The Plague of Darkness by Gustave Doré.
(photo credit: GUSTAVE DORÉ)
In this week’s portion, Va’era, we read about seven of the ten plagues brought on the Egyptian nation and its leaders.
These plagues were not given only as a punishment for the Egyptians’ cruel treatment of the enslaved Jewish nation – throwing infants into the Nile River, and more – but also to educate the Egyptian people to change the ways and outlooks that led them to this cruel and abject behavior.
In the Passover Haggada read in every Jewish home at the Seder, we encounter the following interesting sentence: Rabbi Yehuda would give them signs (acronyms): DeZaCH, ADaSH, BaCHaV.
Rabbi Yehuda, of the fourth generation of the Tannaim period and one of the greatest of Rabbi Akiva’s students, divided the plagues into three groups based on the first letter of the Hebrew name of each one. Was Rabbi Yehuda so afraid we would forget the plagues written in the Torah that he provided us with these acronyms as a mnemonic device? It seems reasonable to assume that this was not the purpose.
Don Yitzhak Abarbanel was a commentator, statesman and economist who served as the finance minister of Portugal and Spain, from which he was expelled along with the other Jews in 1492. After this, he served as the finance minister of Naples, Italy. He analyzed the Torah verses and found that the Ten Plagues were indeed divided into three groups, with each group having its own purpose written explicitly in the Torah when the plagues were described.
The purpose of the first three plagues was to prove to the Egyptian nation – and to Pharaoh in particular – the basic fact that there is a Creator of the world; there is a God. The purpose of these plagues was told to Pharaoh, “With this you will know that I am the Lord” (Exodus 7:17).
The next insight was: God is interested in the world; He supervises and administers it. The next three plagues came to prove this, beginning with the insight Pharaoh was expected to internalize, “…in order that you know that I am the Lord in the midst of the earth” (ibid. 8:18). “In the midst of the earth,” meaning, God is not disconnected from the world. He is supreme, but His loftiness is expressed in His interest in each creature.
God cares about the world He created.
Yet Pharaoh could have thought that even if God exists and cares, His power is limited. He may want to help, but who knows if He can…? For this, God sent the last four plagues, at the beginning of which Pharaoh was told, “in order that you know that there is none like Me in the entire earth… in order to show you My strength” (ibid 9:14-16).
This “educational series” is not told in the Torah as a historic anecdote, even if it would be valuable as such.
It is told to convey a message. Pharaoh, king of Egypt, needed 10 plagues in order to comprehend these three insights; we can internalize them without plagues.
These three insights are significant. They have the power to change the life of a man or of a nation.
There is a God, He is the ultimate, perfect, and eternal goodness. Because He is goodness without limit, He is caring. Caring is the expression of goodness, just as apathy toward injustice is the other side of the picture.
Because He is good, He is caring.
But we need another stage. With all due respect, goodness without strength is not capable of action and making things better. Many of us would like to benefit humanity in a range of spheres if we only had the money/ time/political ability. Goodness without power lacks influence. In order to believe in goodness, in order to believe that goodness will overcome evil, in order to believe that we are capable of acting based on values of truth and succeeding – we must internalize the third insight: God, the ultimate of goodness, is omnipotent.
We can count on Him, trust Him, and believe that goodness, and only goodness, will prevail. The writer is rabbi of the Western Wall and Holy Sites.