“The Subtle Secrets of the 10 Plagues”

by Rabbi Ephraim Z. Buchwald

This coming week’s parasha, parashat Bo, describes the last three of the ten plagues. While the listing of the Ten Plagues seem quite straightforward, they are anything but that.

One of the basic operating principles of the Torah is that nothing in the Torah is ever arbitrary. Everything is well thought out, organized, and planned. A second important principle of the biblical narrative is that the Torah operates on the basis of midah k’neged midah--no act is ever unaccounted for, no good deed is uncompensated and no evil deed ever goes unpunished. Take for example the story of Cain, who kills his brother, Abel. Cain’s punishment is that he will always be a wanderer on the face of the earth. The reason for this particular punishment is due to the fact that Cain polluted the earth with the blood of his brother. Consequently, the earth rejects him, and will always tremble under his feet.

Similarly, we learn that Judah deceives his father, Jacob, with a he-goat, dipping Joseph’s coat of many colors into the blood of the goat and sending it to Jacob, asking: Is this the coat of your son? Do you recognize it? Likewise, Judah himself, is deceived with a he-goat, when he attempts to pay the harlot and cannot find her. Another instance of this symmetry is the fact that Jacob is separated from his parents for 22 years when he runs to Laban. Joseph is similarly separated from Jacob for 22 years when he’s sold by his brothers. Indeed, there’s no deed that’s unaccounted for, midah k’neged midah–tit for tat–there’s always a balance.

When we carefully study the ten plagues with which the Egyptians were struck, we discover an uncanny sense of balance that is abundantly amplified upon in the Midrash (the legendary interpretation of the Bible). The Midrash analyzes the purpose of each specific plague. Why did the Nile turn into blood? Because the Egyptians forced the Jews to haul water from the Nile. Hence, the water is punished along with the Egyptians. Why do the frogs strike the Egyptians? Because the Egyptians made the Jews serve as porters, and now frogs ruin all the merchandise in Egypt, so Jews can no longer be porters. Lice, keenim, the Jews were forced to serve as farmers, so the earth was overridden with lice, and the land could no longer be farmed.

Arov, which is often interpreted as a plague of wild animals, is visited on the Egyptians because the Jews were sent to the forests to trap wild animals for the Egyptians. Now the wild animals overrun all of Egypt. The plague of dever–-death of the animals, is due to the fact that the Jews were made into shepherds, and now all the flocks die. Boils–since the Jews were forced to serve as bath attendants, now the Egyptian’s bodies are covered with boils. The reason for the hail is due to the fact that the Jews were never paid for their agricultural work in the fields. Now the hail comes to break the trees and the orchards, rendering the field valueless. Arbeh–-the Jews were forced to labor in the vineyards, the locusts now come and eat all the vines. The Egyptians unfairly placed the Jews into prison, now intense darkness comes and “imprisons” the Egyptians wherever they may be. And finally, of course, Pharaoh sought to drown the Jewish boys in the Nile river, now the first born of the Egyptians are killed in retribution.

Again and again, we see an accountability, where not only are the Egyptians punished, but the punishment is linked and responds to the specific evil deeds of the Egyptians.

There is a most intriguing, even “exotic,” statement recorded in the Zohar (the mystical interpretation of the Bible). The Zohar states that the Torah is written “aish sh’chora al gabey aish l’vana,” black fire upon white fire, implying that the black letters of the Torah are “black fire,” while the parchment itself is “white fire.”

Since there’s nothing arbitrary in the Bible and everything is carefully balanced, the statement of the Zohar, of course, conveys a profound message. The Zohar maintains that the Torah is so holy and so full of profound meaning, that not only do the letters have meanings, but the white spaces in between the letters of the Torah have meaning as well. This perhaps explains the enigmatic passage that we read in the Passover Haggadah about the ten plagues. It reads: “Rabbi Yehudah haya notain bahem simanim,” Rabbi Judah provided “signs” concerning the ten plagues. Rabbi Judah in fact provided a triple acronym to help us recall the ten plagues, “D’tzach adash bachav,”-–each letter representing another of the ten plagues. With this acronym, Rabbi Judah divides the ten plagues into three groups of three. While the death of a first born is included in the last triplet, it really is in a class by itself.

Why does Rabbi Judah divide the ten plagues in such a manner and why the need for the nemonic reminder in the first place? One of the central moments in the book of Genesis is undoubtedly the “Brit bain hab’tarim,” the covenant between the pieces. In this covenant, recorded in Genesis 15, G-d promises Abraham that within the next 400 years, the Jews will experience exile, servitude, and severe persecution, but they will eventually depart from the land of the travails with great wealth.

The “signs” that Rabbi Judah provides, in effect divide the ten plagues into three parts, each triplet corresponding to one of the three major elements of the covenant between the pieces: exile, servitude, and persecution. Rabbi Sampson Raphael Hirsch (1808-1888, the great leader of German Jewry and Bible commentator) brilliantly underscores that the ten plagues serve as “payback” for the Egyptians. How so? In the first plague of each triplet (plagues 1, 4 and 7) the Egyptians who exiled the Jewish people, will experience exile themselves: Plague 1: The Nile–-the most identifiable feature of Egypt will turn blood–Egypt will no longer be Egypt! Plague 4: Wild animals will overtake Egypt, Plague 7: Hail will fall on the warm climate of Egypt. In the second plague of each triplet (plagues 2, 5 and  8) the Egyptians will experience “enslavement.” Plague 2: The Egyptians will be subservient to the timorous frog, Plague 5: The animals will die and the Egyptians will have to clear the land. Plague 8: The locusts will enslave the Egyptians. In the third plague of each triplet (plagues 3,6 and 9) the Egyptians will experience physical “persecution,” they will be subjected to Plague 3: Lice. Plague 6: Boils. Plague 9: Darkness–incarceration!

Thus we see that the external structure of the ten plagues actually reflects an internal symmetry that is a fulfillment of the covenant between the pieces.

Nothing in the Torah is arbitrary. To the contrary, it is a most meaningful text, whose secrets are revealed to the discerning eye, through careful and devoted study. These secrets speak volumes about the Divine authorship of the Bible.

May you be blessed.