“The Subtle Secrets of the 10 Plagues”
(updated and revised from Bo 5763-2003)

by, Rabbi Ephraim Z. Buchwald

This week’s Torah portion, parashat Bo, describes the last three of the ten plagues that struck the Egyptians in Egypt. While the order and nature of the Ten Plagues seems quite straightforward, they are anything but that.

One of the basic operating principals of the Torah is that nothing in the Torah is ever accidental or arbitrary. Everything is (“Divinely”) well thought out, organized, and planned. A second important principal of the biblical narrative is that all actions and deeds in the Torah operate on the basis of מִדָּה כְּנֶגֶד מִדָּהmidah k’neged midah—a measure for measure. No act is ever unaccounted for–no good deed is ever uncompensated, and no evil deed ever goes unpunished. Take, for example, the story of Cain, who kills his brother, Abel. Cain’s punishment (Genesis 4:12) 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 (Genesis 37:31-32): “Is this the coat of your son? Do you recognize it?” Likewise, Judah himself (Genesis 38:20-23), is deceived with a he-goat, when he attempts to pay the harlot, (actually, his daughter-in-law, Tamar), 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—measure for measure—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 serve as porters. כִּנִים, Keenim, lice–the the Jews were forced to serve as farmers, so the earth was overridden with lice, and the land could no longer be farmed.

עָרֹב, 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 דֶּבֶר, 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-house 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 fields valueless. Arbeh–the Jews were forced to labor in the vineyards, the locust now consume 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 corresponds to the specific evil deeds of the Egyptians.

There is a most intriguing, even “exotic,” statement recorded in the Zohar. The Zohar states that the Torah is written אֵשׁ שְׁחוֹרָה עַל גַּבֵּי אֵשׁ לְבָנָה, 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 themselves have meanings, but the white spaces in between the letters of the Torah have profound meaning as well

This, perhaps, explains the enigmatic passage that we read in the Passover Haggadah about the ten plagues. It reads: רַבִּי יְהוּדָה הָיָה נוֹתֵן בָּהֶם סִמָּנִים, Rabbi Judah provided “signs” concerning the ten plagues. Rabbi Judah in fact provided a triple acronym to help us recall the ten plagues, דְּצַ”ךְ עַדַ”שׁ בְּאַחַ”ב–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 mnemonic reminder in the first place? One of the central moments in the book of Genesis is undoubtedly the בְּרִית בֵּין הָבְּתָּרִים –“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 their 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 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 to blood–Egypt will no longer be Egypt! Plague 4: Wild animals will overtake Egypt, Plague 7: Hail will fall in the warm climate of Egypt. Exile for the Egyptians: Egypt is no longer 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 locust will enslave the Egyptians. The Egyptians themselves experience enslavement.

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 an extraordinarily meaningful text whose secrets are revealed to the discerning eye, through careful and devoted study.

These secrets clearly speak volumes about the Divine authorship of the Bible.

May you be blessed.