When Hashem appeared to Moshe at the burning bush, and Moshe responded that the people would not believe that Hashem had really appeared to him, Hashem gave Moshe three miracles to perform to convince the Jewish people.
The first was for Moshe to throw his staff to the ground where it miraculously turned into a snake. Upon gabbing its tail, the snake turned back into an inanimate walking stick. This along with the two other miracles that Moshe performed for the Jewish people convinced them that, indeed, Hashem had spoken to Moshe and had sent him to redeem them.
Hashem then instructed Moshe to perform the same miracle for Pharaoh (Exodus 7:9):
ספר שמות פרק ז
(ט) כִּי יְדַבֵּר אֲלֵכֶם פַּרְעֹה לֵאמֹר תְּנוּ לָכֶם מוֹפֵת וְאָמַרְתָּ אֶל אַהֲרֹן קַח אֶת מַטְּךָ וְהַשְׁלֵךְ לִפְנֵי פַרְעֹה יְהִי לְתַנִּין:
- “When Pharaoh speaks to you, saying, ‘Provide a wonder for yourselves,’ say to Aaron, ‘Take your staff and cast it down before Pharaoh — it will become a snake!’ “
The Talmud reports that when Moshe performed this miracle before Pharaoh, Pharaoh said to him, “Moshe, you are bringing your magic to Egypt? No one needs your magic here! Don’t you know that Egypt is the magic capital of the world?” Moshe responded, “Of course I know, but when a merchant has wares to sell he takes them to the marketplace. Even though the marketplace is filled with vendors of wares like his, if his are superior, he will sell them!”
Pharaoh burst out laughing when he saw the snake, and made fun of Moshe and Aharon saying, “This is all you have to show as the sign of your G-d?” Let me show you something. Pharoah called his magicians and wise men, who all brought their sticks and turned them into snakes. It seems that in Egypt of old this was a standard trick because even children and women were able to do it. After a little while, when all the snakes, including Aharon’s, had turned back into sticks, Aharon’s stick swallowed up all the Egyptian sticks, yet you could not tell the difference in its thickness.
Not only did this miracle not impress Pharaoh, it convinced him even more that Moshe was just a better magician than his were and that the whole thing was a hoax to get the Jewish people out of Egypt.
This story repeated itself two twice more with the first two plagues, blood and frogs, that Hashem brought on Egypt, which the magicians were able to imitate. As you can imagine, after Pharaoh’s prestidigitators imitated the plagues, he became even more sure that Moshe and Aharon were just good magicians.
The third plague, however, lice, the magicians could not duplicate. The Sages explain that magic has no power over something so small. The magicians explained as much to Pharaoh, insisting to him that this couldn’t be simple magic. Pharaoh probably figured they were just offering an excuse to cover their incompetence without having to admit that Moshe was a better magician than they.
This presents us with a daunting question: How did Hashem expect to prove anything through miracles that the magicians could copy? Why, right from the start, didn’t Hashem choose miracles beyond the magicians’ ken, or suspend their magical powers, so they could not undermine Moshe and Aharon?
The answer is that the purpose of the human being on this planet is to make the correct choices in life and receive reward for those choices. Hashem does not paint us into a corner and force us to believe in Him. He always leaves us with a choice.
Magic lacks the ability to create something from nothing; only Hashem can do that. What magic can do is create an apparition, making one thing look like something else. It can make a stick look like a snake; it can make water look like blood, and it could make something that looks like a frog. But these were not real, and a little investigation would reveal that they were only appearances of something actual. They had none of the living qualities of the real thing. The snake could not move or hiss, the frogs could not croak or jump, and a fish would have lived fine in the red water. On the other hand, Aharon’s snake was a real hissing, moving snake. The water in the plague of blood actually became blood that the Red Cross could use for transfusions, and all the fish died. Similarly, the frogs were real live frogs that croaked and jumped. To an impartial observer wishing to ascertain what is real or not, it would have been a no-brainer and the differences would have been clear to see.
But when one wishes not to see the truth, he could explain away the differences by saying, “It’s all magic, Moshe is just a better magician than the others and he knows how to make his magic more lifelike and real looking.”
Thus, there is always a choice. When one wishes to see the truth, it is clear and obvious. And when one wishes not to see it, Hashem leaves him an escape hatch through which to exit.
Even the ten plagues were insufficient to convince all the Jewish people that Hashem had indeed come to redeem them. Many were unprepared to leave Egypt, died during the plague of darkness, and were buried in Egypt. Maybe they also thought that Moshe was a magician, or that perhaps there was a natural explanation for the progression of unfolding calamities.
Only those who were impartial and open to the idea that Hashem was behind all the miracles would see the obvious differences and recognize the truth. They are the ones who ultimately became the Bnai Yisroel, the great Jewish Nation which we are part of today.
Another important question that must be asked is why did the great and mighty Hashem need 10 plagues for Pharaoh to free the Jewish people? Why not just deliver to Pharaoh one knockout punch and get it over with?
The answer, of course, is that Hashem could have done that. But the ten plagues were not only to punish Pharaoh and the Egyptians for their oppression of the Jewish people; they were also to educate the Jewish people about Hashem and His powers.
Nachmanides explains that the plagues proved three of the most important tenets of Judaism: 1) Hashem created the world; 2) He knows everyone in it and is involved in their lives; and 3) that Hashem speaks to man via prophesy.
In the beginning of our Parshah, Hashem tells Moshe: (Exodus 6:3)
ספר שמות פרק ו
(ג) וָאֵרָא אֶל אַבְרָהָם אֶל יִצְחָק וְאֶל יַעֲקֹב בְּ(אֵ)קל שַׁק(דָּ)י וּשְׁמִי יְדֹוָד לֹא נוֹדַעְתִּי לָהֶם:
- I appeared to Abraham, to Isaac, and to Jacob as K’El Shak(dd)ai, but with My Name Hashem I did not make Myself known to them:
(Because, except in a prayer, or in the context of a complete verse from scripture, we are not permitted to say any of G-d’s real names, we substitute the “k” for one of the letters, hence, Kel Shakkai. Since everybody realizes that this substitution has been made, they understand which name of Hashem is being referred to.)
To properly understand this verse, we need some background. The Torah contains ten different holy names for G-d. When a scribe writing a sefer Torah comes to write one of these holy names, before doing so he must say out loud, “I am writing this name as the holy name of Hashem.” If a scribe would forget even once to sanctify even one of Hashem’s names, the entire sefer Torah would be פסול – unfit for use.
The idea behind G-d’s different names is that each indicates a specific mode that Hashem is in. For example, the name אלק(ה)ים Elokim indicates that Hashem is in strict judgment mode. This week’s parshah begins with, “And Elokim spoke to Moshe,” reflecting Hashem’s upset with Moshe having questioned His sending him to Pharaoh since Moshe’s visit only served to increase the workload on the Jewish people.
The name ש(ד)קי indicates Hashem adjusting “nature” to bring about His desired outcome. For example, the forefathers’ wealth came about without miracles; rather, Hashem made the land fertile, brought the rain at the right times, and brought forth many large and fruitful crops. They also had very healthy and fertile cattle, and thus they had large herds of cattle and sheep. Hashem accomplished His goals within the rules of nature.
The name י-ה-ו-ה is the name that Hashem used in Creation. This is Hashem’s special name from which all the other names emanate. This name also indicates Hashem’s supreme kindness, since creating the world was the supreme act of kindness.
When Hashem told Moshe that “I appeared to the forefathers in the name ’Kel Shakkai‘,” He was saying that He dealt with Avraham, Yitzchak, and Yaakov by controlling nature, not through open miracles. But now, Hashem would reveal the name that He used when He was in Creation mode, and with that name He would change nature – recreating it in a way – and the world would now witness miracles the likes of which were never before seen. Since Hashem initially created nature, He is its master and can change it as He pleases.
In the plague of blood, for example, all Egypt water turned to blood, including the Nile River, all other rivers and brooks, the water in cisterns, and even the water stored in vessels. Yet all the blood of the Egyptians was water for the Jews, who were not affected by any of the plagues. If an Egyptian bought water from a Jew, it would not turn to blood. Indeed, if a Jew and an Egyptian were drinking water from the same glass with straws, the Jew would draw water up his straw, while the Egyptian would draw blood up his. How can that be? It’s no problem for the Creator of the water and the blood.
In the seventh plague, hail, the Torah tells us (Exodus 9:24):
ספר שמות פרק ט
(כד) וַיְהִי בָרָד וְאֵשׁ מִתְלַקַּחַת בְּתוֹךְ הַבָּרָד
- There was hail, and fire flaming amid the hail
Once again, this seems impossible! How could fire exist inside a hailstone made of ice? And how could a hailstone remain a hailstone if there is fire inside of it? Only the Creator, who gave fire and water their properties initially, can alter those properties to allow these two opposing forces to co-exist.
The ninth plague, darkness, is also a real mind bender. The plague lasted six days, and there were two stages to its intensity. It was darker than night during the first three days, and no one could see anyone or anything. In the world today with its many forms of artificial light, we have little experience with absolute darkness. A place in Israel called “Dialogue in the Dark” gives people gifted with sight an idea of what it is to live with no light at all, as blind people do. They have created an environment of complete darkness, like no other darkness you were ever in. It is a darkness is so complete that you feel as if you have no eyes to see. The darkness in Egypt was even more intense than that!
During the next three days, the darkness intensified and thickened to the extent that it physically impeded human movement. If they were seated, that is how they remained for three days.
For the Jews, however, throughout the entire six days, there was light! In the very homes of the Egyptians where they were plunged into a physically restraining darkness, the Jews had light and could see as if nothing was going on! How could two people standing in the very same room experience a completely opposite reality? This is clearly something only the Creator could accomplish.
These are a few examples of how the plagues revealed Hashem as the Creator of the world. That the plagues affected only the Egyptians proved the second tenet, viz, that Hashem knows who each person is and that He is involved in their lives, by His tailoring the plagues to each person.
Imagine the plague of wild animals. A Jewish mother would tell her child to go next door to the neighbor to borrow a cup of sugar. He says to his mother, “Ma, there are ferocious lions and tigers out there! I just saw an Egyptian man attacked and eaten by a lion!” His mother responds, “Sweetie, you are Jewish. You don’t have to worry. The lions and tigers will not attack you.” “Really? Are you sure?” “Yes, I am. Try it!” Sure enough, when he goes outside, the ferocious animals don’t give him a second look. This was true with all the plagues.
Before most of the plagues, Moshe warned Pharaoh what the plague would be and exactly when it would begin. Moshe also told Pharaoh when many of the plagues would end proving the third tenet: that Hashem communicates His will to man through prophesy.
An interesting story occurred with the frogs. They so oppressed Pharaoh that he could no longer stand it. He called Moshe and Aharon to his palace, and asked them to beseech Hashem to remove the frogs, whereupon he would send the Jewish people free.
- Moshe said to Pharaoh, “Glorify yourself over me–for when should I entreat for you, for your servants, and for your people, to excise the frogs from you and from your houses? Only in the River will they remain. ”
- And he (Pharaoh) said, “For tomorrow. ”
How bizarre! Pharaoh was suffering so much from the frogs that he swallowed his pride, calling Moshe and Aharon to remove them. When they offered to do so, instead of saying, “NOW!!! You idiot!” Pharaoh says, “Tomorrow!” What was he thinking? He wanted to suffer yet another day with the cursed frogs?
The commentaries explain that Pharaoh assumed that Moshe brought the frogs with magic and that Moshe knew that his magic spell was expiring, and that the frogs were about to disappear. Moshe, recognizing that Pharaoh was suffering and aware of the frogs’ imminent disappearance, would expect Pharaoh to say “NOW!” which would make it look like Moshe was in control. To call Moshe’s bluff, Pharaoh said, “tomorrow,” thinking the plague was going to stop shortly on its own, anyway. He found out the hard way that Moshe was no magician.
Rabbi Yitzchak Abrabanel (1437-1508) explains how the ten plagues were designed to punish the Egyptians, measure for measure, for what they had done to the Jews:
- Blood – Since they killed the Jewish babies by throwing them into the Nile, the river is now blood to remind them of their atrocities.
- Frogs – Because the Egyptians did not listen to the cries of the fathers and mothers when they took their children away, they would now have to listen to the constant croaking of the frogs.
- Lice – The Egyptians made the Jewish people toil miserably in the sand, so the sand became lice making them miserable.
- Wild animals – The Egyptians entered the Jewish homes to take away their children; now the wild animals would enter their homes and kill their children.
- Pestilence – After stealing the cattle of the Jewish people, now the Egyptians would have no cattle.
- Boils – They rejected the Jews as if they were disgusting, now the Egyptians were disgusting.
- Hail – They threw stones at the Jews and hit them with their fists, now they would be pelted with hailstones.
- Locusts – Having stolen the grain from the fields of the Jews, their grain and produce would now be eaten by the locusts.
- Darkness – They darkened the eyes of the Jews with their decrees, now they would have their eyes darkened.
- Killing of the first born – Those who enslaved Hashem’s first born (Israel), would suffer the loss of their first born.
Harav Yisroel Yaakov Kanievsky (1899-1985) (the “Steipler”) explains how the ten plagues showed that Hashem is the master of the entire world and has control over everything in it.
- Blood – Hashem controls all the world’s bodies of water.
- Frogs – Hashem controls all the creatures in the water.
- Lice – Hashem controls the land.
- Wild animals – Hashem controls all the animals on the earth.
- Pestilence – Hashem controls the life and death of the animals.
- Boils – A person’s health or sickness is in Hashem’s hands.
- Hail – Hashem controls the weather – rain, snow, wind, and hail.
- Locusts – Hashem controls all flying creatures.
- Darkness – Hashem controls the sun, the moon, and all the celestial beings.
- Killing of the first born – Hashem controls life and death of people as well as knows the inner most secrets of who fathered which baby and which one is a first born.
These are a few of the many explanations of why Hashem brought these ten plagues on the Egyptians.