The story of the ten plagues is one of the most enigmatic parts of the Torah. It is quite difficult to fully grasp even one miracle of Hashem, but the story of the ten plagues contains countless miracles occurring either simultaneously or in seemingly brief intervals. Additionally, some of the plagues seem rather unusual and are not the kind of thing one would expect.
One example of a plague that objectively makes sense is the plague of blood. If Hashem’s goal was to bring about fear and anxiety in Pharaoh and the Egyptians, blood everywhere seems like a good start; having water, a symbol for life, turn to blood, a symbol for death, would truly inspire fear in one’s adversaries. Then comes the second terrifying plague: frogs. Frogs? While I am not a big fan of frogs, I wouldn’t describe my aversion to them as being based on fear. Having a multitude of frogs invade one’s home would be unnerving and a bit nauseous, but when contemplating the awesome power of Hashem, plagues like inescapable blood, wild animals, and the killing of the first-born seem a bit more alarming and intimidating than an invasion of frogs.
One can see why frogs were used based on two related points. First, five out of the ten plagues used animals as a means to wreak havoc on the Egyptians. Second, each Egyptian deity had a corresponding animal as its symbol, except for the main Egyptian deity, who was called Ra. Ra’s symbol was the sun, which might be more than coincidental when considering the plague of darkness. It is possible that Hashem was sending a message to the Egyptian people by using their deities against them.
Before the implementation of the last plague Hashem says (12:12), “Veavarti Beeretz Mitzrayim Balailah Hazeh Vehikeiti Kol Bechor Beeretz Mitzrayim Meiadam Vead Beheimah, Uvechol Elohei Mitzrayim E’eseh Shefatim, Ani Hashem,” “And I will pass through the land of Egypt on that night, and I will kill all first-borns in the land of Egypt, from man to beast, and with all the deities of Egypt I will execute judgments; I am Hashem”. Rashi notes on “Uvechol Elohei Mitzrayim,” “and with all the deities of Egypt,” that Hashem destroyed objects of Egyptian worship on the night that He carried out the tenth plague. Rashi says, “Shel Eitz Nirkevet Veshel Matechet Nimeset Venitechet Laaretz,” “[Idols] of wood rotted, and metal ones dissolved and melted to the ground.” It is said that the first plague was water turning to blood because the Egyptians revered the Nile; the plague demonstrated that the Nile was controlled by God (Tanchuma Shemot Rabbah 9). Sobek, Hapi, and Khnum are all Egyptian deities associated with the Nile, and Heket was an Egyptian deity associated with resurrection who took the shape of a frog. The plague of frogs similarly de legitimized this god. In fact, one can find numerous animals associated with Egyptian deities that correspond to animals used in or affected by the plagues.
It might be a major error to assume that the only goal of the ten plagues was to strike a chord of terror in Pharaoh and the Egyptians. Since the plagues were aimed at the Egyptian people, Hashem might have been using symbols that were relevant to the average Egyptian in order to send a message. Perhaps Hashem was trying to show them that their deities were of no use to them. By destabilizing Pharaoh’s reign and the religious culture of the Egyptians, perhaps Hashem was trying to tell the Egyptians that their current way of life was now coming to an end.
by Ariel Caplan
After the Makkah of Dever, Pharaoh commissions a search to see if any Jewish (Israelite) livestock were killed. The Pasuk says (9:7), “Vayishlach Pharaoh, Vehinei Lo Meit Mimikneh Yisrael Ad Echad, Vayichbad Leiv Pharaoh Velo Shilach Et Haam,” “And Pharaoh sent, and behold, none of the livestock of the Jews died, up to one. And Pharaoh’s heart was hardened, and he did not send away the nation.” We may pose two questions on this Pasuk. First, what is the meaning of the words Ad Echad, “up to one?” Additionally, the Pasuk mentions the hardening of Pharaoh’s heart immediately after he hears that none of the Jews’ livestock had died. What connection is the Pasuk implying between these two events? If anything, the news Pharaoh received should have had the opposite result!
Addressing the first question, most commentators interpret Ad Echad as meaning “except for one,” which would suggest that there was one animal or one group of animals that did, in fact, die. But how could this have happened? Are we not told that Hashem protected the Jews from the effects of Makkat Dever (9:4)?
One answer to this question, suggested by numerous commentators, is predicated on Ramban’s statement that before Matan Torah, Jewish identity was determined by the father, not the mother. There was one case in which a Jewish woman, Shelomit Bat Divri, married an Egyptian and had a son (who later became the Mekallel; see Vayikra 24:10-11). According to the system at that time, he would not have been Jewish, and his livestock would not have been spared. It was therefore his livestock to whose death the report referred.
Ohr Hachaim believes that the Pasuk refers to the livestock of Egyptians who tried to “beat the system” by selling their livestock to the Jews, intending to revoke the sale after the plague. Despite this ploy, these animals were killed in the plague.
Chatam Sofer offers a third explanation based on the statement of Rashi (11:4 s.v. Kachatzot) that the Egyptian astrologers were only able to approximate time, but could not pinpoint it exactly. Hence, their calculation of when the Makkah of Dever started was not exact. If we assume that a Jew’s animal died of natural causes between the time the Egyptians thought the Makkah started and the time it actually did start, the Egyptians would have thought that one animal of the Jews was killed as part of the plague.
Chatam Sofer also offers another interpretation of Ad Echad, saying that the messenger who told Pharaoh really meant that “not even one” animal died, but Pharaoh misinterpreted the message (perhaps deliberately) to mean that there was, in fact, one animal that died. Others (including Abravanel, Toldot Yitzchak, and the Vilna Gaon) interpret Ad Echad according to a variation on the Chatam Sofer’s second explanation. They say that Pharaoh saw what he thought was Egyptian livestock survive the plague. In truth, these animals were owned jointly by Egyptians and Jews, and the partly Jewish ownership caused these animals to live through Makkat Dever.
All of these explanations lead to the same answer for the second question, namely that Pharaoh’s erroneous evaluation of the plague led him to say that the plague was not real. After all, Moshe specifically told him that none of the Jews’ livestock would die, and Pharaoh perceived that this did not come true! However, it seems rather silly to come to this conclusion. Is it really so inconceivable that one animal would have died for a reason unknown to Pharaoh? What about the fact that the rest of the Jews’ animals remained alive while all of the Egyptian animals died? It is therefore clear that Pharaoh was just being stubborn and refusing to see the truth. Not only was Pharaoh stubborn enough to ignore the suffering of his people; he even rationalized his obstinacy by pretending that the plague was not his fault!
We can see from here how powerful obstinacy can be. Even when a person knows he is wrong, he will find some way of claiming he is right and will then proceed as before. This type of behavior can lead to personal destruction and can have a great negative impact on others, just as Pharaoh’s stubbornness led to the destruction of Egypt.
Midrash Lekach Tov takes this idea a step further, claiming that Pharaoh had a perfect understanding of what happened and realized that it really was an act of God. Instead of acknowledging his mistake, though, he decided to try to “save face” by continuing on his path of refusal to free the Jews. He hardened his heart and prepared to accept the consequences. Unfortunately for the Egyptians, this meant that five more Makkot would follow and that Egypt would be destroyed.
We have seen all too many public and prominent figures try to cover up their mistakes by making more of them. Politicians, for example, have often lied about their past misdeeds to prevent a scandal, only to find that that their mistakes come back to haunt them with double the force. While we are quick to criticize these people, the real question is: Do we really see our own mistakes? Or are we too wrapped up in our mistakes to notice them? There is a famous saying that everyone has 20/20 hindsight, but that does not always seem to be true. We do not reflect on whether our past decisions were the right ones and whether we can make changes for the better. All too often, we ignore the advice of others who see things more clearly, whether they are parents, rabbis, friends, colleagues, or even children. Instead, we continue to make the same mistakes, get the same results, and wonder why. It is a difficult task to consider whether we are doing what is best for ourselves, our families and our communities, but it is also a necessary one. It is only if we challenge ourselves to acknowledge our mistakes and correct them that we will be able to change our lives and those of others for the good.
Before and After
by Ben Krinsky
In this week’s Parsha, the Torah lists the genealogy of the family of Moshe and Aharon. Towards the end of the listing, the Torah says (6:26), “Hu Moshe VeAharon Asher Amar Hashem Lahem Hotziu et Bnei Yisrael,” “These are the same Moshe and Aharon that Hashem commanded to them, ‘Take out Bnei Yisrael!’” We then read in 6:27 that “Heim Hamedabrim El Pharaoh Melech Mitzrayim, Hu Moshe VeAharon,” “They are the ones who spoke to Pharaoh the king of Egypt, they are Moshe and Aharon.”
At first glance, these Pesukim seem to be saying the same thing. However, a more careful look at the language shows that they are actually two sides of the coin. The first Pasuk is the command from Hashem to bring the Jews out of Egypt, “Take out Bnei Yisrael!” The second Pasuk describes the fulfillment of this command, in which they “spoke to Pharaoh.”
There is one more question we can ask. In the first Pasuk, Aharon’s name appears before Moshe’s, but in the second they are reversed. What is the meaning of this switch? Rabbeinu Bachya suggests that the change shows that Aharon was greater than Moshe in some respects, while Moshe was greater than Aharon in others. Aharon was older than Moshe and so deserved greater respect than Moshe, but Moshe was a greater Navi.
Rav Moshe Feinstein (based on Rashi) presents another answer that teaches us a powerful lesson. He explains that the two names are switched because they really were equal. Moshe and Aharon did not necessarily reach the same level, but both exerted themselves to the greatest extent, reached their potential, and accomplished their respective purposes. Due to this, they were considered equal, and it did not really matter which came first.
We can learn from this that it does not matter what we accomplish as long as we put in our best effort and do whatever we can. If we achieve this level, we will be considered in the eyes of Hashem to be on the same level as Moshe and Aharon!
by Jonathan Bloom
Towards the end of this week’s Parsha, Hashem sends the plague of Barad, hail, upon the Egyptians. There are many unique aspects of the plague of hail. The warning given by Moshe to Pharaoh is much longer before Barad than before the other plagues. Also, this is the first plague that seems to make an impact on Pharaoh at all. Previously, Pharaoh said, “Who is the Lord?” (5:2), not recognizing Hashem in any way. After Hashem brings the plague of hail, however, Pharaoh says, “This time I am wrong, the Lord is right; I and my people are villains.” Before this, nothing had even begun to make Pharaoh recognize that he was wrong. Now, he suddenly comes straight out and says him and his people are villains. What brought about this radical change in Pharaoh’s behavior?
One possible answer comes from the Tanchuma Yashan (Vaera 20). The Sages point out that one who is going to attack another person will usually try to take him by surprise, kill him, and then take everything he has. Yet Hakadosh Baruch Hu told Pharaoh before the plague of Barad to go and gather all the cattle so that they would not be affected by the hail. Pharaoh was so moved by this action of Hashem that he was compelled to admit that Hashem was right.
The lesson Hashem’s actions teach is profound. Sometimes, we can make our enemies admit that we are right simply by acting nicely towards them. Not always do we have to use sheer force to overcome our enemies. If we treat our enemies in a proper manner, they might just decide to give in on their own.
We can also learn another interesting lesson from the plague of hail. Each plague that Hashem brought taught the Jews important life lessons. For example, the Midrash learns from the frogs’ willingness to jump into ovens in the Makkah of Tzefardeia that we should even give up our lives for Hashem. Arov, the plague of wild beasts, teaches that only the wicked are punished and not the righteous, as only the Egyptians, not the Jews, were affected by the plague. This same lesson was made even clearer when the Makkah of Dever, a cattle disease, did not spread to the cattle of the Jews. What message, we may ask, can be learned from the plague of hail? Rav Moshe Feinstein gave the following explanation. The Gemara in Kiddushin 81a compares the Yetzer Hara to a flame of fire stuck inside a person’s body. The person’s mission is to keep this fire under control and not allow it to overcome him. The hail also performed this activity of containing its fire. The Chumash says that the plague of hail included both fire and hailstones in it, yet the water of the hail did not put out the fire, and the fire did not melt the hailstones; rather, they worked together to perform what Hashem commanded. We learn from here that we cannot use excuses like, “It was impossible for me to contain my fire (Yetzer Hara).” The Barad teaches us that if we put in the necessary effort, we, like the Barad, can overcome our internal fires. In fact, we can even apply the Barad’s other lesson here. Sometimes, the most effective way to fight the Yetezer Hara is to avoid sheer force, instead of using it for the good, just as the hail worked with the fire to do Hashem’s will.
Halacha of the Week The Kitzur Shulchan Aruch (14:4) states that one should be sure to recite Mizmor Litodah and the Shirat Hayam with great joy. The Torah obligates us to worship Hashem joyfully and holds us accountable if we fail to do so (see Devarim 28:47 and Tehillim 100:2). This teaches us that we are able to control our emotions (Hashem never demands something we are not capable of doing) and being happy is a matter of choice (also see Sukkah 25b and Ibn Ezra to Shemot 20:14).
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