The purpose of the Ten Plagues was not to destroy Egypt, but to offer the primary lesson to that idolatrous culture: “The God of creation and of Abraham is the only God…and Egyptian deities are imaginations.” God desires the good for all mankind.
Although God knew that Pharaoh would remain obstinate, God nonetheless offers man the opportunity to express free will, as this forms part of God’s justice. Similarly, God warned Cain not to kill Abel, even though He knew the outcome. Such cases are numerous. Now, to understand the Ten Plagues, means to understand the lessons of each plague, not to simply be startled at the phenomena.
Ibn Ezra quotes Rabbi Judah HaLevi (Exod. 8:28) “The first two plagues were in water: the first turned water into blood, and the second caused frogs to ascend from the water. And in the earth were two plagues: the lice, and the mixture of beasts, as it is written, “let the earth bring forth living beasts”. And [the next] two plagues were in the air: for the death of the beasts was only due to cold or heat, some atmospheric change, and they all died in a single moment. And the second [in air] was the boils. The seventh plague [hail] was through a mixture of storms and fire. Locusts were brought from afar via wind. Darkness was delivered by the removal of light. And the tenth, the firstborn deaths was through the descending of destructive forces.”
Rabbi Judah HaLevi teaches that God’s intent was to display mastery over all “elements”. God wished to teach Egypt that their notion of animal deities controlling natural elements was false…He alone controls all elements. Thus, laws relegated to natural properties of water, earth, air, fire, wind, and light were altered at precise moments. This unveiled the fallacy of Egyptian deities to defend the Egyptians, and validated God. And the final plague displayed God’s control over laws above nature. For no natural law can selectively kill based on the order of one’s birth. Birth order is an “event”, and nature cannot attack an event. Nature can only relate to real, physical “substances or properties”. So if all humans share a common substance or biological property, a “natural” plague would affect all people, not just firstborns. But as firstborns alone were attacked, that final plague proved that God controls more than just nature. It targeted the lesson that man cannot know God, and that the human association of certain animals with certain natural laws is baseless. Egypt should have said, “If I cannot understand how the firstborns alone died, then I have no idea of how the world operates, and my selected deities are imagined, and not real.”
We have another statement by Rabbi Judah in our Haggadahs, “Rabbi Judah once gave in them [the Plagues] signs: D’tzach, Adash B’Achav”…an acronym for the Hebrew terms for each plague. The question is, is this simply a pneumonic device to recall all Ten Plagues, or is there a greater meaning to this grouping?
A Rabbi once taught that there is in fact a greater intended insight. Rabbi Judah grouped the Ten Plagues into three sections. The first group of blood, frogs and lice transpired “in the earth”: either in the water or the land. The second group transpired “on the earth”, referring to the wild beast mixture, livestock deaths, and boils. And the final plagues transpired in the “heavens”: hail, locusts, darkness and firstborns. Rabbi Judah’s lesson here is that God controls all realms of existence: the earth, the heavens, and all in between (“on” earth is not “in” earth, but in-between earth and heaven). We now have two beautiful lessons: God controls all “substances”, and God controls all “regions”.
However, these two lessons imply that the Ten Plagues were absolutes. Meaning, these specific Ten Plagues had to happen. I say this, since the two statements of both Rabbi Judahs seek to display God’s mastery over all substances, and all regions. But I wonder…perhaps these ten Plagues were not “mapped out” from the very outset…but each one was selected only once Pharaoh reacted to the previous plague. So as Pharaoh responded each time, God sent a plague that addressed his current attitude…while also addressing God’s mastery over all elements and regions.
One proof is seen from the very last verses in Parashas Va-era (Exod. 9:31,32). Moses describes to Pharaoh that the stiff plants broke under the crushing force of the hail, while the softer, flexible plants survived, since they bent. Moses is saying, in other words, “Pharaoh, if you would be flexible, you would survive and not be crushed as the stiff plants are crushed.” This means that the plague of hail was intended to parallel Pharaoh’s obstinacy. Had he not been obstinate, hail would be inappropriate. In connection with blood, we read that the Egyptians dug for water (Exod. 7:24) at the “surroundings” of the Nile, for they could not drink from the Nile. And in verse 27 God then plagues “all boundaries” with frogs. Does this mean that since the Egyptians sought to escape the limits of where water turned to blood, God responds with a plague that reaches “all boundaries”…rendering this next plague with an “inescapable” tone in response? I am not certain, but the plague of frogs does say that the frogs entered their ovens, kneading troughs, bedrooms, and beds. It is quite descript of the level of intrusion. And verse 8:2 says the frogs covered the land.
There is much to study in connection with the plagues. There are the plagues themselves, the precise words and interactions initiated by Moses, the responses of the Egyptians and Pharaoh after each plague, and there are God’s words of instruction, and to whom He instructs, i.e., Moses or Aaron. It is no wonder that the Sages stayed up all night on Pesach discussing the Exodus.
This year, may we all learn more of God’s wisdom by patiently examining His generous clues in our Torah.
On another note, we can fulfill this Pesach on an even greater level. Last week we discussed the truth that true friendship demands that we risk friendship. We must value the good for our friends and relatives, more than we value our friendship, which is truly selfish. But that’s the last resort. Of course, we try the most pleasant approach first, so we remain in good standing, should our friend or relative seek additional direction.
If we can invite a non-observant friend or relative to our Seder, we might be able to offer them a chance at true life. The opinion of the non-observant Jew is that life has a purpose without Torah or knowledge of God…or that all God wants is that “I am nice”. This lifestyle is usually based on ignorance of Torah, and a desired level of convenience. They also wish pleasures, sophistication, fame, luxuries, and other motives and lusts. We must be aware of this if we engage them in discourse. Otherwise, we may be addressing the wrong issues. Their choice is not based on study, and the realization that one is a created being, with a Creator, to Who he or she owes his and her life.
Each person has but one chance at living properly, with the possibility of an eternal, blissful existence. We must make our friends aware of this inevitable fact. They must face their mortality. God desired our Exodus, so that we should not lose our true lives like the idolatrous Egyptians. God did not desire evil for the Egyptians either, and offered them ten chances.
History is undeniable, so a safe starting point is the story of the Exodus. When a non-observant Jew accepts this history, he or she must also accept the rest of this history, culminating with Sinai. Torah was the reason God redeemed the Jews. Our Torah is so undeniable; other religions retain the entire Five Books. Ask those who are non-observant to refute that. They cannot.
Now, once God’s existence and His will are realized and accepted, a rational person might feel the tendency to inquire further. The Seder is an opportune event, when the conversations center on true historical phenomena, all pointing to a Creator, and His will for the Jews. You must impress upon the non-observant Jew that God did not redeem, but killed those Jews who did not follow His laws while yet in Egypt. Those who did not reject animal deification were not spared. Rashi teaches that four fifths of the Jews died in the plague of darkness.
We must be concerned for all other Jews, and we can do something to help them not forfeit their one chance at true existence. This matter must not be light in your eyes.
You can sympathize with the non-observant Jew, that it is initially a difficult change, to follow God’s will. But that is only because their energies are used to a set pattern…not because observance is painful. Breaking one’s pattern always meets with temporary frustration. But the enjoyment derived from study – the primary mission of the Jew – is something which grows, and offers greater happiness than the lives of those chasing fleeting fantasies, and temporal pleasures. You must convey that part of what you ask your friends, is to take a leap, since you cannot make them experience the joy of study and wisdom in a single conversation. And since they cannot imagine what you know to be true from your own experience, you will need to use your relationship as leverage…for their own good. You can assure them that you have nothing to gain, and that you know they will enjoy the religious lifestyle more than their current life…they must trust you. Just as they trust a doctor who has greater knowledge of what makes the body happiest, your friend or relative must admit that God knows best what will make man happiest, in all areas, and primarily regarding his philosophy in life.
Try at first to make this idea resonate: “You are a created being, and your Creator has a plan for you.” Then use the events of the Egyptian redemption, protection from the plagues, God’s sustained providence over us, and His gift of Torah to demonstrate that all along, God bestowed only good upon us. Describe Creation; that God set the world’s stage, and then created man last after all was ready for him. God created all else…and then created man, so man might have that with which to study. And God gave us intellect – which no other being possesses – for the primary purpose of its engagement, and joy in satisfying natural, human curiosity. God laid out the heavens, and all natural laws that are fascinating, since ‘fascination’ is something that pleasures man over all else.
Use this Pesach, if you can, to imbue at least one other person of what great plan truly awaits each and every one of us…and that we cannot find true happiness if we reject God’s plan for us. If we choose the latter, God abandons us here, and we forfeit our eternal lives in the world to come. What a tragedy.
But…something fantastic truly awaits one who at least takes a chance, and admits he or she does not have all the answers. God desires the good for all mankind, and He desires that we teach this good to others.