And Hashem will remove from you all sickness. And all the terrible afflictions experienced by the Egyptians – that you knew – He will not place upon you. And He will direct them against your enemies. (Devarim 7:15)
In Parshat Ekev, Moshe continues his final address to Bnai Yisrael. He describes the rewards the people will experience if they are scrupulous in their observance of the mitzvot. Bnai Yisrael will be blessed among the nations. The nation will grow – its people will become numerous. The Land of Israel will be fertile and blessed with abundance. Moshe even assures the people that their animals will not be barren or sterile. Then, Moshe adds the above pasuk. Hashem will remove all sicknesses. Bnai Yisrael will not experience any of the afflictions visited upon the Egyptians. Instead, Bnai Yisrael’s enemies will suffer these afflictions.
Our passage is difficult to understand. Moshe’s reference to “the terrible afflictions experienced by the Egyptians” is apparently an allusion to the plagues that Hashem brought upon the Egyptians. Moshe is telling Bnai Yisrael that Hashem will not punish them with these plagues. Instead, He will bring these plagues upon their enemies. There are two problems with this statement.
First, Moshe is outlining the reward for observing the commandments. He is saying that one of the rewards is that Bnai Yisrael will not experience the terrible plagues brought upon the Egyptians. It is difficult to regard such an assurance as a reward. These plagues were punishments! A righteous nation should expect to be exempt from terrible punishment!
Second, Moshe has already told the nation that their adherence to the Torah will be rewarded with abundance and wealth. It seems obvious that if Hashem will reward the nation, He will not nullify the effect of these blessings by allowing terrible afflictions to strike the nation! Assurance of the nation’s protection from such calamity seems superfluous.
The commentaries offer a number of answers to these questions. Rabbaynu Ovadia Sforno suggests that the problem is partially based upon a misunderstanding of the pasuk. We have assumed that the afflictions to which the passage refers are the ten plagues. Sforno suggests that this is a misinterpretation. He explains that the afflictions to which the pasuk refers are epidemic diseases that struck the Egyptians. When did the Egyptians experience these diseases? Sforno explains that at the Reed Sea the Egyptians who pursued Bnai Yisrael into the sea drowned as the waters collapsed upon them. Others died from terrible diseases with which Hashem afflicted them.
Based on this reinterpretation of afflictions to which our pasuk refers, Sforno answers our questions. Sforno observes that the passage is not merely assuring Bnai Yisrael that they will not experience these diseases. Viewed in its entirety, the passage is an assurance that the afflictions – the diseases – which Hashem will bring upon their enemies will not harm Bnai Yisrael. In other words, terrible, highly contagious diseases will be brought upon Bnai Yisrael’s enemies. Bnai Yisrael will be close by, but the epidemic will not affect Bnai Yisrael. They will be miraculously protected.
Geshonides offers a completely different explanation of our pasuk. He contends that the passage can only be understood in the context of the popular religious beliefs of the time. The idolatrous cultures of that time had many beliefs that now seem strange to us. Modern humanity may dismiss their ideas as primitive and childish. However, Moshe addressed Bnai Yisrael at a time in which the world was dominated by these ideas. He introduced a new perspective. He demanded that Bnai Yisrael abandon familiar, prevalent religious doctrines. We must understand his statements in this context.
Geshonides explains that the idolaters struggled with the existence of good and evil. How can a single deity preside over these two opposite forces – good and evil? Some idolaters responded that, in fact, there is no conflict because there are two deities. One deity rules over good, and the other has power over evil. The Torah rejected this response. The Torah introduced the concept of a single omnipotent deity with power and dominion over every element of the universe. Hashem only does good. However, we may not always appreciate the goodness of His acts.
What is the connection between this theological debate and Moshe’s address? Gershonides explains that these blessings are more than a reward for observance of the Torah. These blessings are also evidence of Hashem’s omnipotence. Through these blessings, Hashem would demonstrate His dominion over ever aspect of the universe. We can now understand Gershonides’ answer to our questions. Moshe could not merely assure Bnai Yisrael that their obedience to the Torah would be rewarded with blessings of abundance. This might imply that the idolaters were correct - Hashem has the power to bestow good, but He does not have control over evil. Moshe added that Hashem will protect you from all evil. Not only does He control good; He also has complete control over evil. Moshe further emphasized this point by reminding Bnai Yisrael of the evidence they observed at the time of redemption. Hashem struck the Egyptians with terrible plagues. This demonstrates his dominion over evil.
Hashem, your L-rd, is the ultimate Supreme Being and the highest possible Authority. He is the great, mighty, and awesome G-d, who does not give special consideration or take bribes. (Devarim 10:17)
Moshe describes Hashem as great, mighty, and awesome. This phase was incorporated by the Sages into the opening benediction of the Amidah prayer. Although, through regularly reciting the Amidah, we are accustomed to referring to Hashem as “great, mighty, and awesome” we may not understand the specific meaning of these three terms and each one’s unique message.
In his commentary on this passage, Rabbaynu Ovaida Sforno explains the meaning of each of these terms. The term “great” describes something as being different from, and superior to other entities or powers. Sforno explains that this refers to Hashem’s unique existence. Every other thing requires a cause – external to itself – in order to exist. Even a simple rock only exists as a consequence of a complicated series of causes the can be traced back ultimately to the beginnings of the universe. The same dependence upon an external cause applies to every element in the universe. Hashem’s existence is different from all other elements of the universe. His existence is not dependent upon any external entity or force. He is the cause of His own existence or – more properly – it is His nature to exist.
The term “mighty” describes the power to influence others. In reference to Hashem this describes His influence over all creation. The universe came into existence as a consequence of His will. He created it. But not only is the universe’s initial creation an expression of the Divine will but its continued existence is sustained by His will. As explained above, it is not the nature of a created thing to exist. It requires a cause to come into existence and its existence must be sustained through an external cause. The rock discussed in the previous example came into existence through a series of causes. We imagine that it is sustained by the principles and laws that govern the behavior of atomic and sub-atomic particles. But these principles and laws are also creations. What sustains these laws and principles? Ultimately, their sustained existence is an expression of Hashem’s will.
The term “awesome” describes the manner in which something or someone is perceived. Specifically, it refers to the feeling of awe inspired in the observer. This is a reference to Hashem’s relationship with humankind. He rewards, punishes and exercises providence. This relationship results in our fear of Hashem.
In summary, the first term “great” refers to the unique nature of Hashem’s existence. The next term – “mighty” describes His relationship with the universe. The final term – “awesome” – describes our response or cognizance of these first two terms. When we encounter Hashem as a unique existence, who exercises complete dominion over all other aspects of the universe we are overcome with a sense of awe.