“The Decline and Collapse of the Egyptian Magicians”

by Rabbi Ephraim Z. Buchwald

In this week’s parasha, parashat Va’eira, we learn of the first seven plagues that strike the Egyptians.

G-d instructs Moses to tell Aaron to take his staff and wave it over the waters of Egypt, over the rivers, over the canals, over all the reservoirs and over all the gatherings of water. Moses and Aaron do as G-d had commanded, and the waters of the Nile turn to blood in the presence of Pharaoh and his servants.

In Exodus 7:22, the Torah reports, “Va’ya’ah’soo chayn char’too’may Mitz’ra’yim b’lah’tay’hem,” Pharaoh’s magicians did the same by means of their magic [turning the waters to blood], and Pharaoh’s heart was hardened and he did not pay heed to them, as G-d had predicted.

When Aaron waves his staff over the waters a second time, an infestation of frogs ascends from the river covering the land of Egypt. The Torah, in Exodus 8:3, once again states, “Va’ya’ah’soo chayn ha’char’too’mim b’lah’tay’hem, va’ya’ah’loo et hatz’far’d’eem ahl eretz Mitz’ra’yim,” the magicians did the same thing through their magic, and brought up the frogs upon the land of Egypt.

Clearly, the magicians’ actions seek to demonstrate to Pharaoh that what Moses and Aaron have done was simply slight of hand, which they could easily replicate through their own common magic.

When the third plague, lice, is visited upon Egypt, Scripture in Exodus 8:14 states, “Va’ya’ah’soo chayn ha’char’too’mim b’lah’tay’hem, l’ho’tzee et ha’kee’neem v’loh ya’choh’loo, va’t’hee ha’kee’nahm bah’ah’dahm oo’va’b’hay’mah,” The magicians [attempted to] do the same with their magic to draw forth lice, but they could not. And the lice infestation was on man and beast. At this point, the magicians cry out to Pharaoh, Exodus 8:15,”Etz’bah Eh’lo’him hee,” It is the finger of G-d. But Pharaoh’s heart was nevertheless hardened, and he did not pay heed to them [Moses and Aaron] as G-d had predicted.

Even though, by duplicating the first and second plagues, the magicians only added to the severity of the plagues, the fact that they were able to replicate the plagues encouraged Pharaoh’s defiance.

The fourth and fifth plagues consist of a swarm of wild beasts and an epidemic that killed the animals in Egypt. During these two plagues the Torah does not report any reaction from the Egyptian magicians. Apparently, they watched the plagues in silence and in complete helplessness.

The last we hear of the magicians is during the sixth plague–boils. G-d instructs Moses and Aaron to take handfuls of soot, and to hurl them heavenward before Pharaoh’s eyes. They do so, and the dust becomes boils, erupting into blisters on humans and beasts throughout the land of Egypt.

When the plague of boils strikes Egypt, the Torah in Exodus 9:11 reports, “V’loh yach’loo ha’char’too’mim la’ah’mohd lif’nay Moshe mip’nay ha’sh’cheen, kee ha’yah ha’sh’cheen bah’char’too’mim oo’v’chol Mitz’rah’yim,” the magicians could not stand before Moses because of the boils, because the boils were on the magicians and on all of Egypt.

This time, not only could the magicians not replicate the plague and were forced to watch helplessly as the plagues struck Egypt, now they themselves were personally smitten by the plague. The magicians were utterly defeated, and could no longer serve as a source of support for Pharaoh’s defiance. It should have been quite the opposite, their collapse should have given Pharaoh serious cause for concern.

It is interesting to note that the magicians never attempt to save Egypt and its people from the plagues. Their primary intention is to support Pharaoh’s resistance by discrediting Moses and Aaron. By showing how easily the plagues could be replicated, they demonstrate how duplicitous Moses and Aaron were. Obviously, if the magicians really wanted to help Pharaoh and the Egyptian people, they would have shown Pharaoh that they could do away with the plagues or heal the victims. Failing to do so now makes it apparent to all that the magicians themselves were frauds.

The decline of the magicians in Pharaoh’s eyes is only part of the function that the plagues were intended to fulfill. The greater purpose of the plagues was to discredit the Egyptian beliefs and their gods. The Nile, which served as the source of so much blessing for Egypt and was itself regarded as a foremost Egyptian deity, now became a primary source of ruination for much of Egypt. Instead of water, the Nile produced blood and frogs that ravaged Egypt and its people.

Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch cogently points out that, even though the magicians were unable to replicate the third plague, they remained steadfastly defiant. By stating that the plague of lice was the “finger of G-d,” they imply that the ultimate impact and power of G-d is rather limited. After all, it was only a finger, not a hand. As compensation for their brazen skepticism, the magicians themselves are now made to feel the full impact of the plagues. They are themselves soon stricken by boils despite the fact that the priests, magicians and sacred animals of Egypt were always kept painstakingly clean, their bodies shaven in order to protect against disease. Now, their obsession with personal hygiene is of no avail. The magicians are utterly helpless in the face of G-d’s plagues. It is at this point that the magicians lose their status and are thoroughly discredited.

The plagues accomplish their purpose. Not only do we see the decline and collapse of the magicians, but also, the decline and collapse of the Egyptian gods, and the people’s faith in these gods.

After the conclusion of ten plagues, Pharaoh comes desperately running, looking for Moses and Aaron, beseeching them to rise up, to take the people and depart from Egypt. He begs them to take the Children of Israel and to worship G-d. He even entreats them to bless him as well. Pharaoh’s faith in the magicians has been crushed. Pharaoh’s faith in himself as a divinity has also been undermined, and his pagan ideas of god have been discredited. Instead, all the people acknowledge Hashem as the one true G-d.

A new era, celebrating the reign of Hashem, has begun.

May you be blessed.