Va'era: Rhyme and Reason in the Ten Plagues

By Moshe Sokolow
Wednesday, December 29, 2010

This week's Torah portion features seven of the ten plagues that are to strike Pharaoh, the Egyptians, and the land of Egypt itself. Their variety invites the question of whether they in general, and their sequence in particular, are random or reasoned.

Anyone versed in the Passover Haggadah is familiar with the proposition of Rabbi Yehudah that there were three cycles of plagues: (1) blood, frogs, and lice; (2) swarms, pestilence, and boils; (3) hail, locusts, darkness, and smiting of the firstborn. This and next week's Torah texts validate his division. One sign is that each of the three cycles embraces three distinct sets of instructions, repeated in the same order in each of the others. The first (corresponding to blood, swarms, hail) orders Moses to "station" himself [hityatzev] before Pharaoh early in the morning alongside the Nile. The second (frogs, pestilence, locusts) tells him, nonspecifically, to come [bo] to Pharaoh. The third (lice, boils, darkness) initiates the plague with no provision for a prior rendezvous. The tenth and climactic plague, the smiting of the firstborn, crosses—or intersects with—all of these boundaries. God, who executes this death sentence Himself, tells Moses to anticipate it, but does not direct him to forewarn Pharaoh.

If we then reclassify the plagues according to their points of origin, another deliberate and calculated sequence appears. Blood and frogs (the latter, according to Saadyah Gaon [882-942] were actually crocodiles) originate in the water; lice and swarms (of insects or, preferably, wild animals) originate on land; pestilence, boils, hail, locusts, and darkness originate in the air. In other words, the Egyptians are struck through every conceivable natural medium, leaving them absolutely nowhere to seek shelter. As for the final plague, it surpasses the boundaries of nature altogether.

The fact that the first plagues emanate from the water can also be viewed as specific retribution for the Pharaonic order to drown all newborn Hebrew boys in the Nile. Another explanation, however, comes by way of God's pronouncement that "I shall perform acts of judgment against all the gods of Egypt" (Exodus 12:12). Both the Nile and the sun—the origins, arguably of the first and last of the "natural" plagues—were worshiped by the ancient Egyptians as gods and were identified particularly with Pharaoh. By attacking these precious and well-nigh deified aspects of Egyptian culture and society, God is adding insult to the Egyptians' injuries.

Shortly after the Ten Plagues, a comparable affront will be delivered in the matter of the Passover sacrifice. It is designated to be a ram—also worshipped by the Egyptians—whose lifeblood (presumably the essence of its sacred being) is to be smeared on the lintel and doorposts of the Israelites while—intensifying the flouting of Egyptian sensibilities—its flesh is to be roasted whole over an open flame.

Nor are the Egyptians alone in feeling the moral reverberations of the plagues along with their more blatant physical consequences; the Israelites, too, are being taught a lesson.

An early midrashic observation relayed by Rashi (1040-1105) explains why the first three plagues were actually initiated by Aaron, Moses' brother, rather than by Moses himself.  The waters of the Nile, the midrash reminds us, had facilitated Moses' escape from the decree of infanticide, while its sand enabled him to dispose of the body of the Egyptian taskmaster he had slain. It thus stands to reason that Moses, who will be permitted to behold God directly (Exodus 33:11) and whose prophetic inimitability will become a byword of Scripture (see Deuteronomy 34:10), should have been constrained by divine fiat from abusing the hospitality afforded him by these natural elements.

The lesson? Even when His will needs to be done, the means employed must conform to the highest standards of morality.

You can find this online at:

© Copyright 2024 Jewish Ideas Daily. All Rights Reserved.