Tag Archives: ten plagues

Commentary for Bo

10 Feb

To many modern readers the most morally troubling aspect of the story of the exodus is the idea that “the Lord hardened Pharaoh’s heart.” This phrase (or a variant thereof), appears four times in the narrative- once in last week’s parshah and three times in this week’s- and is always followed by Pharaoh refusing to let the Israelites go, resulting in more plagues befalling Pharaoh and the Egyptians, bothers many readers because it seems like God is stacking the deck against Pharaoh. Even when Pharaoh might be willing to let the Israelites go as God has been commanding him, God is seemingly forcing Pharaoh to refuse to do so, which results in more punishment for Pharaoh and the Egyptians. If Pharaoh was prepared to let the Israelites go after just six plagues, then doesn’t God “hardening Pharaoh’s heart” so that he does not do so mean that all of the remaining plagues constitute unnecessary suffering that only occurs because of God’s manipulation of Pharaoh?

The first time that God “hardens Pharaoh’s heart” is after the sixth plague: the plague of boils. Before this point, whenever Moses and Aaron initiated a demonstration of God’s might as a warning to Pharaoh, they were usually opposed by Pharaoh’s “magicians” who would attempt to replicate the feat, with varying degrees of success. With the sixth plague, however, “The magicians were unable to confront Moses because of the boils, for the boils afflicted the magicians as well as all the other Egyptians (Ex. 9:11).” Then, in the very next verse, we are told that “The Lord hardened the heart of Pharaoh and he would not heed them, just as the Lord had told Moses.”

The second time the phrase appears is after the seventh plague- or perhaps more appropriately, before the eighth plague. The exact timing of this is important for two reasons. The first is the timing of the plague in context with those that came before it. The past few plagues- cattle disease, boils, and hail- have caused enormous suffering to the Egyptians. First their livestock were killed, damaging their supply of food. Then they themselves became sick (although midrash teaches that the only ones who died from this affliction were the magicians). Then the hail damaged their crops, further taxing the food supply. To put it simply, the Egyptians are really starting to feel the effects of God’s wrath. Frogs and lice were surely annoying, but they did not cause much death or suffering. Now is when the plagues have really started to kick it up into high gear.

The second reason the timing of this is significant is because during the seventh plague Pharaoh appears to have had an epiphany that he and the Egyptians are in the wrong and that God is right and the Israelites should be set free. He asks Moses to ask God to relieve the plague and God does, but “when Pharaoh saw that the rain and the hail and the thunder had ceased, he became stubborn and continued to sin; he and his servants. Pharaoh’s heart stiffened (Ex.9:34-35)” all on its own and he refused to let the Israelites go.

God responds to this by hardening the hearts of not only Pharaoh, but of his courtiers as well (Ex. 10:1), then instructing Moses and Aaron to go warn Pharaoh that if he does not let the Israelites go, the next plague will be locusts that will wipe out the crops that survived the hail. When Moses and Aaron leave, Pharaoh’s courtiers beg him to give in to God’s demands, or at the very least try to negotiate a deal where some of the Israelites will be allowed to leave, saying “How long will this be a snare for us?… are you not yet aware that Egypt is lost (Ex. 10:7)?” After Pharaoh’s attempt at negotiation fails, the plague is brought on, and soon enough, Pharaoh summons Moses and Aaron again, admitting that he is in the wrong and begging for the plague to be lifted, asking them to “Forgive my offense just this once, and plead with the Lord your God that God will but remove only this death from me (Ex. 10:17).” God removes the plague, but once again God hardens Pharaoh’s heart and he does not let the Israelites go.

The final mention of this phrase occurs after the ninth plague has been lifted and Pharaoh attempts to negotiate with Moses once again. Pharaoh finally agrees to let all of the Israelites go, but insists that all of their flocks remain in Egypt. This would rob the Israelites of what would have been their main food source, which would all but ensure that the Israelites would be forced to choose between returning to slavery in Egypt and dying of starvation in the desert.

The common theme between all of these events is Pharaoh’s lack of compassion. While he himself suffered from the boils, his loyal magicians all perished, but even upon seeing this he did not summon Moses and Aaron back and begs them to remove the plague as he often would. Then, after the finally realizing that he is in the wrong during the seventh plague, he reverts right back to sinning, knowing that it will only continue the cycle of punishment being brought down upon him and his people. When he is warned about the eighth plague- the second in a row to target the crops- Pharaoh still won’t let the Israelites go because he knows that he will always be able to afford food. It is Pharaoh’s courtiers- who also had their hearts hardened- who realized the great suffering this plague would cause to the Egyptian people and begged Pharaoh to seek some kind of settlement. Pharaoh agrees to do so, but offers terms that he knows will be unacceptable to Moses because he has no interest in the negotiations succeeding. When the plague hits, Pharaoh notably begs Moses to ask God to “but remove only this death from me.” Not from “us” or “my people,” but from “me.

After the ninth plague, Pharaoh once again enters into negotiations intending to offer terms he knows will result in the breakdown of negotiations and God once again hardens his heart in preparation for the final plague. The purpose of hardening Pharaoh’s heart is not to have an excuse to inflict more suffering by making Pharaoh refuse to release the Israelites, but rather to increase Pharaoh’s own personal tolerance for the conditions of the plagues in the hope that, as his courtiers come to do before the eighth plague, this will cause Pharaoh to focus less on his own suffering and more on the suffering of others, so he will understand what he has done wrong by enslaving the Israelites and so he will learn to pay attention to the needs of his subjects, as any good ruler must do. After the smiting of the first-born there is “a loud cry in Egypt; for there was no house where there was not someone dead (Ex. 12:30),” and Pharaoh, hearing this “loud cry” of all of Egypt, finally understands the suffering he has caused to both the Israelites and his own people, and sets the Israelites free.


Commentary for Va’era

13 Jan

This week’s parshah contains the beginning of the confrontations between Moses and Pharaoh, including the first seven of the ten plagues. Most curious among these is the second plague: frogs. Pestilence and disease striking down human and animal alike, legions of bugs crawling everywhere and getting all over and into everyone and everything, rivers turning to blood, giant flaming chunks of hail raining down from the sky: these are the sorts of things we picture when we think about a wrathful God smiting people in furious anger. Deadly wild beasts roaming around unfettered, making it unsafe to go outside doesn’t have the same powerful visual to it, but at least that is something that we still understand as undeniably dangerous. But frogs? Sure, it’d be really, really, really annoying to have frogs everywhere, jumping around the bedroom and the kitchen, but it seems like the sort of thing you would almost get used to after a while. No worse than being forced to go camping by a lake against your will, except that you’d still get the everyday conveniences and protections of home instead of living in a tent. So why in the world would God choose to punish the Egyptians with frogs?

After the first plague, Pharaoh still refused to let the Israelites go, so Moses warned him that if he didn’t, there would be a plague of frogs coming up from the Nile. Pharaoh doesn’t let the Israelites go, so God tells Moses to tell Aaron to go start the plague. It is interesting to note that while all of the instances where the plague is described, either as it is happening or in a warning beforehand, the plural word “tzefarde’im”- “frogs” is used, but in Ex. 8:2, when Aaron initiates the plague by holding his arm out over the water, the singular form, “tzefarde’ah” is used. Most translations understand this as referring to the infestation of frogs itself rather than the number of frogs, so the use of the singular makes sense, but in an extremely literal reading of the text, only one frog emerges from the Nile. The Talmud takes this view, saying that the plague started with just one frog, and debates what that frog did (either reproduce or call to others) to make the infestation grow (Sanhedrin 67b). A further midrash states that this first original frog was actually a gigantic frog, and Rashi says that the Egyptians immediately tried to club it to death, but rather than hurting it, each blow the Egyptians landed simply made more frogs spring forth from it.

The parshah continues by showing us the response of Pharaoh’s magicians. Just as with the first plague, the magicians set out to prove that they were equal to God by summoning frogs of their own, which they did.

Pharaoh eventually summons Moses and agrees to let the Israelites go in exchange for Moses making the frogs go away. This leads to an interesting exchange between the two. Moses tells Pharaoh to pick a time that he would like the frogs to go away, and Pharaoh says “tomorrow.” Ramban points out that if the frogs were bothering him so much, it seems strange that Pharaoh would be willing to wait another day for them to go away instead of just asking for them to go away right now. Ramban explains this by exploring one possible motive for Pharaoh’s odd decision. Ramban says that Pharaoh believed Moses to merely be a sorcerer or an astrologer instead of a servant of God, and figured that Moses had already divined that the frogs would go away that day and thus gave Pharaoh the choice, assuming that Pharaoh would say “make them go away now” and they would start going away and Moses would use this as evidence of his own power. Thinking he had figured Moses out, Pharaoh tried to outsmart him, Pharaoh choosing for the frogs to go away tomorrow instead, reasoning that the frogs would go away today anyway, and thus Moses would be exposed as a fraud.

Going back to the giant frog, Oznayim LaTorah comments that it was intended as one last warning to Pharaoh to rethink his decision to not let the Israelites go by showing that God was clearly capable of following through on the threat of this next plague. Pharaoh does not heed the warning and refuses to acknowledge God’s power, and thus he and the Egyptians are struck by the plague.

It is interesting to note that every action taken by the Egyptians only serves to make the plague worse. They ignore God’s warning and attack the giant frog instead of urging Pharaoh to submit to God’s will and free the Israelites, creating more frogs each time they hit it. Pharaoh’s magicians attempt to demonstrate their own power not my making the frogs go away, but by summoning even more frogs, which only makes the situation worse. Pharaoh, in his attempt to outsmart Moses, makes the plague last longer than was necessary.

The Egyptian solutions to the plague of frogs were focused on the symptoms rather than the actual problem. The only reason the frogs were there was because they would not acknowledge God’s will and let the Israelites go free. Instead, they focused their efforts on trying to deny God’s power, either by trying to destroy God’s supernatural creation, by trying to prove themselves to be equal to God, or by trying to expose Moses as a trickster and therefore deny that God had any power at all. And in the end, after the frogs had gone away, Pharaoh once again hardened his heart and reneged on his promise to let the Israelites go, ensuring that Egypt would endure yet another plague. Over and over and over until Pharaoh finally understood the real problem. The plague of frogs was sent to try teach the Egyptians what the real problem they were facing was. The key to permanently solving a problem is not to lash out at the results as the Egyptians did, but to do as we try to do on the High Holidays and identify the root causes and work to correct them.

Commentary for Bo

26 Jan

This week’s parshah contains the final three of the ten plagues that God brings against the Egyptians. While they seem like a minor point when compared to the plagues themselves and their place in the exodus, there are many important things we can learn by studying the nuances of the narratives of the individual plagues and by comparing them to each other. Sometimes Pharaoh is warned before a plague; sometimes he is not. While some of the plagues start simply when God causes some miraculous thing to happen, there are other plagues where God waits for Moses to take a specific, predetermined action before bringing on the plague. Sometimes it is Aaron performing the action instead of Moses, and for the sixth plague, it is both of them together. Some of the plagues affect all of Egypt, while others are specifically stated to not affect Goshen, where the Israelites live.

Of this last category, the ninth plague, darkness, is a little bit different than the others. There were five plagues that did not strike the Israelites or their flocks (wild beasts, cattle disease, hail, darkness, and the slaying of the firstborn). The tenth plague targeted the Egyptians as well as any Israelites who did not heed Moses’ instructions in chapter twelve. The fourth and seventh plagues are specifically said to have spared “the land of Goshen, where My people stand/where the Israelites were (Ex. 8:18/9:26),” and the fourth and fifth plague both mention that God is sparing the Israelites’ land and livestock to show that these are not natural occurrences, but rather Divinely directed acts of punishments of the Egyptians.

The ninth plague, however, only states that “but for all the Children of Israel, there was light in their dwellings (Ex. 10:23).” It does not mention a Divine motive to show that the darkness was not natural phenomenon because three straight days of darkness darker than the average night is clearly not a natural phenomenon. It similarly does not mention Goshen itself being spared, but just the Israelite dwellings, implying that outside in Goshen, the plague still struck. If plague still struck Goshen and there is no mention of God specifically sparing the Israelites to show a differentiation between them and the Egyptians, why were the Israelite dwellings unaffected by the plague?

Many modern commentators have used the description of the darkness so thick that no Egyptian could “stand up from where was (10:23)” to infer that the darkness brought on a depression-induced lethargy in the Egyptians, an idea which fits in well with Midrash Rabbah’s comparison of the darkness in Egypt with Job’s description of his depression as “a land whose light is darkness; all gloom and disarray, whose light is like darkness (Job 10:22).” Other commentators have seized upon the description of a darkness so thick that “no man could see his brother (Ex. 10:23),” to explain the darkness as a physical representation of the Egyptians spiritual state.

One of the curses Moses warns the Israelites that they will suffer if they reject God is that they will “grope around at noon as a blind man gropes in the darkness… and there will be no savior (Deut 28:29).” Rabbi Yosi asks why the words “in the dark” were included, as the amount of light outside does not affect how well a blind man can see. He then answers his own question, explaining that in the daylight others will be able to help the blind man around, but in the darkness they are just as blind as he is and will not be able to help (Megilah 24b).

Towards the end, as Pharaoh begins to realize God’s power, he starts trying to negotiate with Moses. One time he proposes that he will let the Israelite men go, but that the women must stay. Another time he suggests that the adults be let go, but the children remain behind. Both of these offers are quickly rejected. Each and every Israelite is part of the nation, and none of them will have their freedom come at the expense of any of the others. Even their animals must be allowed to leave Egypt with them. The Israelites had suffered through generations of slavery together, and they would all leave together.

The Egyptians, on the other hand, were not willing to stick up for each other. The Tosafot present a midrash that says that when the Egyptian firstborn saw that the Israelites were choosing lambs for sacrifice, they realized that the Israelites were preparing for the final plague (which Moses had announced in Ex. 11). Seeing this, they went to Pharaoh’s court and begged for Pharaoh to let the Israelites go so that their lives would be spared, but Pharaoh and his courtiers would not relent. Even when the lives of their children hung in the balance, they were concerned only with themselves.

The Talmud defines the time that it is halachicly light enough to see as “when one can recognize the face of a friend (Berachot 9b).” The Israelites have light during the ninth plague because of the support and friendship they showed each other, while the Egyptians sat mired in depression and darkness because none of them were willing to see each other as friends in need, and thus unwilling to be the savior of Deut. 28:29 and help each other through the darkness.

Commentary for Va’eira

16 Jan

In this week’s parshah we meet perhaps the most out of place characters in the entire Torah: the Chartumim. Often translated as either “magicians” or “advisors,” these characters are strange because whereas later servants of foreign gods are often exposed by God’s prophets as nothing but tricksters, a basic reading of the text of our parshah seem to imply allow that the Chartumim actually do have supernatural powers with which they confront and attempt to discredit Moses and Aaron- and by extension, God. Many commentators have pointed to the fact that the text specifically talks about the Chartumim using “spells” to do what Moses and Aaron did effortlessly as proof that the Chartumim were merely creating illusions like modern magicians do (and many midrashim have been created to give examples of this), but whether or not that is the case is not a major theological issue because their power, whether supernatural or mere illusion, is shown to be completely outclassed by God’s at every turn.


It is, however, interesting to examine the way that the Chartumim choose to use their “powers.” After the first plague, when the Nile River and all other bodies of water in Egypt and all water drawn from them, even water already taken out of them at the time, is turned to blood, the Chartumim respond by also supposedly turning water into blood. Similarly, when the second plague comes, the Chartumim respond by seemingly producing frogs of their own. What good does that do? Now there is even less water to drink, and there are even more pesky frogs hopping around. All they have succeeded in doing is making the problem worse. Each time the Chartumim are able to replicate the plagues, it reinforces Pharaoh’s belief in his own superiority over God, giving him more reason to refuse to let the Israelites go.


When the third plague comes, the Chartumim also try to bring forth lice, which would once again only exacerbate the problem. Unlike the first two plagues, the Chartumim fail at imitating the miracle and declare the superiority of God’s power. By this point, though, the damage has been done, and Pharaoh is now so certain of his own superiority that he refuses to listen to even his own advisors, and refuses to let the Israelites go.


The final time that the Chartumim are mentioned is during the sixth plague, when the Torah notes that they were so afflicted with boils that they could not even appear to confront Moses. Interestingly, there is a seeming discrepancy in the Torah about the curability of these boils. When Moses is warning the people of the consequences of rejecting God, one of the punishments he warns them that God will send is “the boils of Egypt… of which you cannot be cured (Deut. 28:27).” In the Exodus story, though, the text (in 9:15-16) is clear that God ends the plague and cures all of the boils. There is a midrash which explains that the incurable boils mentioned in Deuteronomy were a punishment for the Chartumim alone, and unlike the rest of the Egyptians, God did not cure their boils at the end of the plague (which would also explain why the Chartumim don’t show up again).


The sin that Moses is warning the Israelites against in Deuteronomy is the sin of believing that you know better than God does or that you will be able to take whatever punishment God can throw at you and just walk it off because you are more powerful than God. These are transgressions born out of excessive pride and arrogance, two qualities exemplified by the Chartumim.


Whether they were real magicians or merely tricksters, the fact remains that the Chartumim had a position of influence, authority, and responsibility in Egypt. If they were real magicians, then they ignored their responsibility to Egypt by attempting to replicate the plagues. They wanted to prove that they were greater than God, and only took actions to make the situation worse rather than trying to reverse the plagues and make the situation better. If they had no real power, then the only purpose of their facade of being able to replicate the plagues is to save their own standing before Pharaoh, which only resulted in encouraging Pharaoh’s own arrogance, which eventually lead Egypt to ruin. Had they given Pharaoh honest counsel from the beginning, perhaps at least some of Egypt’s suffering could have been averted.

Commentary for Va’eira

27 Dec

This week’s parshah contains both the initial confrontations between Moses and Pharaoh as well as the first seven on the ten plagues.  While the story of the Exodus has always been considered to be one of, if the single most important stories in the history of the Jewish People, many modern theologians and philosophers have become uncomfortable with the ten plagues due to the collective nature of the punishment.  Many Egyptians (probably even a majority of Egyptians) did not own Jewish slaves, just as many Americans in the antebellum South did not own slaves.  Surely not every Egyptian benefited from the various projects Pharaoh forced the Israelites to labor on.  And yet, every Egyptian suffers from the plagues.  Surely our all-powerful, all-knowing God knows who is innocent and who is guilty, and can tailor the plagues to only strike the guilty, so why are all Egyptians punished, regardless of their role in the enslavement and oppression of the Israelites?


The end of the Book of Judges contains a very disturbing incident in which, after a woman is brutally gang-raped to death, the Tribe of Benjamin refuses to prosecute the guilty parties.  When the armies of the rest of the tribes come to forcibly extradite the guilty, the army of Benjamin stands against them in an attempt to protect the people who committed this heinous crime.  After a series of battles, most of the Tribe of Benjamin, both soldiers and civilians, are killed.  In the particular town where the atrocity took place, every man and woman of marriageable age- in other words, all those old enough to know the difference between right and wrong- are put to the sword.  They are punished because they saw an atrocity and allowed it to happen.  They are punished because they made no effort to stand up and pursue justice.  They are punished because they chose to protect the guilty rather than to stand up for the innocent.


All of the Egyptians are struck with the plagues because, like the people of Benjamin, they all chose to do nothing and allow atrocities to happen. Over hundreds of years of slavery, only two midwives ever made an attempt to stop the injustice that was all around them.  In Ex. 1:22, Pharaoh commanded “all of his people” to assist in the slaughter of Israelite babies.  Surely not all of them personally murdered babies, but even those who sat back and did nothing become complicit in the crime because they did nothing to stop it.


This requirement to fight injustice and oppression does not rest solely with the majority, though.  Before the fourth plague, God tells Moses “I will set apart the region of Goshen, where My people dwell, so that no wild beasts shall be there (Ex. 8:18).”  Making this distinction here, before the fourth plague, implies that the Israelites were struck by the first three plagues, too.


The reason for this is that the Israelites have come to accept their slavery.  Despite crying out to God to save them, when Moses shows up and says that God has sent him to save them, they ignore him because they know that it would require facing new hardships. By not standing up for themselves and trying to take an active role in their own liberation, the Israelites are complicit in their own oppression and are therefore punished with the first three plagues.  The ten plagues teach us that it is the duty of all people everywhere to stand up against injustice and oppression, be it against themselves or others.  Justice is always a cause worth fighting for.