“Learning to Revere G-d”

by Rabbi Ephraim Z. Buchwald

There is a fascinating debate in the Passover Hagaddah regarding the number of plagues that struck the Egyptians at the sea.

We are well aware of the Biblical narrative that describes the ten fateful plagues that struck the Egyptians in Egypt. But where do we find that any plagues struck the Egyptians at the sea as well?

In the Passover Hagaddah, Rabbi Jose the Galilean begins a conversation by asking: How does one derive that the Egyptians in Egypt were struck with ten plagues, and with fifty plagues at the sea? He explains that the Torah records that when the Egyptian magicians were unable to replicate the third plague of lice, they cried out to Pharaoh, (Exodus 8:15) “It is the finger of G-d.” However, at the sea, the Torah reports, in Exodus 14:31, that when “Israel saw the ‘hand’ which G-d laid upon the Egyptians, the people feared G-d and they believed in G-d and in His servant, Moses.” Rabbi Jose explains that if the ten plagues that struck the Egyptians in Egypt were described as only one finger, then, surely, at the sea, where the Egyptians were struck with a whole hand (five fingers), they must have suffered fifty plagues.

In the Hagaddah, both Rabbi Eliezer and Rabbi Akiva cite a series of descriptive Biblical words to conclude that each of the plagues in Egypt was a multiple plague. Expanding on the interpretation of Rabbi Jose, Rabbi Eliezer claims that in Egypt the Egyptians were struck with forty plagues, and by the sea, with two hundred plagues. Rabbi Akiva maintains that in Egypt the Egyptians were struck with fifty plagues, and at the sea, with 250 plagues.

The famed Bet HaLevi raises a profound question regarding the verse in Exodus 14:31, cited by the Midrash, וַיִּירְאוּ הָעָם אֶת השׁם, that after the Egyptians drowned in the sea, the people feared G-d and believed in His servant, Moses. Does this not imply, asks the Bet HaLevi, that until this point, the people of Israel did not fear G-d, and that only from this point on did they fear G-d?

How is it possible, asks the Bet HaLevi, that after witnessing the ten plagues and the many other miracles in Egypt, the Israelites did not develop a sense of fear of G-d? And what was it that the Israelites saw later when the Egyptians drowned in the sea that ultimately inspired them to fear G-d?

The concept of “fear of G-d” is troubling and requires clarification. While the Hebrew word, יִרְאָה–“Yirah,” may be translated to mean fear, it is more correctly translated as “reverence.” This is true as well with regard to the commandment to fear one’s father and mother. It is not fear of punishment or retribution that children must develop, but rather fear out of love and respect, hence, reverence. Children should be fearful of hurting their parents’ feelings when doing something wrong, or when treating them disrespectfully. And so it is with fear of G-d.

The Bet HaLevi explains that the Israelites did not gain reverence for G-d from seeing the ten plagues strike the Egyptians, because what they were witnessing at that time in Egypt was G-d punishing the evil Egyptians. Invoking His quality of justice, reflected in the name אֱ-לֹקִים–“Eh’loh’heem,” the G-d of power, the Al-mighty visited retribution upon the Egyptians. The suffering of the Egyptians was well deserved, due to their wickedness and abundant evil deeds. Since the Jews were without merits at that time, the afflictions of the Egyptians had nothing to do with the merits of the Jews. In fact, the Israelites were at the point of virtual “oblivion” because of their own appalling behavior and near-total assimilation (see Passover 5767-2007).

At the sea, however, when the Israelites saw G-d’s mercies reflected in G-d’s name–-the Tetragrammaton, they soon developed a love and reverence for Him. By that time, the Jews had, through their good actions, already become worthy and had earned the right for G-d to intervene on their behalf, and for them to be saved. By that time, they had actually showed the courage to defy their Egyptian masters by brazenly seizing lambs on the tenth day of Nissan and publicly declaring that they intend to slaughter the Egyptian god, the lamb, on the night of the fourteenth. Also, the many Jews who were uncircumcised, fearlessly underwent circumcision, allowing them to eat the Paschal offering.

When the people departed from Egypt to follow Moses and Aaron into the wilderness, they left behind their homes and many of their belongings, without knowing what fate had in store for them. The prophet, Jeremiah (2:2), declares that G-d never forgot this amazing act of חֶסֶד–Chessed, loving-kindness, לֶכְתֵּךְ אַחֲרַי בַּמִּדְבָּר, בְּאֶרֶץ לֹא זְרוּעָה, that you [the people of Israel] followed G-d into the wilderness and into a land that was not sown.

When the People of Israel acknowledged that their salvation was from G-d, they burst out in song, “Your right hand, oh L-rd, is glorified with strength, Your right hand, oh L-rd, smashes the enemy” (Exodus 15:6). In Kabbalah, the right hand represents the attribute of Divine mercy.

For the first time, the Jews understood that, unlike mortal kings of flesh and blood, G-d’s attributes of strict justice and mercy could be united. G-d can, at once, show compassion and justice, steadfastness and mercy.

It was only at the sea that the People of Israel gained a sense of יִרְאָה, reverence for G-d, because by that time, through their courageous actions, the Israelites had earned the right for G-d to shower His people with love and mercy.

May you be blessed.

Please note: The first two days of the joyous festival of Passover will be observed this year on Friday night, April 3rd and all day Saturday and Sunday, April 4th and 5th. The seventh and eighth days of Passover begin on Thursday night, April 9th, and continue through Friday and Saturday, April 10th and 11th.

Chag Kasher V’samayach.

Wishing all our friends a wonderful, joyous and meaningful Passover.