Parashat Va'era: Healing, one plague at a time

From a theological perspective, the Ten Plagues hammered away at the Egyptians' idolatrous beliefs.

By
January 19, 2010 16:32
4 minute read.
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ten plagues 58. (photo credit: courtesy)



"This is what the Lord says: By this you will know that I am the Lord: With the staff that is in my hand I will strike the water of the Nile, and it will be changed into blood." (Exodus 7:17)



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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 involved?



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 Pharaoh.



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 population.



Through each plague, God teaches Pharaoh and his people basic lessons in theology, and informs him of the Divine concern for every human being.



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.


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