah is another mitzvah”) means to me that as one behaves properly, a momentum of goodness builds within to a point where one no longer has the ability to act inappropriately (i.e., the choice of how to act no longer exists). It is up to each of us to determine our behavior.