The Hidden Meaning of the Plagues by Ms. Rochi Lerner


We are all familiar with the abbreviation for the ten Makkot, plagues, devised by Rabi Yehuda: DeZaCh, ADaSh,BeAChaV.  But is there more to this abbreviation than simply a mnemonic device, a memory aid?  Rav Kook ZT”L suggests that Rabi Yehuda is communicating the very subtle and significant differences between the plagues.  With each grouping of plagues, Hashem conveyed a distinct moral message to both the Egyptians and to Bnei Yisrael.

In Parshat Shemot, Pharaoh responded to Moshe and Aharon’s demands that he send out the people by exclaiming: “Who is God that I should listen to Him and release Am Yisrael?  I do not know of God, and I also have no intention of freeing Israel!” (5:2).  Rav Kook explains that Pharaoh raised three objections here.  The first objection was “Who is God?”  Pharaoh simply denied that He exists.  The Midrash records that Pharaoh, despite an exhaustion literature search, could find no evidence for the God of Israel.  The Egyptians worshipped idols, praying to visible and even tangible gods.  They could not conceive of or admit the existence of an invisible God who had not made it into their record books.  Furthermore, their notion of god did not cohere with Moshe’s claim that God had appeared to him and directed him to go to Pharaoh.  The Egyptians believed in a god who resided in heaven and had no interaction with his subjects.  The task of the believer was simply to appease the gods.

The purpose of the first grouping of Makot was to address this first objection.  Hashem chose the Nile, which was worshipped by the Egyptians as a god, as the target.  By changing into blood, the water of the Nile – the very lifeblood of Egypt – became a source of death and destruction.  Thus began the first lesson: that God is connected to the physical world and does interact with his human subjects to teach them.

This lesson was further strengthened with the next plague, the frogs.  The frogs pervaded the entire land of Egypt, entering into private homes and public spaces alike.  This yet again reinforced the lesson that spirituality and true Divinity are ubiquitous, not simply relegated to rites and rituals that the idol-worshipping Egyptians practiced.  Rav Breuer (of Washington Heights) ZT”L frequently commented that labeling Judaism a religion was misleading and inaccurate.  Judaism is a way of life that governs our conduct in all spheres, both public and private.  Moreover, Judaism is an equal-opportunity faith, open to all people irrespective of status.  For the Egyptians, religion was reserved for the elite.  By having the frogs attack all Egyptians equally, Hashem communicated the message of true nature of Divinity.

The third plague, the lice, completed the first lesson about the identity of the God of Israel.  All of Egypt was struck with lice, a feat that could not be replicated by the sorcerers.  They were incapable of creating such tiny creatures.  With their failure came their admission; they were forced to concede, “This is the finger of God” (8:15).  The first lesson was complete.

We then come to the next grouping of three plagues: ADaSh.  These were in response to the second objection raised by Pharaoh: “Who is God that I should listen to Him and release Am Yisrael?”  In Pharaoh’s worldview, there was no God of a specific group.  God has no favorites.  The idol worshipper conceives of his god as having no dominion over the world in any specific or defined manner, and therefore no nation can lay claim to god.  For the Egyptians, there was no such thing as Hasgacha Pratit, God’s Divine providence over each and every individual.  As such, the expression “God of the Jews” was a meaningless one.

Therefore, Hashem brought these three plagues to illustrate His unique and ongoing relationship with His people, the Jews.  The plague of the wild beasts did not strike the Jews, nor did it affect the land of Goshen where the Jews resided.  With this action, Hashem again communicated that He was involved in the world, overseeing each step, and monitoring the impact of His actions.  His special relationship with the Jews was evidenced by the preferential treatment they received.

This message was further underscored with the next plague, Dever, the epidemic that struck the flocks of Egypt but spared all the Jewish livestock.  Pharaoh, beginning to perceive the obvious, checked after the plague to see if any of the Jewish animals were affected: “Pharaoh sent a messenger, and he discovered that none of the Jewish animals had died” (9:7).

But Pharaoh, in his anger and his arrogance, could not back down and release Bnei Yisrael.  Hashem then sent one more plague to drive home the fact of His Divine Providence, His Hasgacha Pratit.  He sent the plague of boils to the Egyptians, a plague so severe that the magicians could not face Moshe.  Their inability to face Moshe may have been the result of their weakened physical condition, or it may have been a function of their shame.  The magicians were shamed at their hubris in pitting their witchcraft against God.  They began to perceive the truth about the God of Bnei Yisrael – God does exist and He supervises and superintends His people, Am Yisrael.  It is noteworthy that from this point onward we hear no further mention of the sorcerers.

As critical as it was for the Egyptians to learn this lesson, it was also a lesson made manifest for the Jews.  In their victim posture, they needed to learn and perceive that their God did indeed exist.  They needed to witness Hashem’s personal and ongoing relationship with them, and to begin to feel that Hashem could redeem them from Egypt.  Psychologically traumatized by the many years of servitude and pain, they could begin to believe that Hashem could and would save them.

The last grouping of the plagues, BeAChaV, responded to Pharaoh’s third objection.  Pharaoh would not accept the fact that the God of Israel who had this unique relationship with Bnei Yisrael had any power over Egypt, the mightiest nation at that time.  How could the Egyptians have believed that they were more powerful than Hashem?

To understand their position, we must acknowledge that Egypt was the “superpower” of its day, the ancient equivalent to the United States, in its mastery of science, finance, arts and ethnology.   No slave had ever escaped from Egypt, and they were capable of amazing engineering feats such as the construction of the pyramids.   Who could or would contain them?  It was certainly not to be this unseen and unknown God of their Jewish slaves.  It was therefore necessary for Hashem to communicate a lesson to the Egyptians that would reverberate throughout the world.  With the fall of the Egyptian empire came the perception of a Divinity that inspired Yitro  and others to convert.  With the final set of Makkot, Hashem intended to demonstrate once and for all that He was omnipotent, willing, ready and able to destroy Egypt.

The first of this group, hail, was designed to illustrate the singular power of Hashem.  The hail was unique in that its center was fire, and it weighed more than any hail ever before.  The Midrash explains that water and fire reached a truce in order to fulfill God’s will.  This ability to contain opposites within one element was a clear demonstration of God’s might.

The plague of locusts reinforced the display of Hashem’s extraordinary powers.  The locusts were everywhere in the land of Egypt, “unlike anything that had been seen before or that will ever be (10:14).”  Hashem changed nature to show that He could, and that nothing exceeded his capacity.

Hashem took a similar tack in the next plague, darkness.  The darkness was so thick that people could not see each other, move, or even stand up.  This new type of darkness, foreign to all, again showed God’s unique ability to alter nature at will.  Egypt would learn that He was all-powerful.

In the last plague, all three lessons were incorporated.  The death of the first-borns of Egypt was to demonstrate that the God of Israel does exist, that He has an ongoing personal relationship with us, and that He is all-powerful.  All the first-borns died, including the first-born of the slaves and the first-born of the animals.  However, not one Jewish child died; “not even a dog will bark at them, so that you may see that Hashem distinguishes between Egypt and Israel (11:7).”   This demonstration of raw power finally overcame Pharaoh’s resistance.  Pharaoh now perceived God’s existence, His Divine Providence, and His omnipotence.  At last he was ready to let Bnei Yisrael go.  

These lessons were intended for the Jewish people as well.  They needed to shed their slave mentality, to emerge from the victim posture, ready to become a Holy Nation with a destiny, the Torah, and the land of Israel.  To do so, they had to understand each of the lessons that the Egyptians were taught.  With this understanding, they could finally escape the tyranny of their Egyptian masters.  

In our age of extraordinary natural events and changes in the world’s power structure, we would do well to remember and relearn these lessons.  Hashem exists, we are His Chosen People, and He can readily change nature as evidenced by the tsunami and Hurricane Katrina.  In so doing, we may move from feeling afraid and victimized to feeling empowered.

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