Parshat Hashavua Va'era
By: Rabbi Nissim Mordechai Makor
The Purpose of the Plagues
The Shem Mishmuel teaches us that It is perfectly clear that the Exodus did not actually require any of this once Pharaoh refused to allow klal Yisrael to leave his hand, God could simply have flattened Egypt in one mighty blow, annihilating them with a bolt of lightning or something similar. But this would not have achieved the main aim of the Exodus, which was not the destruction of Egypt, but a demonstration of Divine power which left no room for doubt that God controlled the world. The more miracles wrought in Egypt, the greater and clearer the realization that the holy God of Yisrael was in charge of His world. This was the point of this continuous barter with Pharaoh: each step in the destruction of their country led Pharaoh, his necromancers, and his people closer to an appreciation of God’s existence and power. This concept is further borne out by Yisro’s reaction to the miracles that God had performed on behalf of the Jewish Nation.
Yisro had tried every idolatry, every doctrine, every philosophy in the world. He had been convinced, however, of the veracity of the Torah after all the miracles, when he came to greet Moshe in the wilderness. It was the awesome nature of the destruction of Egypt and Kerias Yam Suf [the splitting of the SEA] which had persuaded Yisro beyond a doubt that God was the only Deity.
There is another side to the function of the ten plagues. We have seen that one great plague would not have convinced the Egyptians as thoroughly of God’s existence as several smaller ones. If Egypt had been wiped out at the first moment of refusal, this would never have afforded them the possibility of teshuva [repentance]. As the Egyptians were punished for their wickedness, they had the opportunity to stop and think about their errors and repent. After any of the plagues, having experienced God’s miraculous intervention in their lives, they could have withdrawn their opposition to the Jewish Nation and accepted upon themselves the kingship of God, and they would have been forgiven. Alas, this did not happen and will not happen to the nations of the world until the ultimate future, but God nevertheless left the possibility of repentance open to the Egyptians during the plagues.
There is great lesson to learn from this when we engage in our own teshuvah [repentance]. Just as with Pharaoh and the Egyptians, proper teshuvah needs to be completely unconditional. The one who repents must acknowledge the wrong that they have done and resolve to do better in the future, regardless of any external factors. Particularly, one’s teshuvah should not depend on the success of one’s prayer, that if one’s teshuvah should not depend on the success of one’s prayer, that if one’s prayers are answered, then one will remain resolute in one’s repentance, but otherwise not. Even if one’s lot worsens, God forbid, one should remain steadfast and not deviate from one’s new level of commitment. If we do this, then we can be certain that our teshuvah is perfect and accepted by God and be confident that He will be there for us when we need Him.
The First Plague: Blood
God said to Moshe, “Pharaoh’s heart is stubborn. He refuses to let the people go.”
The Meam Lo’ez explains that Hashem said, “If Pharaoh had a heart would he ever have said, “Who is God that I should listen to His voice?” Would he have complained to you and Aaron that you did not bring him an idol like all the other ambassadors? Would he ever have forgotten how he was attacked by rats? Pharaoh might have a piece of flesh in his chest, but not a true heart. That is why he still remains so stubborn.”
Egypt was not irrigated by rain. Every year the Nile rises and waters the land, and through this, the Egyptians are able to raise crops. Totally dependent on the Nile, the Egyptians worshipped it as god. God therefore struck out at the Nile first, later he would punish its worshipers.
The plague could not be dismissed as a natural phenomenon. Until the water reached the borders of Egypt, it was perfectly pure and clear. But as soon as the water crossed the Egyptian border, it immediately turned into blood. Similarly, as soon as the water left Egypt and poured out into the Mediterranean Sea, it once again became pure water.
During the plague, the Egyptians heard that there was fresh water available in the upper reaches of the Nile, and they even sent out expeditions to bring back fresh water. But as soon as the barrels of water passed through the borders of Egypt, even that water turned into blood. There was no way that the Egyptians were able to drink even a drop of water from the Nile.
The Egyptians tried to force the Israelites to give them water, but as soon as an Egyptian put such water to his lips, it immediately turned into blood. Finally, the Egyptians had no other choice but to buy water from the Jews, for whatever price the Jewish people asked. Since this plague, like all the others, lasted seven days, many enterprising Jews were able to amass large sums of money. The plague of blood began on a Thursday.
The Second Plague: Frogs
“The entire land will swarm with frogs. The biggest ones will attack your palace, causing great damage. They will be in you and in your people, croaking inside your bodies. The plague will begin with you, since you are the one who led the persecution of My people.
“You claim to be a god, the creator of the Nile. I will show you that the Nile belongs to Me alone. I hereby decree that it should spawn countless frogs. The Nile will do My will, even though it will be to your harm.” The Egyptians had forced the Jews to catch frogs with their bare hands. The Egyptians were therefore punished with frogs.
Pharaoh was also punished for extinguishing the sound of the Torah. The Jews would get up early in the morning to worship and study. In the attempt to destroy the Jewish nation, the Egyptians were trying to shut off this sound of worship and Torah study. Instead, the Jews were raising their voices in terror, crying out because of their harsh labor. Because of this the Egyptians were punished with frogs, who croaked and made noise without stopping. It was a fitting punishment.
Furthermore, when the Hebrew woman gave birth, they could not scream out, since if they did, their infants would be taken away by the Egyptians. When one is in pain and cannot even cry out, his agony is all the worse. Since the Egyptians did not let the Jewish women cry out, they were now assaulted by the cries of the frogs.
The Jewish also screamed and cried out when they saw their children thrown into the river. These cries now came back to Egypt to Egypt when the Nile spawned loudly croaking frogs. The plague of frogs only struck areas where the Egyptians lived. In Goshen, where the Jews lived, there were no frogs
The Third Plague: Lice
Hashem said to Moshe, ‘Tell to Aaron, “Stretch forth your staff and strike the dust of the earth.’ It will turn into lice in all the land of Egypt.” “Tell Aaron to initiate this plague. You cannot do it, because you once benefited from the ground. When you killed the Egyptian, you hid him in the sand, and the ground concealed his body. Since you once benefited from the soil, you should not be the one to make it into something destructive. Therefore, tell Aaron to do it.”
As soon as Aaron struck the ground with his staff, two things happened. Every man and beast near Aaron was immediately covered with lice and vermin, as if he had lived in a garbage dump for a year. Second, all the dust in Egypt, both far and near, was transformed into lice and gnats, attacking man and beast alike.
The Egyptians were stricken with this plague because they had forced the Jew to sweep the streets and roads of dust. As a fitting punishment, all the dust in Egypt turned into lice. If one dug a cubit into the ground, no soil would be found only lice. As a result, the Jews could no longer be made to sweep the streets. Another reason for this plague was that the Egyptians did not allow the Jews to bathe. The Jews remained sweaty and filthy from their work making bricks, and were subject to attacks by live and vermin. Now the tables were turned and it was the Egyptians who were plagued by lice.
The insects attacked their faces, and even got into their eyes. The Egyptians tried to wash them off by bathing in the sea, but it was to no avail.
It is taught that ten measures of sorcery were sent to the world, and nine of these were taken by Egypt. The essence of the ten measures was therefore in Egypt, and the occult arts flourished there. But now they lost this power. This is indicated by the absence of the Yod which has a numerical value of ten and therefore alludes to the ten measures of sorcery that were lost. Although his wizards admitted that this plague was the finger of God. Pharaoh remained stubborn and would not listen to Moshe and Aaron, just as God had predicted.
The Fourth Plague: Wild Beasts
The plague consisted of hordes of wild beasts: lions, tigers, wolves, bears, snakes, scorpions, wasp’s mosquitos, crows, locusts, and all other kinds of harmful creatures. Also, included in this plague would be the same frogs and lice as before. It would be a terrifying mixture of all the harmful creatures in the world.
There would be another time that God would use wild animals to take revenge against His enemies. When the prophet Elisha remedied the bad waters of Jericho, on the way to Bethel a number of young hoodlums mocked him and called him a baldy. They were actually very angry with him for remedying the water supply, since they had previously been able to sell pure water to the populace for a high price.
The Jewish People tried to keep many rules of the Torah even in Egypt. The Egyptians forced them to eat milk and meat together. For making the Jews partake of a forbidden mixture, HASHEM brought wild beasts to places where He had previously forbidden them to enter. It was a mixture of beasts that His laws of nature previously would not allow to exist.
The Jewish nation deserved to be punished by this plague and were not worthy to be protected by a special providence. They had sunk to great depths of depravity, and would require many good deeds to have sufficient merit for such a miracle. But God had mercy, and ordered that no Jew should be injured. If a Jew deserved to die, an Egyptian was taken in his place.
Therefore, when Egyptians were actually killed by plagues, as in the case of beasts, plague, and death of the first born, Pharaohs officials were struck first. Where the plagues were not deadly, such as in the case frogs, lice, boils, locusts, and darkness, the masses were struck first. In the case of all the plagues, however, the first one to suffer was Pharaoh. As King, the prime responsibility was always his.
The Fifth Plague: Death of Animals
Hashem also said that He would make a “Miraculous distinction” between the flocks of Egypt and those of Israel. The Egyptian flocks were pastured as far as Goshen, and there, they would often be in close proximity with those of the Jews. Furthermore, when an epidemic strikes one flock, it spreads to others very readily. The fact that not a single one of the Jewish animals died would be an obvious miracle.
The reason for this plague was that the Egyptians forced the Jews to tend to their flocks in the deserts and the mountains. They sent the Jews to the most distant pastures to keep them from being with their wives and having children. Also, the Egyptians made the Jews do the work of beasts, making them pull heavy plows across fields. Regarding this, Tehillim 129:3, “the plowers plowed with my back, and they made long furrows. Since the Egyptians used the Jews like animals, they were punished by losing their livestock.
The Egyptians were also punished because they expropriated Jewish livestock illegally. They also worked the Jews so hard, the did not have time or strength to care for the animals.
The Sixth Plague: Boils
Hashem told Moshe and Aaron to take ashes from the oven. These ashes were to be thrown up in the air, and wherever they settled on a man or animal they would cause boils, filled with pus.
One may wonder how Hashem could mention animals in this plague, since it appears that all the Egyptians animals had already died in the previous calamity. But actuality, only the ‘livestock in the field died that taken indoors was often by the epidemic. Only in the case of Pharaoh’s own flocks were all animals killed, even those brought indoors.
The ash spread all over the land of Egypt. This small amount of ask was able to coat every man and beast in the entire. Until this time, the Egyptians would not let the Jewish people use their bathhouses, lest they “contaminate” the water. After the plague, the restriction was lifted. Of all the plagues, this one affected Pharaoh the most. He was in absolute agony, covered from head to foot with boils and blisters.
The Seventh Plague: Hail
‘If I had so willed,” Hashem instructed Moshe to tell Pharaoh, “I could easily have exterminated you and all your people when I sent the epidemic killing your animals. The only reason I allowed you all to survive was so that I would be able to show you My great strength. I want all the world to speak of My acts.
In the case of this plague, God sent to warning. He did not intend that the hail kill man or beast. It was only meant to destroy the Egyptians crop and trees. The heavy sharp edged hailstones tore at the trees like axes. Initially, the hail fell as super-cold ice. Any Egyptian out in the fields, even with protection, was frozen to death. Later, when fire started to accompany the hail, many were roasted alive.
Out of hatred for the Jews, the Egyptians had beaten them, and had even thrown stones at them. It was now as if God were throwing “stones” at the Egyptians. Also, the Egyptians used to scream at their Jewish slaves. With thunder, the heavens now “screamed” at the Egyptians.
Of all the plagues, this was the only one for which God sought counsel from His heavenly tribunal. All agreed that it should be sent.
This is the mentality of the wicked. When evil befalls them, they beg God to have mercy. But after the evil has passed, they immediately revert to their bad ways. A truly moral person, however, must be consistent. Even when things go well, he must recall how he pleaded with God in his times of trouble. This will keep a person in a constant state of closeness to God.
Pearls of life
The Pearls of Life will focus on matters of guiding one in the matters Kedusha [Holiness]. In the writings of Kabbala, Bris Milah [circumcision]. The spiritual midah [characteristic] of Yesod is the most closely associated characteristic of this as this is the completion of the human body, the sign of the holy covenant. Our spiritual growth is dependent of Shemiras habris, protecting our neshamos from immoral thought, speech and action. This is the yesod, foundation, upon which our destiny in this world and the Next rests. We can liken this to building a house. A house can only be as large and strong as its foundation. And if a builder errs in the way he lays the foundation, then even a small structure will collapse By definition, a bris, is a covenant, is a pact between two parties. Someone who is careful with shemiras habris can rest assured that Hashem will “keep His part of the deal” and reward him with blessing and success in life.”
Yeshiva Pirchei Shoshaim