The True Purpose of the Plagues
The True Purpose of the Plagues
Parashat Va-eira is all action: the first six plagues descend on Egypt, and Pharaoh responds in kind, creating the dramatic and suspenseful story that will culminate in God redeeming the Israelite slaves from Egypt. The plagues are high drama, a fast-moving blockbuster film.
Blood. Frogs. Lice. Insects. Pestilence. Boils. My skin crawls and my scalp itches just writing about this batch of creepy, crawly, infectious plagues. The six plagues in Va-eira come in two sets of three plagues each (blood, frogs and lice; insects, pestilence and boils). In each set, Pharaoh is forewarned about the first two plagues and surprised by the third.1 And after each set, he refuses to free the Israelites.
Pharaoh’s stubborn refusal is what we often remember from this series of events (even my 4-year-old child knows to sing, “No, no, no, I will not let them go” at this point in the story). However, in Exodus 7:3 it is actually God who says, “I will harden Pharaoh’s heart, that I may multiply My signs and marvels in the land of Egypt.” This statement raises a fascinating question: is God responsible for Pharaoh’s obstinacy?
As the plagues progress, they become more severe. And with each plague, God not only matches but also exceeds the Egyptian gods’ powers. After the first plague when Aaron turns the Nile into blood, Pharaoh’s magicians “did the same with their spells” (Exodus 7:22). Pharaoh’s magicians can also replicate the second plague of frogs. But when the magicians try to copy the third plague (lice), they fail: “The magicians did the like with their spells to produce lice, but they could not” (Exodus 8:14). Pharaoh’s magicians do not even try to replicate the fourth, fifth, and sixth plagues.
Some of Va-eira’s plagues directly challenge the Egyptian gods themselves.2 The overabundance of frogs challenge the Egyptian goddess Heqt and the plague of darkness to come in Parashat Bo challenges the famed Egyptian sun god Re. In ancient Egypt, the Egyptians revered their pharaoh kings as gods, but the power of the plagues — and by extension, God’s power as harnessed by Moses and Aaron — handily overwhelm Pharaoh, his magicians, and his gods.
If the plagues are a direct face-off between the God of the Israelites and the gods of the Egyptians, then the plagues are clearly a demonstration of God’s absolute power. But what if the plagues aren’t only a demonstration to the Egyptians, but also a necessary evidence of power to the Israelite slaves as well?
At the very end of this parashah, we read God’s words, “Nevertheless I have spared you for this purpose: in order to show you My power, and in order that My fame may resound throughout the world” (Exodus 9:16). God’s motive is brilliant and clear. The plagues are not only intended to crush the Egyptian slave masters and cruel king into submission in order to free the slaves, but they also provide evidence of God’s power to an enslaved people. Sforno, a 15th century Italian biblical commentator and rabbi, commented, “God reserved the demonstration that He had complete control over all of the phenomena in space” (Sforno on Exodus 9:14).
But why was it necessary to have a show of power aimed towards the Israelites? Wasn’t what distinguished the Israelites from the Egyptians the very fact that they worshipped Adonai instead of the Egyptian gods?
It is critical to remember that at this point, the Israelites have been slaves for over 400 years.3 They are accustomed to oppression and all that comes with it — lack of choice and agency, demoralization, and dehumanization. And they are used to not having God around. A far cry from Abraham or Joseph’s personal relationships with God, God is conspicuously absent during the Israelite’s enslavement in Egypt. And this absence lasts enough generations for the tales of their ancestors to fade from familiarity into distant legend.
While the Israelites may have worshiped the God of their ancestors, how could they truly believe that God, speaking through Moses, would actually save them? How could they trust God so much that they would abandon their homes for an abstract promised land? How could they dare cross the Sea of Reeds, that vast obstacle so immediate in their liberation?
This dilemma is analogous to a beloved and well-known commentary that addresses the question of why the Israelites later wandered so long in the desert. Maimonides answers this question with the concept that a generation of slaves could not truly be free, because only those who had never known slavery could have the mentality of freedom (Guide for the Perplexed, 3:32). By extension, it takes a generation of slaves 10 plagues to believe that redemption is truly possible.
The Israelites, maybe even more than Pharaoh and the Egyptians, desperately need proof of God’s power and might. The plagues unite them, not only as an oppressed people accustomed to life’s cruelty, but also as a people on the verge of liberation. These first plagues are those first glimmers of hope. It’s a brilliant strategic move by God who understands that the Israelites can’t be expected to just will themselves out of Egypt; they need inspiration and guidance. Parashat Va-eira provides the essential stepping stones toward the freedom we know is just over the horizon.
- W. Gunther Plaut, gen. ed., The Torah: A Modern Commentary, rev.ed. (NY: URJ Press, 2005), pp379-381; Nahum M. Sarna, The JPS Torah Commentary: Exodus (Philadelphia: JPS, 1991) p. 38
- Nahum M. Sarna, Exploring Exodus: The Origins of Biblical Israel, Chapter 4 (New York: Schocken Books, 1986), pp. 78-79
- Ibid., pp. 63-80
Rabbi Ana Bonnheim recently moved to Charlotte, NC with her husband and two young children. She served as the associate director, and director of year-round programs, at URJ Greene Family Camp in Texas for the past 8 years.
The people of Israel were not the only ones who needed a powerful reminder of God’s power and character. The memory and heritage of God’s personal connection with their ancestors had clearly dimmed in the generations of their servitude in Egypt, but the Israelites never forgot their core identity as a distinct people. Yet God’s chosen leader for the people was ignorant even of that basic tenet of the Israelite identity.
Moses was raised in the Pharaoh’s court and was surely brought up worshiping the gods of Egypt. His encounter with God at the Burning Bush in the last portion was likely the first time he ever heard mention of the God of Israel, who is introduced by a unique name, “Ehyeh-Asher-Ehyeh” (Exodus 3:14), a name that never appears again in the Torah.
Setting aside his many positive attributes, I have often wondered why God selected an outsider like Moses to lead the Israelites to freedom. It hardly makes sense that the prophet who will most intimately represent God to the people could have no prior knowledge of God himself. One possible answer to this question can be found in the beginning of this week’s portion when God introduces himself to Moses once again after his first leadership crisis.
In Exodus 6:2-4, God says to Moses, “I am Adonai [the Eternal]. I appeared to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob as El Shaddai, but I did not make Myself known to them by My name YHVH.” It is possible therefore that Moses was selected precisely because he did not know God the way his ancestors did. Rather, God is declaring a new kind of covenant with Moses that may actually transcend the first one made with Abraham. In essence, as the 12th century French commentator Rashbam argues, God told Moses, “I did not reveal Myself to the patriarchs as My principal attribute but only as My attribute Shaddai. But to you, Moses, I have revealed My principal attribute which I described as Ehyeh. … In your lifetime I plan to fulfill My promise.” Witnessing the plagues against Egypt, Moses helped the Israelites learn to worship God’s might and power anew.
Rabbi Yoni Regev serves Temple Sinai in Oakland, CA. A native of Jerusalem, he served in the IDF before pursuing higher education and rabbinical training in the United States. He earned a BA in vocal music performance from Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland, OH, and in 2014 was ordained from Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion in Los Angeles. Yoni and his wife, Rabbi Lara Regev, reside in Marin County, CA, with their son Noah.
Va-eira, Exodus 6:2-9:35
The Torah: A Modern Commentary, pp. 420-448; Revised Edition, pp. 379-400
The Torah: A Women's Commentary
Haftarah, Ezekiel 28:25–29:21 or Isaiah 66:1-13, 23
The Torah: A Modern Commentary, pp. 696−99; 1,684-1,686;
Revised Edition, pp. 401−04; 1,492-1,494