This week, in parashat Va’era, we begin to read about the exodus from Egypt. Most of the story is devoted to the 10 plagues, the 10 supernatural phenomena that afflicted Egypt.
By RABBI SHMUEL RABINOWITZ
Last week, we began the Book of Exodus with the story of the Jewish nation’s enslavement in Egypt, and with the description of Moses’s development from a boy growing up in the Egyptian king’s palace to a shepherd called upon by God to lead his nation and liberate it.This week, in parashat Va’era, we begin to read about the exodus from Egypt. Most of the story is devoted to the 10 plagues, the 10 supernatural phenomena that afflicted Egypt and which ultimately caused the Egyptian nation and Pharaoh, their king, to liberate the enslaved nation.This story of the 10 plagues raises a simple but obvious question: Why were they necessary? If God had wanted to, He could have liberated the Jewish nation from Egypt without all the plagues. We understand that the central reason for the plagues was to punish the Egyptians for cruelly enslaving the Jewish people for many long years. But even for that purpose, wouldn’t one immense plague have been enough to crush Egyptian hubris? Why, then, were 10 plagues necessary?It seems that the 10 plagues led to an internal process of development within the Jewish nation. The nation had been for centuries living in a strange and idolatrous culture, experiencing mental and physical slavery, losing hope. The people needed a process that would rebuild them, heal their wounds, and set up a spiritual foundation to become an independent nation with an eternal purpose.This can be illustrated by the first three plagues. These were brought about by Aaron, Moses’s brother, who was a religious priest even in Egypt. He was challenged by the Egyptian religious priests and sorcerers who tried using magic tricks to show that Aaron’s deeds, performed as an emissary of the Jewish God, were none other than large-scale, familiar magical techniques. In the first plague, blood, the sorcerers managed to turn water to blood. In the second plague, frogs, they were able to bring on frogs but were unable to get rid of them. In the third plague, lice, they were not able to mimic Aaron and were forced to admit: “It is the finger of God” (Exodus 8:15). The struggle between God and the Egyptian idols was won.This victory was meant for the Jewish nation. During its long years of exile, the Jewish nation was swept away by Egyptian idolatry and was unable to disconnect from it. Ezekiel the prophet describes it like this, about a thousand years after the Exodus:“So says the Lord God.... On that day I lifted up My hand to them to bring them out of the land of Egypt.... And I said to them: ‘Every man cast away the despicable idols from before his eyes, and pollute not yourselves with the idols of Egypt; I am the Lord your God.’ But they rebelled against Me and would not consent to hearken to Me; they did not cast away, every man, the despicable idols from before their eyes, neither did they forsake the idols of Egypt....” (Ezekiel 20:5-8).If we ask why God chose the Jewish people and liberated it from Egypt, the answer is written where we read the story of the Exodus – in the Torah:“I am the Lord, your God, Who took you out of the land of Egypt to be your God” (Numbers 15:41).The Jewish nation was slated to fulfill a spiritual purpose that began back in the Bronze Age and continues to this day. But the nation submerged in mental, spiritual and physical slavery needed to be released from idolatrous conceptions, from making a human into a god, from the Egyptian hubris that was expressed in its social and religious customs. The famous Egyptian pyramids are a perfect example of ancient Egypt’s power and spiritual decay. The large pyramid is built of about three million bricks that were all handmade. Researchers estimate that it took 10,000 slaves 20 years to build it – all for the tomb of an Egyptian king!The beginning of the liberation was spiritual. The nation learned to recognize the futility of the Egyptian idols’ power; it learned to scorn the ideology and moral distortions that lead a person to trample others.Only then was it worthy of going out to freedom and proceeding toward its purpose of being “a kingdom of priests and a holy nation,” a beacon of faith, moral values and an exalted way of life to the entire world.■The writer is the rabbi of the Western Wall and holy sites.
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