Parshat Vaera תשעט
Moshe precisely followed Hashem’s instructions, yet things seemed to have backfired: Instead of Pharaoh listening to Moshe to release the Jewish people, Pharoah increased their work load. The Jewish slaves would now have to procure their own straw for the bricks without decreasing the required quota of bricks. Indeed, some of the Jewish people accused Moshe and Aharon of betraying them by instigating trouble with Pharaoh and causing their increased suffering. Moshe, feeling responsible, complained to Hashem, “Why did you send me to only make things worse for my brothers?” Hashem responded by telling Moshe, “You will see what I will do to Pharaoh; he will feel the full brunt of My strength, and, ultimately, will be forced to send the Jewish people free.
In this parsha (portion) וארא , Hashem begins the process of freeing the Jewish people from the slavery of Pharaoh through the ten plagues. Once the plagues started, the slavery stopped.
The big question is why did Hashem need a full ten plagues to extract the Jewish people from Pharaoh’s clutches? Why didn’t Hashem just deliver the knockout punch ofמכת בכורות – killing the first born, in the first place?
The commentaries unanimously answer this question by explaining that the plagues were not meant to be the tool for prodding Pharaoh to release the Jews from Egypt. Truly, Hashem could have done it in one swift blow. The plagues, rather, served a different, double purpose. One was to punish the Egyptians for the atrocities that they committed against the Jewish people, and, two, each plague was carefully selected to teach the Jewish people, and the world, the fundamental principles about Hashem.
The Malbim (1809 – 1879) offers the following explanation.
After listing the 10 plagues, the Passover Haggadah quotes the statement of Rabbi Yehuda in the Talmud:
רַבִּי יְהוּדָה הָיָה נוֹתֵן בָּהֶם סִמָּנִים:
דְּצַ”ךְ עֲדַ”שׁ בְּאַחַ”ב:
Rabbi Yehuda created an acronym out of the ten plagues by grouping them into three groups by the first letter of each plague.
דצ”ך = דם צפרדע כנים עד”ש = ערוב דבר שחין באח”ב = ברד ארבה חשך בכורות
Blood, frogs, and lice. Wild beasts, epidemic, and boils. Hail, locusts and darkness. Killing the first born.
The Malbim explains that the ten plagues were three groups of three and that the last plague, the killing of the first born, comprises a category by itself, its purpose being to force Pharaoh to send them out.
Each of the three groups of three was precisely constructed to teach a different fundamental concept about Hashem; each group contained a pattern that was repeated in the others.
The first group of plagues was to teach the world that there is a Creator. The second group was to teach the world that this Creator knows who is who, and is involved in the workings of its inhabitants. The third group demonstrated that He alone is all powerful and could do anything. In each group, the first two plagues came with a warning to Pharaoh, and the last one had no warning. Why? Each group’s first two plagues taught the lesson, and the third plague was just to punish Pharaoh and the Egyptians for their obstinance. Additionally, Moshe delivered the first warning of each group in the morning at the Nile river, which was Pharaoh’s god, to broadcast his objection to that notion. The second plague’s warning in each group was always delivered in the afternoon, in Pharaoh’s palace, in the presence of Pharaoh’s officers and advisors, to alert them of the imminent danger.
When Moshe first told Pharaoh, “Hashem, the G-d of the Hebrews, sent me to tell you to send out My nation so they should serve Me in the desert,” Pharaoh responded, “Who is Hashem that I should listen to him?”
In Moshe’s warning to Pharaoh before the first plague, Moshe told him (Exodus 7:17):
ספר שמות פרק ז
יז) כֹּה אָמַר יְדֹוָד בְּזֹאת תֵּדַע כִּי אֲנִי יְדֹוָד
17) So has Hashem said, “With this you will know that I am Hashem!”
The first plague – blood, was directed primarily at the Nile River, one of the Egyptian gods. They worshipped the Nile because once a year it overflowed and irrigated all the fields providing them food for the next year. Turning its waters into blood showed that Hashem was in control of their god and able to do with it as He saw fit. At the same time, Hashem wanted the Egyptians to suffer without water, so He turned their water into blood, even water stored in wooden or stone vessels.
To warn Pharaoh about the second plague, frogs, Moshe appeared before Pharaoh in the palace as Pharaoh sat on his throne in the presence of his advisors and officers. This plague also proved that Hashem is in control of their god, the Nile, since Hashem could control it to bring forth a plague that destroyed the land of Egypt. Instead of the Nile irrigating their fields and providing fish to eat, it became the source of terrible stench, suffering and discomfort to its people, the Egyptians. Miraculously, the Nile and its tributaries teamed with frogs; and with a wave of Aharon’s staff, the frogs came out of the water and overran Egypt, entering every open place, including their mouths.
The frogs so oppressed Pharaoh that he could no longer stand it. Calling Moshe and Aharon to his palace, Pharaoh asked them to beseech Hashem to remove the frogs, whereupon he would send the Jewish people free (Exodus 8:5):
- 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, “Tomorrow. ”
How bizarre! Pharaoh was suffering so much from the frogs that he swallowed his pride, calling Moshe and Aharon to remove them. But 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 Malbim explains that Pharaoh assumed that Moshe had brought the frogs with magic, and that Moshe knew that his magic spell was expiring, and that the frogs were about to disappear on their own. Moshe, thought Pharaoh, 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.
The third plague, lice, didn’t need to prove the existence of Hashem, since that had already been successfully proven by the first two plagues. This plague’s purpose was just to punish the Egyptian people and make them miserable. The Malbim explains that the lice originated in the people and animals, and only from there filled up the earth, not vice versa, as the verse simply states: (8:13):
וַתְּהִי הַכִּנָּם בָּאָדָם וּבַבְּהֵמָה כָּל עֲפַר הָאָרֶץ הָיָה כִנִּים בְּכָל אֶרֶץ מִצְרָיִם:
13) And the lice was in the people and the animals, and (then) all the dirt of the land of Egypt turned to lice.
The purpose was to demonstrate that no one could say that the lice were the natural by-product of the decaying frogs from the previous plague.
The Egyptian magicians and sorcerers tried to cure the people and animals of their lice through different salves and potions, something they were experts at, but, here, they couldn’t. The lice remained in the entire Egyptian populous forever. [No more lice check in the Bais Raamses school.]
The next group of plagues proved that Hashem involves Himself with people and controls the events in their lives, השגחה פרטית – Divine Providence. The first of this group was wild beasts, and here Hashem said (8:18):
יח) וְהִפְלֵיתִי בַיּוֹם הַהוּא אֶת אֶרֶץ גּשֶׁן אֲשֶׁר עַמִּי עֹמֵד עָלֶיהָ לְבִלְתִּי הֱיוֹת שָׁם עָרֹב לְמַעַן תֵּדַע כִּי אֲנִי יְדֹוָד בְּקֶרֶב הָאָרֶץ
18) And on that day, I shall set apart the land of Goshen where my people reside, that no wild beasts go there, so that you will know that I am Hashem in the midst of the land.
The wild beasts that comprised this plague already existed in the world’s jungles and forests. Their nature is to remain in the jungles and forests, not to venture out of their natural habitat. For this plague, Hashem made each animal rebel against its nature and come to Egypt and enter the streets and homes of the Egyptians. This was one manifestation of Hashem being involved in the goings on in the particulars of the world.
The second proof of Hashem’s Divine Providence was that no animals at all went into the land of Goshen because the Jewish people resided there. In the first two plagues, although blood and frogs were present in Goshen as well, they affected only the Egyptians that lived there. In this plague, no animals entered Goshen, and even the Egyptians who lived there were saved from this plague. And if a Jewish person was outside of Goshen, the wild animals would avoid him. This also showed that Hashem was involved with mankind.
The next plague,דבר – an epidemic that killed animals, extended the concept of Divine Providence from the people to their possessions because it affected only Egyptian-owned animals. The Midrash explains that if an Egyptian was in possession of an animal belonging to a Jew, that animal didn’t die from this plague, and visa versa.
Because the third plague in this group, שחין – boils, was just to punish the Egyptians, it came with no warning. The concept of Divine Providence had already been sufficiently proven, and now it was time to give the Egyptians some pain and suffering. This plague also never left them, and lice and boils plagued the Egyptians till the day they died.
The warning for ,ברד – hailstones, the first of the last group, once again came to Pharaoh in the morning at the river. This group would show clearly, once and for all, that Hashem is the only G-d in the world. Although Hashem had humiliated Pharaoh’s god (the Nile River), Pharaoh could still think that there are other gods that could defeat Hashem at some point. This is revealed in the verse (9:14):
ספר שמות פרק ט
בַּעֲבוּר תֵּדַע כִּי אֵין כָּמֹנִי בְּכָל הָאָרֶץ
14) So that you should know that there is no one like me in the whole earth.
The Malbim doesn’t go into detail about how the hail and locusts proved that Hashem is the only god out there, but perhaps we can suggest the following based upon other commentaries.
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.
Rav Yosef Yaavitz concludes from this miraculous phenomenon that there could be only one creator in the world. If there was a different god behind each of the world’s competing forces, how could it be that these two opposite forces joined in the hail stones?
When you see arch enemies on a mission together, there can be only one explanation. They both work for the same person who has instructed them to go together on the mission. As subordinates to the same authority, they must, against their will, comply with his directive.
The same concept applies to the water and fire. Since the same Hashem has sent them, even though they are opposites and would ordinarily never be found together, since they are both working for the same boss, they must join.
The same concept applies to the 9th plague, darkness, a real mind bender. The plague lasted six days, and there were two stages to its intensity. During the first three days it was darker than night, and no one could see anything. In the today’s world with its many forms of artificial illumination, 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, as blind people do, with no light at all. They have created an environment of complete darkness, like no other darkness you were ever in, a darkness so complete that you feel as if you have no eyes with which to see. Yet the darkness in Egypt was 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 that only one Creator could accomplish. For, if light and darkness came from two different sources, how could they coexist at the same time in the same place? Once again, this is only possible because they are messengers of the same Hashem.
These three fundamentals of our belief in Hashem the G-d of Israel, namely, 1) Creation ex nihilo–Hashem created the world from nothing; 2) Divine Providence – Hashem runs the world and everything in it; and 3) Hashem is the only Creator and there is no other god with Him, are what Hashem proved to the world, and, most importantly, to the Jewish people in Egypt.
Here are two other ideas to consider.
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 essential lessons have been transmitted parent to child, parent to child, faithfully for over 3,330 years at Pesach seders the world over. The Passover holiday, which commemorates our freedom from slavery, is the most celebrated Jewish holiday in today’s world. Hashem taught the lesson once and for all in Egypt, and now it is our responsibility to relate it to our children and to keep the lesson alive and strong so that they can properly pass it on to their children.
Here is a timeline of the ten plagues with interesting information, produced by Rabbi Hillel Haber, Rosh Yeshiva of Yeshivat Shaare Torah in Brooklyn, NY.