‘THE SEVENTH Plague of Egypt’ (1823) by English Romantic painter John Martin.
(photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)
“In every generation, we must see ourselves as though we, personally, experienced the Exodus” (Passover Haggada).
One of the most iconic and dramatic elements of the Exodus highlighted within the Haggada is the Ten Plagues. They begin with the first plague, presaging what is to come, as all the water in Egypt turns to blood; and they end with the death of the firstborn, a fitting, final response to the hardships laid upon the Jewish nation, the firstborn of God. These miraculous events occur over the course of a year and result in Pharaoh finally agreeing to let the Israelites go.
The question has often been asked: Why 10 plagues? Could God not have extricated His people via one mighty, devastating jolt that would have shaken Egypt to its core? Why the need for such overkill? To answer this question, we must first address another issue: For whom, exactly, were these plagues intended? The classic response is that God brought these acts, which continually accelerated in scope and intensity, primarily to punish the Egyptians for their cruel behavior, in a measure-for-measure fashion: The Egyptians did not allow us to bathe, causing us to develop lice, and so they, too, would suffer this indignity; they made us work in the boiling sun, and so they developed boils.
The plagues also were designed to show Pharaoh – a self-proclaimed deity – just who was boss, at the same time affording him the ongoing opportunity to change his mind, anywhere along the way, and make the morally proper decision to acknowledge the inhumanity of enslaving fellow human beings and release the Hebrews from bondage. From this point of view, the plagues were directed solely toward Pharaoh and the Egyptians.
But there is another intriguing viewpoint.
It is that these blows (the literal translation of the word makot), while of course impacting upon the Egyptians, were designed first and foremost for their effect upon us, the Jewish people.
Consider: During our more than a century as slaves, we had been subjected to every possible abuse. We had been tortured, demonized, dehumanized, murdered. We had been cruelly cast down to the lowest rung of the social order. Once a proud, preeminent nation respected by our neighbors, our sense of self-esteem and self-confidence had reached its lowest ebb and all but vanished.
How could we be restored, physically as well as in our own psyches, to our former glory as God’s chosen? As God performed miracle after miracle, manipulating nature in our honor and for our benefit, we gradually came to acknowledge not only His awesome power, but also our own unique ability to elicit an unparalleled Divine response.
In a kind of 10-step process, our faith in ourselves was slowly but surely restored, a faith that affirmed that we were destined, as the Almighty had explicitly promised our Patriarchs and Matriarchs, to become a great nation and a light unto the world.
Fast-forward 3,330 years to our present day. Just 75 years ago, we were once again a broken people. The Shoah had decimated not only our numbers, but also our view of the future. How could we go on after such a monumental calamity? How could we possibly survive? We felt abandoned, forsaken, like the unwanted stepchild of the universe.
Even those Jewish communities that had not personally suffered in the Holocaust were in a state of shock, deeply traumatized by the persecution and powerlessness we had endured.
And then, step-by-step, miracle by miracle, we were again raised from our melancholy and rehabilitated. Our astounding victory in the War of Independence, which nearly no expert gave us a chance to win, set in motion a chain of remarkable events that turned history on its head. The Six Day War, our brilliant comeback in the Yom Kippur War, the ingathering of our exiles, the repulsion of numerous Arab and Palestinian attempts to subdue us, and the emergence of Israel as an economic power – in a recent report by Germany’s Deutsche Bank (!), the Israeli shekel was ranked as the world’s second-strongest currency – and technological world leader all combined to rapidly restore our self-respect and national pride.
No amount of rational, scientific theory can logically explain how a nation so divided and down on its fate could so rapidly reclaim its rightful honor and buoyant hope for the future.
And so, dear reader, if ever there was an opportunity to relate to and revisit the events of the Exodus – as the Haggada bids us to do – it is in this generation, which is blessed with the flowering of the State of Israel. God, as it seems abundantly clear to anyone with eyes, ears, a heart and a brain, is unequivocally a Zionist.
The writer is director of the Jewish Outreach Center of Ra’anana; email@example.com.
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