Our portion begins with God revealing that God’s name has changed between the patriarchs and now. The “four expressions of redemption,” are used for the promise of taking the Jews out of Egypt and into the land. The Jews won’t listen, due to smallness of spirit and difficult work, kotzer ruach veavodah kashah.
Moses and Aaron repeatedly come before Pharaoh to demand in the name of G‑d, “Let My people go, so that they may serve Me in the wilderness.” Pharaoh repeatedly refuses. Aaron’s staff turns into a snake and swallows the staffs of the Egyptian sorcerers. The ten plagues begin.
The waters of the Nile turn to blood; swarms of frogs overrun the land; lice infest all men and beasts. Hordes of wild animals invade the cities; a pestilence kills the domestic animals; painful boils afflict the Egyptians, and a devastating hail. This is where the portion stops.
~ What is the purpose of the plagues, in your opinion? If God could take the Jews out of Egypt just like that, why didn’t God do so? Can you find in our text explanations for the purpose of the plagues?
~ Is there a progression on the Egyptians understanding of the plagues? Is there a progression on the Jews’ understanding of the plagues? Is there a progression on Pharaoh’s?
The ten plagues lasted a year, according to Rabbi Akiva. This is learned through a midrash on the last portion we read. According to Ex. 5:12 the plagues began only after the Egyptians forced the Israelite slaves to search for their own straw. Since straw is found in the month of Iyyar, May, and the Israelites left Egypt in Nissan, April, the conclusion can be drawn that the plagues lasted one year.
A year is a long time for plagues. If you just go with the text of the Torah, you will find that all of it happened in two weeks – the first, blood, lasts seven days, the other last one day, a total of 14 days of plagues. But would 14 days be enough to make the internal changes in the Jews, or in the Egyptians themselves, or in Pharaoh?
The plagues have an interesting structure:
Blood, wild animals and hail are all introduced with a WARNING administered in the MORNING, explaining a PURPOSE. Frogs, pestilence and locusts only have a WARNING and we do not read anything bout the time of the warning, and lice, boils and darkness all arrive WITHOUT WARNING. When you look at this structure alone, you see that at every three plagues you have a warning in the morning with an explanation. The explanations will deepen as the plagues happen:
Blood – “by this you shall know that I am Ad-nai”
Wild animals – “…that you might know that I am Ad-nai in the midst of the land.”
Hail – “that you will know that there is none like Me in all the land.”
It is because of this structure that the traditional haggadot will bring the separation of the ten plagues into three groups:
“Rabbi Yehuda was accustomed to giving [the plagues] mnemonics: Detsakh [the Hebrew initials of the first three plagues, blood, frogs, lice], Adash [wild animals, pestilence and boils], Beachav [hail, locusts, darkness, firstborn].”
Another point I’d like to make is the progression among the Egyptians. First, the magicians themselves say to Pharaoh – this is the finger of God – in the plague of lice. So at the end of the first grouping, the magicians can’t reproduce lice, and have to admit their lack of power. At the plague of boils even the magicians can’t appear near Pharaoh – their lack of power is such that they can’t defend themselves.
And this progression is also found among the Jews. There is no distinction between the Jews and the Egyptians in the first three plagues. Look at the text carefully, and you will see that the distinction only happens on the fourth plague – wild animals. Ibn Ezra is the one that brings this unpopular opinion. The force unleashed in the first three is less precise than the rest, but the ability to control power also has to do with space and time. So as the plagues progress, the distinctions become sharper and more pronounced. The first series of plagues strikes Egypt and Israel without impunity, while the second and third series strike only Egypt. The timing begins to be more precise as well, the first three plagues do not come by appointment, but Pharaoh is told that wild beasts will arrive ‘tomorrow’, that pestilence will occur at a ‘fixed time tomorrow’, and that hail will begin to fall at ‘this very time tomorrow.’
Once you see this pattern, that you can understand why in the plague of hail, there is some break among the Egyptians in the belief in Pharaoh’s power, since we read that “Those among Pharaoh’s courtiers who feared the Ad-nai’s word brought their slaves and livestock indoors to safety.”
Whether our fourth plague is wild beasts or swarms of insects, Goshen – and the Jews – are spared. That is when both Jews and Egyptians get a notice that this is about the Israelite slaves. The same happens in the fifth plague, pestilence, as we read – and of course the Egyptians had to notice, the lack of cattle dying is going to be obvious. Boils, which made a distinction between the two peoples, brought that point even further. So of course you had to be living under a rock not to bring your own slaves and what’s left of your livestock in. But I want us to notice that even at this point we do not read the Egyptians telling Pharaoh to let the people go. And whereas God and Moshe say that, we do not hear a peep from the Israelites themselves either.
It really looks like everyone is just looking out for themselves. But the idea of a collective action, a protest against Pharaoh’s mishandling of the situation is not remotely in anyone’s mind.
Our portion ends with Pharaoh almost relenting, but not really. And the question again is why. Also, if freedom is just the reason for the plagues, why not scoop up the Jews and land them on Mount Sinai?
And one possible answer I want us to entertain today is the creation of a collective identity. One that goes beyond the self. The ability to care for what happens with other segments of society, or of a group. Pharaoh’s permission would not make the Israelites truly free, and truly a people. Same with simply plopping them down at Mount Sinai. The process is important if changes will last. And this ability to care for beyond yourself is truly growth, and truly what brings about meaning in our lives.
I don’t think I need to remind people here who Victor Frankl is. In his “Man in Search of Meaning” he states that his own experience of surviving Auschwitz had to do with his focus on the other, on other inmates, on other realities, on the future he wanted to build after this was over.
Frankl also concludes that there are only two races of people, decent and indecent. No society is free of either of them, and so he tells us of “decent” Nazi guards and “indecent” prisoners, most notably the kapo who would torture and abuse their fellow prisoners for personal gain – we can call this the extreme of the individualistic person. That is the real plague of nowadays.
And so the process of becoming a decent person passes through the stage of being solely worried about oneself, and one’s possessions, as we see in the plague of hail. And we know that it will take a long time and a long process to take the Egypt out of the Jew, and to make us a nation that worries not only about our individuality, but about others – in our group and in other groups – as well. And the change is never complete, we are always struggling between our selfishness and our altruism, and so we must remember coming out of Egypt every day.