One of the highlights of the Pesach story is the Eser Makkot, the Ten Plagues. The amazing miracles in each Makkah, culminating in Yetzi’at Mitzrayim, certainly give legitimacy to their status. But is there more to the Makkot than the miracles? Looking back, retracing the plagues, Mitzri and Israelite alike must have wondered at the time, is there a message here? A little digging will surely reveal that there is.
Choshech is fair place to start, as it is the last of the nine Makkot called an “Ot,” sign, and therefore any message to be found therein would be fully revealed by this point. The first time we see the word “Choshech” is in the second Pasuk of the Torah, “VeHaAretz Hayetah Tohu VaVohu VeChoshech Al Penei Tehom,” “And the land was empty and unformed, and darkness was on the face of the deep” (BeReishit 1:2). Two things are notable about this Pasuk. The first is that Choshech is associated with a time before the creation of world. The second is the seeming distinction between land and the Choshech. The world, for all intents and purposes, was not a formed entity at this point, and was certainly not the “deep” that the darkness is associated with. It is interesting, then, that the way Moshe brings about darkness on Mitzrayim is by stretching his hand to the heavens and away from the land, as is recounted, “VaYeit Moshe Et Yado Al HaShamayim VaYehi Choshech,” “And Moshe stretched his hand towards the heavens, and there was darkness” (Shemot 10:22). Moshe seems to be transforming Mitzrayim to a pre-Creation time for three days.
Arbeh, the next Makkah in line, also shares elements of reversing Creation. Moshe stretches his hand over the land of Egypt, and the following day the Arbeh arrive. The Arbeh then proceed to devour all of Egypt’s greenery. They consume “Kol Eisev HaAretz VeEit Kol Peri HaEitz Asher Hotir HaBarad VeLo Notar Kol Yerek BaEitz UVeEisev HaSadeh BeChol Eretz Mitzrayim,” “All the herbs and fruit trees in fields not destroyed by the hail, and no herb or greenery or tree was left in all of Egypt” (Shemot 10:15). In contrast, Hashem brought forth just such plants on the third day of Creation, with “Deshe Eisev Mazri’a Zera Eitz Peri Oseh Peri LeMino,” “Grass and herbs that produced seed and fruit trees that produced fruit according to their kind” (BeReishit 1:11). The language in the two Pesukim is very similar, mentioning the same types of plants, yet opposite in what occurred, namely, creation versus destruction. Once again, the Makkah appears to be setting Creation in reverse, driving back what Hashem created to the original source – Hashem Himself.
Continuing backwards, Barad, hail, breaks the pattern of reversing Creation established by Choshech and Arbeh. Nevertheless, this is not a major contradiction. Ostensibly, the reversal of Creation is meant to direct thoughts back to the source of Creation, Hashem. Once it is recognized that He is behind everything, the reversal can stop and the “story” can begin. The Barad begins a trek down memory lane that begins with the Flood. The Flood was an extremely pivotal event in world history; after all, Hashem essentially restarted the world. The Torah describes the extent of the Barad as smiting “Eit Kol Asher BaSadeh MeiAdam VeAd Beheimah VeEit Kol Eisev HaSadeh,” “Everything that was in the fields, from man to beast, all the produce of the fields” (Shemot 9:25). However, we are earlier told that all who feared Hashem brought themselves and livestock inside, presumably to be protected from the Barad, while those who did not do so stayed outside and perished. This split among those who did, and did not, perish, evokes the story of Noach and the Ark. There, Noach, undoubtedly a God-fearing man, builds himself an ark to escape the flood Hashem is about to bring. He brings animals with him into the Ark and is shut away from the outside world. The heavens then open up and pour forth their payload of rain. The entire sentient population of the world is destroyed, save for those safe inside the Ark. Similarly, the Barad rains down from the heavens and destroys all those who stay outside because they do not fear God, but those within are saved. The very nature of the Barad shows the major elements of the Flood.
Let’s now fast forward a few generations from the Flood. Avraham is an up-and-coming lad in the city of Ur Kasdim. He doesn’t buy into any Avodah Zarah (idol worship) nonsense, which understandably brings him into conflict with the leadership. The Midrash even relates a story of a conflict with Nimrod, the king. In this particular case Avraham is thrown into a fiery furnace, but emerges without so much as a blister. This story, which would probably have circulated among the Israelites as they told stories of their history, manifests in the Makkah of Shechin. These horrible boils are brought about when Moshe takes handfuls of soot from a furnace and casts them over Egypt. Moshe seems to be declaring to the world, “Remember what happened to Avraham and how he was saved from the very place these blisters originate from!” While the blisters alone do not evoke a particular moment in Israelite history, the method of bringing them about with soot from a furnace evokes the patriarch Avraham.
The remaining five Makkot simply tell a detailed story of the Israelites entering Mitzrayim. Dever, a plague on the animals, is a Makkah of agricultural death. Similarly, all three Avot faced famine, and a famine ultimately led the Israelites to descend to Mitzrayim. The decent to Mitzrayim lines up with the Makkah of Arov. The Arov consisted of wild, unusual animals, which ought not to be there, invading Egypt. From the Egyptians’ perspective, the Israelites were a strange people who had entered their borders much like these wild animals. Once the Israelites arrived, they began to grow rapidly as a nation. The specific word used by the Pasuk to describe such growth is “VaYishretzu,” “And they increased abundantly” (Shemot 1:7). Within the word “VaYishretzu” is the word Sheretz, which translates roughly to “creepy-crawly.” The Israelites began to expand rapidly and were associated with creepy-crawlies. Likewise, the Makkah of Kinim consisted of innumerable creepy-crawlies, lice, taking over Egypt. Kinim is an allusion to the population boom of the Israelites, which began to (figuratively) get in the Egyptians’ hair.
Tzefardei’a is next in line. According to the Midrash the Tzefardei’a was actually a single frog/crocodile that came out of the Nile. Subsequently the Egyptians would beat the Tzefardei’a. Each time it was hit the big Tzefardei’a would release more Tzefarde’im. A Pasuk about the Israelites’ experiences describes this situation perfectly (Shemot 1:12): “VeChaAsher Ye’anu Oto Kein Yirbeh VeChein Yifrotz,” “And the more they [Egyptians] abused them [Israelites] the more they [Israelites] grew and expanded.” Just as the Mitzrim beat the Israelites and they multiplied, so did the Tzefardei’a.
Finally, the first Makkah, Dam. All the pain that the Mitzrim caused the Israelites is symbolized in the bloody Nile. Furthermore, the Torah states that the fish died in the river and caused it to stink. The dead fish may allude to the Israelite newborns that were cast into the Nile to die.
When read forwards, the Makkot clearly point straight back through time to Hashem and the world’s beginning. When read backwards, as would probably happen first when the Egyptians were cooped up during Choshech, the Makkot point to Hashem as the One behind it all, and then proceed to tell the Israelites’ story. If the Egyptians, and certainly Par’oh, had seen this connection, there most likely would never have been the one Makkah that was not simply an “Ot,” a sign from Hashem. But they didn’t, and Egypt paid the price during Makkat Bechorot. As Pesach comes around, remember the microcosm manifest in the Makkot, and look at life as if everything tells a story.