“Teaching a New Reality About Divine Power Through The Ten Plagues”

by Rabbi Ephraim Z. Buchwald

In this coming week’s parasha, parashat Va’eira, we learn of the first seven plagues that the Al-mighty visits upon the Egyptians.  The final three plagues are recorded in parashat Bo, which follows next week.

In the Passover Hagaddah, we are told that Rabbi Judah used to divide up the Ten Plagues into three groups of three, employing the acronyms: D’tzach, A’dash, and B’ah’chav.  Each letter of the acronym stands for another of the ten plagues.

The division into three groups is not coincidental.  In our past studies (Parashat Bo 5763-2003), we’ve pointed out that Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch notes that the position of each plague within a triplet of plagues refers to another of G-d’s words to Abraham in the “Covenant between the Pieces” (Genesis 15): galut–exile, avdut–servitude, and ee’nooy–persecution.

A major theme frequently noted by the rabbis regarding the Ten Plagues is that they are visited upon Egypt to counter or refute the religious beliefs that were practiced at that time by the Egyptians. The Abarbanel notes that before each set of three plagues, the Torah states the objective and purpose of those plagues. In Exodus 7:17, the bible records Moses saying in G-d’s name: “Ko ah’mar Hashem, b’zot tay’dah kee ah’nee Hashem.”  Thus says the L-ord, through this shall you know, that I am the L-rd. Through the first three plagues, says the Abarbanel, the Al-mighty teaches that He is the Prime Cause and the Creator of the world.

Before the fourth plague is visited upon the Egyptians, Moses says in G-d’s name to Pharaoh (Exodus 8:18): “L’ma’ahn tay’dah kee ah’nee Hashem b’keh’rev ha’ah’retz.”  These three plagues are visited upon the Egyptians, so that you [Pharaoh] will know that I am the Lord, in the midst of the land, underscoring that G-d guides all events.

Finally, before the seventh plague, G-d tells Moses to inform Pharaoh that He is visiting His plagues upon the Egyptians (Exodus 9:14): “Ba’ah’voor tay ‘dah kee ayn kah’mo’nee b’chol ha’ah’retz,” so that you shall know that there is none like Me in all the world. In effect, these plagues come to teach Pharaoh of G-d’s omnipotence and universalness. Thus, we see that each triplet of the Ten Plagues is introduced by a statement announcing the purpose of the plagues.

There is nothing random about the structure of the Ten Plagues.  To the contrary, the structure is purposeful, each element coming to teach a new aspect of understanding G-d’s will.

To underscore the brilliance of the biblical structure of the Ten Plagues, let us examine another vital lesson taught through a close analysis of the text of the plagues.

When Moses and Aaron appear before Pharaoh for the first time, Aaron throws down his staff before Pharaoh and it becomes a snake. Pharaoh immediately summons the “chachamim” and “m’chashfim“–the wise men and the magicians. They too turn their staffs into snakes (Exodus 7:11-12).  Similarly, with the plague of blood, we read in Exodus 7:22 that the “chartoomim“–the sorcerers–turn the water into blood. In Exodus 8:3 we are told that the same sorcerers bring frogs out of the water.

At this point the sorcerers are very confident, and do not appear to be at all intimidated by the plagues.

However, by the third plague, kee’nim–lice, the Torah tells us that the sorcerers attempt to replicate the plague, but they cannot.  In exasperation, they say to Pharaoh (Exodus 8:15), “Etz’bah Eh’lokim hee,” this is the finger of G-d.  The sorcerers seem to be stumped.

During the fourth and fifth plagues, ah’rov–a swarm of wild beasts, and deh’ver–the epidemic plague, there is no mention of the chartoomim–sorcerers. They are totally silent, perhaps humbled by their inability to replicate the plagues or to even protect themselves from these plagues.

Finally, by the sixth plague of shechin–boils, the Torah tells us (Exodus 9:11), “V’lo yach’loo ha’char’too’mim la’ah’mod lif’nay Moshe mip’nay ha’shchin,” the sorcerers could not even stand before Moses because of the boils that were on them and on all of Egypt.

Once again, we see how the plagues debunk the religious beliefs of the Egyptians and repudiate the efficacy of the sorcerers.  The chartoomim have now been discredited.  They cannot even protect themselves from the attacks of the plagues, and thus lose all credibility in Pharaoh’s eyes.  In fact, we never hear from them again.

We conclude from all this that there not only is a purpose to the plagues, there is also a process to the plagues, through which G-d conveys His all-important message.  Although Egypt is not yet destroyed, its philosophies and beliefs are discredited by the plagues, one by one.  Through this
process, G-d teaches a new understanding of the power of G-d to the Egyptians and to all humanity.

May you be blessed.