Passover and the 10 Plagues

Rabbi Moshe Ben-Chaim


As is true regarding all God’s acts, the 10 Plagues contained great wisdom and direction for man. As is true regarding all Torah sections, God provides hints to His underlying lessons and clues to His brilliance. In the Biblical verses recording the 10 Plagues, which convey God’s words to Moses, Moses’ words to Pharaoh, and Pharaoh’s reactions, we discover such messages.

Dam, Tzefardaya: Blood & Frogs

God wished the plagues to unveil Egypt’s idolatrous beliefs as fallacies and recognize Him alone as the Creator. The first plague—Dam—intended to refute the Nile’s divine status. How can a god be subjected to other forces converting it into blood?

Rabbi Reuven Mann wrote: “Pharaoh went to his house and did not give credence even to this” (Exod. 7:23). What do I care where he went after blood took place? Pharaoh took comfort and security in his house and this enabled him to deny reality. And that is why in the next plague, Tzefardaya, Torah makes the point that the frogs invaded his very living quarters to remove that basis of denial.

And I believe Exodus 8:8 proves Rabbi Mann’s point, as this verse refers to frogs as a plague that God “gave to Pharaoh,” and not more inclusively, that He “gave to Egypt.”

Lessons: The Nile was no god; one cannot escape God’s lessons.

Kinnim: Lice

When the astrologers could not reproduce the plague of lice, they hid their weakness behind the excuse “it is the finger of God” (Exod. 8:15).  God records their feeble attempt at duplicating lice precisely to disarm their claims to astrological power and magic. However, until Shechin, the astrologers retained their positions, for they attributed only this plague of Kinnim to God, but not Dam and Tzefardaya. A purpose in exposing the astrologers was that although their duplication of the previous two miracles were mere sleight of hand, some ignorant onlookers might attribute powers to them. Saadia Gaon explains that the astrologers used dyes to mimic blood and used chemicals to cause the frogs to leap from the chemically polluted waters. Saadia Gaon remarks that Egypt’s magic was sleight of hand, and nothing more (The Book of Beliefs & Opinions, pg. 153).

Lesson: Powers do not exist outside God.

Arove: Mix of Wild Animals

“And I will distinguish on the day the land of Goshen that My people stand [dwell] upon, restricting Arove from [entering] there, that you may know the I am God in the midst of the land” (Exod. 8:18).

Egypt believed in general powers with their many gods: Ptah (god of creation), Ra (god of sun/wind), Matt (god of stars/seasons), Horus (god of the sky), Osiris and Anubis (gods of death), etc. God taught the profound lesson that His dominion extends to Earth: “in the midst of the land.” A distinction between lands exhibited God’s awareness of various peoples. This was a first step in educating Pharaoh on God’s “specific” providence: a view different from the Egyptian view of “general” powers. Secondly, animal attacks were alien to the idolatrous view (invented from human insecurity) that gods provide only good. An extension of this second idea was that animal attacks forced the Egyptians to question animal deification, as animals no longer “favored” them as they had believed. This is alluded to as the word “sacrifice” is repeated five times in this plague, indicating Egypt’s reduced veneration of animals, to the extent that Pharaoh approved animal sacrifice.

Lesson: God’s reign extends to the Earth.

Dever: Animal Deaths

“Pharaoh sent [messengers] and behold, not one of Israel’s cattle died…” (Exod. 9:7).

Dever was a second step displaying God’s specific providence: reward and punishment of individuals expressed through only the sinners’ loss of property. With this verse, God isolates Pharaoh’s intrigue that a God will distinguish between individuals, punishing some and sparing others. From Pharaoh’s response of intrigue, it appears that Egypt did not view their gods as relating to individuals, but as relating to Egypt on the whole.

Lesson: God relates to individuals; He knows man’s thoughts; man is rewarded and is punished based on his relationship to the Creator.

Shechin: Boils

“And the astrologers could not stand before Moses because of the boils; for the boils were on the astrologers and all of Egypt.” (Exod. 9:11)

How do boils—a malady of the skin, not bones or muscles—affect posture? Also, of what relevance are the boils on “all of Egypt?”  Why mention that, “all Egyptians” had boils, if the message concerns only the astrologers’ inability to stand? Furthermore, of what significance is the astrologers’ inability to stand before Moses, as opposed to standing before Pharaoh or others? And if they truly could not stand, let them sit! But “standing before” someone has another meaning...

The primary lesson is that we use the verse as the starting point, and let it teach us. We must not to start with our own unchecked thoughts and then look for some supporting verse. The posture of lying mystics adds no great wisdom to God's Torah. The real lesson must address the basic theme of the 10 Plagues, as the plague of boils was delivered together with the other nine.

Standing also means to “present one’s self”…to appear before others. The astrologers attempted to reproduce the plagues, only to expose their inabilities. When they could not reproduce the plague of lice, they hid their weakness behind the lying claim, “…it is the finger of God (Exod. 8:15).” It is significant that God records their feeble attempts. So significant, that it appears from the very few words concerning the plague of boils, that the objective of this plague was precisely to disarm their claims of superiority through astrology and magic. Torah verses are selective in their messages, not merely recounting every single historical occurrence. Our verse means to teach that boils purposefully targeted the astrologers. 

“And the astrologers could not stand before Moses because of the boils; for the boils were on the astrologers and all of Egypt”  refers not to posture, but to their ability to sustain their dignity...they could not “appear” before Moses who outperformed them. They were ashamed. But why were they any more ashamed during the plague of boils? The answer is the second part of the verse: “…for the boils were on the astrologers and all of Egypt.”  A comparison is made: both, the astrologers and the Egyptians possessed boils. What about this comparison prevented the astrologers from appearing before Moses? Why was their “equal” status to all other Egyptians an embarrassment to them?  We see the answer quite readily. It was the astrologers’ very equality to all other Egyptians that discounted their claims of possessing powers. They were no better. They could not defend themselves from boils. What type of powerful astrologer allows painful blisters to afflict him? It is the liar who allows this to happen, since in fact, he has no more defense from boils than any other Egyptian. Worse than Kinnim, Shechin embarrassed the astrologers personally, explaining why they could not “appear” before Moses. 

From this plague and further we never hear from the astrologers again. God’s plan worked. Additionally, not standing before Moses thereby raised Moses’ status. 

Lessons: Astrologers are liars; political positions do not validate people; Moses was God’s true emissary.

Barad: Hail

“For this time I will send all My plagues upon your heart, and your courtiers, and your people, in order that you may know that there is none like Me in all the world” (Exod. 9:14). 

Egypt feared the heavens (Rabbi Israel Chait) explaining their invention of Horus, the sky god. With Hail, God intended to show His dominion over another domain: the heavens. We see Egypt’s fear of the heavens, for once the hail commences, Pharaoh said to Moses, “Plead with the Lord that there may be an end of God’s voices and hail. I will let you go; you need stay no longer” (Exod. 9:28). Pharaoh’s deification of the heavens is seen in his mention of God’s “voices,” Pharaoh personified thunder, as if some angry being is behind it, as stated earlier, “For this time I will send all My plagues upon your heart.” More than Dever, Barad displayed a “will” that caused Pharaoh to feel victimized. 

This lesson is extended to Moses’ rebuke: “Now the flax and barley were ruined, for the barley was in the ear and the flax was in bud [they were stiff and snapped under Hail’s force], but the wheat and the emmer were not hurt, for they ripen late [they were soft and bent]” (Exod. 9:31:32).  Moses was not teaching agriculture to Pharaoh. He was showing how this plague was designed around Pharaoh’s personality, to teach that his obstinance would cause him to be broken like stiff plants, but that he could survive if he “bent” to God’s will as did the soft, late-ripening crops. Here, Moses tells Pharaoh that God has singled him out, and knows him.

Lessons: The lofty heavens too are nothing more than another creation and not to be deified; God includes lessons in His acts.

Arbeh: Locusts

“They shall devour the surviving remnant that was left to you after the hail” (Exod. 10:5).  “Then the Lord said to Moses, “Hold out your arm over the land of Egypt for the locusts, that they may come upon the land of Egypt and eat up all the grasses in the land, whatever the hail has left” (Exod. 10:12).

Torah repeats the intent of Arbeh: to finish Barad’s job. God teaches that He controls weather and animal life. Polytheism is false. For how can weather and animal life target the same objective—destruction of crops—were there not a Being orchestrating an identical purpose from both realms? 

Lesson: A single God controls all realms of the universe; polytheism is false.

Choshech: Darkness

“People could not see one another” (Exod. 10:23).  

Solitary confinement is the worst punishment, as man’s greatest need is to be social. When isolated from others, the social need is so powerful that man conjures images of people (shadim) to offer him company. [Rashi says that on the Ark there were shadim, as Noah too was isolated.]  The gemara (Gittin 66a, Tosfos) does not say these shadim are dangerous, for they are phantoms of the mind, and not real. The gemara merely says not to greet them as this would raise their status from imaginary to real, and Torah rejects all lies. 

There is a purpose in Choshech which emanates from isolation. The Egyptians’ loss of social intercourse combined with darkness prevented shadim (even phantoms require a visual basis) thereby forcing their yearning for dialogue to be converted into confronting God, the source of this darkness. Understanding this plague was God’s work, the Egyptians were offered the opportunity to face God: a force that controls the universe: “For it is not My desire that the wicked shall die—declares the Lord God, [rather] repent, therefore, and live!” (Ezek. 18:32).

Lesson: God knows the human mind and how to make it confront truth.

Bechoros: Firstborn Deaths

As Rabbi Chait taught, this plague intended to terminate the transmission of Egyptian culture, which was passed on by the first borns. 

In summary, God exposed Egypt’s gods and leaders as phony. He exhibited His control over all corners of the universe. Polytheism is false. God taught Egypt His specific knowledge of individual man and that He rewards and punishes.