shlomo riskin 88 298.
(photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
What was the purpose of the plagues? If God's intention was to
redeem the Jews from slavery, wasn't there a more efficient way? In
Genesis, we saw that when people behave badly, God gives them time to
repent, but once punishment begins, it is swift and effective, leaving
no further opportunities to repent.
Why should Egypt be different? When God decided to anyway
suspend the laws of nature, the Egyptians could have been eliminated in
an explosion of fire and brimstone, liberating the Israelites
instantly. Why do we need these 10 steps, turning the screw tighter and
tighter until even the most resistant Egyptian could not maintain his
stubbornness? To answer this, we need to determine the purpose of the
plagues - were they just sent to free the Israelites, or was there more
The liberation from Egypt represented the inauguration of a
people brought together not by geography but by ideology - a holy
kingdom. The most powerful nation on earth would be challenged by a
group of slaves who, despite their long years of bondage, were chosen
by God Himself to be placed at the center of history and become the
living expression of a way of life which stands in direct opposition to
that of the pharaohs.
Ancient Egypt was the prototype of civilizations built on
slaves. At the apex of the pyramid, we find the man-god Pharaoh, while
at its base are the faceless slaves. Sandwiched in between were the
priests, who held tremendous power and a status exceeded only by
The Ten Plagues not only served to free our nation from the
despotic Egyptians, but also demonstrated that the time had come "for
the Egyptians to know that I am God, when I stretch forth my hand upon
Egypt and bring out the children from among them" (Exodus 7:5).
Throughout the duration of the plagues, this idea is constantly
repeated as God breaks the chains of bondage and establishes
fundamental truths for all time.
The first principle of Judaism is the existence of one God, who
takes a specific interest in His creation and has the ability to
establish and destroy civilizations.
The second principle is that the world is not an arbitrary
place, where those on top are entitled to treat their slaves however
they wish while living off the fruit of their labors. There is a divine
system of reward and punishment, and people who act cruelly and cause
pain to others will be held responsible.
The third principle is that that there is a plan to history.
Judaism promises a final Redemption with the arrival of the Messiah,
the return to Zion and the rebuilding of the Temple. There is light at
the end of the tunnel.
From a theological perspective, the Ten Plagues hammered away
at the idolatrous beliefs of the Egyptians, demonstrating that they
were based on foolish superstition. The Egyptians worshiped the Nile,
attributing Egypt's position at the helm of civilization to the divine
powers of this mighty river. When its waters were turned to blood and
then infested with frogs, the absurdity of this idea was exposed,
forcing the Egyptians to rethink their ideas as they saw their
fertility god transformed into a source of death and destruction.
Apart from the Nile, the Egyptians worshiped animals, birds and
insects, but as the plagues progressed, these deities appeared to
devastate the local agriculture and were then themselves destroyed. As
the Egyptians witnessed the decimation of their livelihoods and the
ruin of their country, the country's idolatrous infrastructure began to
buckle, and the people realized that it was not a man-god in charge,
but the Creator of the Universe.
So the plagues offered a profound lesson in theology, including
an important message about social justice. Slavery is one of the great
sins of the ancient world, and the perpetrators had to suffer in a
manner so graphic that it would illustrate for all time the
relationship between the crime and the punishment.
The Egyptian reign of terror against the Israelites began with
the decree that all Hebrew male children be cast into the Nile.
Pharaoh's use of the river as a means to persecute Jewish families led
God to appropriate it for the punishment of Egypt. With the plagues of
blood and frogs, the source of Jewish suffering becomes the focus of
Egyptian suffering. Then the plague of boils mimics the boils and
blisters inflicted on the Israelite slaves when they were beaten by
their taskmasters. Plagues on the animals show that it is forbidden to
dehumanize a person. In this way, the plagues offer a
measure-for-measure punishment for the persecution of an innocent slave
Through each plague, God teaches Pharaoh and his people basic
lessons in theology, and informs him of the Divine concern for every
Most importantly, the plagues form the backdrop for the
liberation of the Israelites so that they could sacrifice the Paschal
Lamb, showing that it's not enough to end slavery; one must begin
serving God in freedom. In this way, the plagues exchanged the Egyptian
obsession with death to a life-enhancing focus on the God of freedom,
redemption and hope.
The writer is the founder and chancellor of Ohr Torah Stone Colleges and Graduate Programs, and chief rabbi of Efrat.