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

"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)

What was the purpose of the plagues? If God's intention was toredeem the Jews from slavery, wasn't there a more efficient way? InGenesis, we saw that when people behave badly, God gives them time torepent, but once punishment begins, it is swift and effective, leavingno further opportunities to repent.

Why should Egypt be different? When God decided to anywaysuspend the laws of nature, the Egyptians could have been eliminated inan explosion of fire and brimstone, liberating the Israelitesinstantly. Why do we need these 10 steps, turning the screw tighter andtighter until even the most resistant Egyptian could not maintain hisstubbornness? To answer this, we need to determine the purpose of theplagues - were they just sent to free the Israelites, or was there moreinvolved?

The liberation from Egypt represented the inauguration of apeople brought together not by geography but by ideology - a holykingdom. The most powerful nation on earth would be challenged by agroup of slaves who, despite their long years of bondage, were chosenby God Himself to be placed at the center of history and become theliving expression of a way of life which stands in direct opposition tothat of the pharaohs.

Ancient Egypt was the prototype of civilizations built onslaves. At the apex of the pyramid, we find the man-god Pharaoh, whileat its base are the faceless slaves. Sandwiched in between were thepriests, who held tremendous power and a status exceeded only byPharaoh.

The Ten Plagues not only served to free our nation from thedespotic Egyptians, but also demonstrated that the time had come "forthe Egyptians to know that I am God, when I stretch forth my hand uponEgypt and bring out the children from among them" (Exodus 7:5).Throughout the duration of the plagues, this idea is constantlyrepeated as God breaks the chains of bondage and establishesfundamental truths for all time.

The first principle of Judaism is the existence of one God, whotakes a specific interest in His creation and has the ability toestablish and destroy civilizations.

The second principle is that the world is not an arbitraryplace, where those on top are entitled to treat their slaves howeverthey wish while living off the fruit of their labors. There is a divinesystem of reward and punishment, and people who act cruelly and causepain 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 atthe end of the tunnel.

From a theological perspective, the Ten Plagues hammered awayat the idolatrous beliefs of the Egyptians, demonstrating that theywere based on foolish superstition. The Egyptians worshiped the Nile,attributing Egypt's position at the helm of civilization to the divinepowers of this mighty river. When its waters were turned to blood andthen infested with frogs, the absurdity of this idea was exposed,forcing the Egyptians to rethink their ideas as they saw theirfertility god transformed into a source of death and destruction.

Apart from the Nile, the Egyptians worshiped animals, birds andinsects, but as the plagues progressed, these deities appeared todevastate the local agriculture and were then themselves destroyed. Asthe Egyptians witnessed the decimation of their livelihoods and theruin of their country, the country's idolatrous infrastructure began tobuckle, 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, includingan important message about social justice. Slavery is one of the greatsins of the ancient world, and the perpetrators had to suffer in amanner so graphic that it would illustrate for all time therelationship between the crime and the punishment.

The Egyptian reign of terror against the Israelites began withthe decree that all Hebrew male children be cast into the Nile.Pharaoh's use of the river as a means to persecute Jewish families ledGod to appropriate it for the punishment of Egypt. With the plagues ofblood and frogs, the source of Jewish suffering becomes the focus ofEgyptian suffering. Then the plague of boils mimics the boils andblisters inflicted on the Israelite slaves when they were beaten bytheir taskmasters. Plagues on the animals show that it is forbidden todehumanize a person. In this way, the plagues offer ameasure-for-measure punishment for the persecution of an innocent slavepopulation.

Through each plague, God teaches Pharaoh and his people basiclessons in theology, and informs him of the Divine concern for everyhuman being.

Most importantly, the plagues form the backdrop for theliberation of the Israelites so that they could sacrifice the PaschalLamb, showing that it's not enough to end slavery; one must beginserving God in freedom. In this way, the plagues exchanged the Egyptianobsession 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.