Sometimes the Torah is very specific and other times it is more generalized. For instance, in reference to the story of the Exodus, Torah states, “That you may tell in the hearing of your sons’ sons.” Yet in reference to the Seder, it is written, “And when your children [b’neichem] ask you, ‘What is the meaning of this service?’ You shall say, ‘It is the Korban Pesach [the Passover Sacrifice] to Hashem.’” While, admittedly, the Torah is patriarchal, it is not as one sided as one would fear or hope. With these two passages, we find the command to teach our children of the Passover and the Exodus to our children, both male and female. Therefore, with your kind permission, let’s retell portions of our liberation from Mitzrayim [Egypt].
According to R’Yochanan in Midrash Rabbah, the heretic uses our opening verse against us: “Hashem spoke to Moshe, ‘Come to Pharaoh, for I have made his heart and the hearts of his servants stubborn that I may put my signs in his midst.’” Exodus 10:1 provides an opening for one to state that Hashem provided Pharaoh no opportunity to repent. This proves, they suggest, that Hashem does not desire repentance [Teshuva] at all, and nor does He assist a person toward teshuvah. Therefore, R’Shimon ben Lakish suggests one should use Proverbs 3:34 to quell the voice of opposition. Indeed, this Proverb plays an important part in understanding the narrative of the plagues – and specifically Pharaoh’s reaction to the plagues. “If one is drawn to the scoffers, He will make him scoff.” In other words, if Hashem warns a person a first, second, or even a third time, and he doesn’t turn away from his ways, God locks his heart from repentance in order to exact retribution; in other words, God will make him scoff. Such is the case with the king of Egypt, for Pharaoh rejected the Eternal five times in spite of the plagues against his land.
There are several psychological reasons behind Pharaoh’s behavior. I posit that God has implanted a behavioral dynamo or a perpetual machine within the human psyche. This machine, once started and given momentum, begins to spin of its own accord, gaining speed and recklessness with each additional slice of energy put into its spin. What I mean is, when one performs a single act of impropriety, remorse kicks in, and this feeling is designed to cause teshuvah and a return to a way of life that is wholesome. However, if we have the fortitude to revisit the impropriety a second or a third time, foolishness overrides our common sense and the sin becomes permissible in our minds. Once invaded by this spirit of foolishness, impurity builds upon impurity and it soon overrides the person’s common sense and becomes a philosophy in of itself and it becomes truth in the persons’ mind. Hence, the behavioral perpetual machine.
In the story of our redemption, Hashem brought five plagues upon Egypt and five times Pharaoh hardened his heart. It wasn’t until the sixth plague that Torah tells us Hashem hardened Pharaoh’s heart. But look: after the seventh, Hashem gives Pharaoh another chance at repentance, and Pharaoh responds by strengthening his resolve against Hashem. Hashem answers with two more responses, “Hashem strengthened Pharaoh’s heart.” Therefore, the text tells us God gave Pharaoh what he wanted – dogged determination.
Recently, an acquaintance of mine posted several articles with the intent to remove the miraculous and to provide a logical and scientific explanation to events in the Bible. While he dealt with a lot of subjects, the one I found interesting was the explanations behind the plagues of Egypt. In the mind of this particular author, every plague of Egypt can be explained away except for the tenth: the Death of the Firstborn. It was either an algae bloom or an infestation of red mud. Frog, lice, locust infestations occur naturally every now and then. Dust storms can blanket the earth and blot out the sun for days at a time. Disease ravages the landscape as a general population control method. Nothing is miraculous to the plagues, it is argued. Heaven forbid you should say, “But God distinguished between the Egyptians and the Land of Goshen, because they will ask, “Haven’t you ever had it rain in the front yard but not in the back?” I guess Goshen is Egypt’s backyard. While this may seem like a logical argument, it ceases to be logical once you realize the blight on the animals was in Egypt only. Only in Egypt was the darkness so terrible that it’s presence was a weight on the heart. Only in Egypt were the locusts eating what the hail failed to destroy – because only in Egypt did the hail strike. Only in Egypt did the people have to dig in the dirt to find water. God made a distinction between his people and the people of Egypt. This is the power of the plagues!
This belief that the plagues were natural phenomena may have been part of Pharaoh’s problem as well. How can one God be accredited to so many domains? Each god of Egypt controlled one domain and had difficulty fully implementing his or her control because it may infringe upon the domain of another. Weren’t the plagues a concerted effort of multiple Egyptian gods? After all, Pharaoh was introduced to the God of the Hebrews, not to the God of Heavens Who made the sea and the dry land. Had he known that the God of the Hebrews was the One who made the sea and the dry land, would his response been a bit different? Probably not; he was trained from birth to think he was the offspring of the gods and as such, was in control of humanity.
The sixth plague is hail [Heb: barad] mixed with fire, the mixing of opposing domains – fire and water. In God’s introduction to the plague, he states:
God told Moses to get up early in the morning and confront Pharaoh, saying to him in the name of God, Lord of the Hebrews, ‘Let My people leave and serve Me. This time, I am prepared to send all My catastrophes against your very heart. [They will strike] your officials and your people, so that you will know that there is none like Me in all the world. I could have unleashed My power, killing you and your people with the epidemic [sent against the animals], and you would have been obliterated from the world. The only reason I let you survive was to show you My strength, so that My Name will be declared all over the world…’
Why did Hashem state, “This time I will send all my plagues?” What is the significance to the phrase, “My name shall be declared?” Why does this plague carry the longest preamble? Additionally, this is the plague where Pharaoh admits he has sinned. Why? To answer this, let’s take a step back and look at the landscape.
In a casual reading of the plague narrative, one can easily conclude that the purpose of the plagues was to coerce Pharaoh into releasing us from bondage, but we should not forget that Hashem told Moshe to say to Pharaoh, “Then you shall say to Pharaoh, ‘This is what Hashem says: “Israel is my firstborn son, and I say to you, Let my son go that he may serve me. If you refuse to let him go, behold, I will kill your firstborn son.”’” With this piece of foresight, one cannot conclude the plagues serve to bring about the redemption. It’s the killing of the Egyptian firstborn that brings about redemption. Frankly, it’s dishonest to think that Pharaoh’s tenacity ever had a fighting chance against the omnipotence of our God.
Instead, we should look to a closer reading of another text: Exodus 5:1-2. Afterward Moses and Aaron went and said to Pharaoh, “This is what Hashem, God of Israel says: ‘Let my people go, so they may hold a festival to me in the wilderness.’” But Pharaoh said, “Who is Hashem, that I should obey his voice and let Israel go? I do not know Hashem, and moreover, I will not let Israel go.” Moses demands Pharaoh let us go and Pharaoh defiantly says, “Who is the Eternal? I do not know the Eternal, therefore I will not let Israel go.”
When Pharaoh yells, “I do not know the Eternal,” that caught the ear of Heaven. Before even the first plague, Hashem states, “And Egypt will know that I am the Eternal!” So, sorry folks. This lets us know that our release is the penultimate purpose of the plagues. The ultimate purpose was to provide a bit of schooling for Pharaoh and his people. This is why the phrase, You will know… or They will know… that I am Hashem is repeated eleven times in the narrative, ending with the loss of his army in the Red Sea.
The chart below lists all ten plagues and the climax to our story: the parting of the Red Sea. The plagues have been separated into three groups of three, with the Death of the Firstborn sitting all by its lonesome. Each of the three groupings follow a similar pattern, yet each group is designed to teach Pharaoh – and us – an important object lesson, and when Moshe meets with Pharaoh at the beginning of each group, he states the purpose for the grouping.
- With the first plague, Moshe states, “With this you shall know Hashem.” In this grouping, which is blood, frogs, and lice, the plagues come up from the earth and up from the water. The water turns to blood, frogs emerge from the water, and the dust transforms into lice. This represents the lowest level.
- Moshe says, “In order that you will know that I am Hashem in the midst of the earth,” with the fourth plague. This second group includes wild beasts or insects [depending upon your translation], pestilence, and boils, directly affect those on the ground, which are man and animals alike. This represents the next level.
- Finally, with the seventh plague, Moshe replies, “In order that you will know that there is none like Me in all the earth.’ These plagues, hail, locusts, and darkness, descend from the heavens and represent the next higher level.
- The highest level, the death of the firstborn, is in a class all its own. This fourth level represents a kedushah that is absent from the others and requires an equal response from Israel: the kedushah or sanctification of the firstborn of Israel. This fourth level is unique in that it needs no intermediary. It’s from Hashem Himself. For instance, the text says, “I will pass through the Land of Egypt – I and no emissary;” and “I will smite every Egyptian firstborn – I and no seraph.” Thus, the tenth plague descends from Heaven itself using no external agent.
Abarbanel noticed this trend and with it made the claim that there are three level in understanding Hashem:
- He exists
- He is involved in the events on Earth
- There is none who is His equal
Therefore, Jonah is able to state unequivocally that his God is the God of Heavens who made the sea and the dry land. He is the God who is intimately involved in our lives, yet He is so transcendent He has no equal. There is no place on earth on in heaven or in the depths of the sea where we can go where He cannot provide his care and His love; yet He has no equal.
|Plague||Source||Fore-warned||Time of Warning||Instruction from Hashem||Where Moshe Confronts Pharaoh||Agent||Tool||Pharaoh’s Heart Afterward|
|1st Series||1||Blood||Exodus 07:14-25||Yes||In the morning||“Station Yourself”||At the River||Aaron||Staff||His heart was strong|
|2||Frogs||Exodus 07:26 – 08:11||Yes||n/a||“Go/Come to Pharaoh”||At the Palace||Aaron||Staff||He made his heart stubborn|
|3||Lice||Exodus 08:12-15||No||n/a||None||n/a||Aaron||Staff||His heart was strong|
|2nd Series||4||Wild Animals||Exodus 08:16-28||Yes||In the morning||“Station Yourself”||At the River||Hashem||None||He made his heart hard|
|5||Pestilence||Exodus 09:01-07||Yes||n/a||“Go/Come to Pharaoh”||At the Palace||Hashem||None||His heart became stubborn|
|6||Boils||Exodus 09:08-12||No||n/a||None||n/a||Moshe||Soot||Hashem strengthened his heart|
|3rd Series||7||Hail||Exodus 09:13-35||Yes||In the morning||“Station Yourself”||At the River||Moshe||Staff||He made his heart stubborn|
|8||Locusts||Exodus 10:01-20||Yes||n/a||“Go/Come to Pharaoh”||At the Palace||Moshe||Hand||Hashem strengthened hiss heart|
|9||Darkness||Exodus 10:21-23||No||n/a||None||n/a||Moshe||Hand||Hashem strengthened his heart|
|Penultimate Climax||10||Death of the Firstborn||Exodus 11:04-07 & 12:29-30||Yes||n/a||None||n/a||Hashem||None||Whipped|
|Climax||Parting of the Red Sea||Exodus 14:05-31||Yes||n/a||None||n/a||Moshe||Hand||Defeated|
 Exodus 10:2
 Exodus 10:1
 R.Exodus 13:3
 Michtav miEliyahu II
 b.Sotah 3a, 86b
 Jonah 1:9
 Exodus 9:13-19
 Exodus 4:22-23
 Jonah 1:9