“I Will Send All My Plagues”

  • Rav Gad Eldad

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This shiur is dedicated in memory of
Miriam Heller z"l
whose yahrzeit falls on the seventh of Shvat,
by her niece, Vivian Singer.

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A. “In order that I might show these, My signs, in his midst”[1]

 

Our parasha begins with Hashem’s command to Moshe to visit Pharaoh’s palace once again, to warn him of the imminent plague:

And the Lord said to Moshe, “Go in to Pharaoh, for I have hardened his heart and the heart of his servants, that I might show these, My signs, before him, and that you may tell in the ears of your son and of your son’s son what things I have done in Egypt, and My signs which I have done among them, that you may know that I am the Lord.” And Moshe and Aharon came to Pharaoh and said to him, “Thus says the Lord God of the Hebrews: How long will you refuse to humble yourself before Me? Let My people go, that they may serve Me. For if you refuse to let My people go, behold, tomorrow I will bring the locusts into your border, and they shall cover the face of the earth, so that it will not be possible to see the earth; and they shall eat the residue of that which has escaped, which remains to you from the hail, and shall eat every tree which grows for you out of the field, and they shall fill your houses, and the houses of all your servants, and the houses of all Egypt – which neither your fathers, nor your father’s fathers, have seen since the day that they were upon the earth to this day.” And he turned and went out from Pharaoh. (Shemot 10:1-6)

The demand comes as no surprise, since some of the previous plagues were preceded by declarations using exactly the same language:

And the Lord said to Moshe, “Pharaoh’s heart is hardened; he refuses to let the people go. Go to Pharaoh in the morning… and you shall say to him: The Lord God of the Hebrews has sent me to you, saying: Let My people go, that they may serve Me in the wilderness; and behold, until now you would not hear…” (Shemot 7:14-16)

And the Lord spoke to Moshe, “Go to Pharaoh, and say to him: Thus says the Lord: Let My people go, that they may serve Me…” (7:26)

And the Lord said to Moshe, “Rise up early in the morning, and stand before Pharaoh – behold, he comes forth to the water – and say to him: Thus says the Lord: Let My people go, that they may serve Me.” (8:16)

And the Lord said to Moshe, “Go in to Pharaoh, and tell him: Thus says the Lord God of the Hebrews: Let My people go, that they may serve Me.” (9:1)

And the Lord said to Moshe, “Rise up early in the morning, and stand before Pharaoh, and say to him: Thus says the Lord God of the Hebrews: Let My people go, that they may serve Me.” (9:13)

Nevertheless, there is still something about the command that demands our attention. Until now, God’s commands to Moshe focused on standing before Pharaoh and warning him. Prior to the first plague, we find the first such Divine command, introduced by a statement as to the present situation:

And the Lord said to Moshe, “Pharaoh’s heart is hardened, he refuses to let the people go. Go to Pharaoh in the morning…” (7:14-15)

Since God has not yet struck Egypt with the plagues, the introductory clause makes sense. God justifies the need to begin punishing Egypt, pointing out that other avenues have not produced the desires result. However, we find another occasion when God adds to His command a similar statement on the situation. In our parasha, before Moshe is sent to warn of the imminent plague of locusts, we read:

And the Lord said to Moshe, “Go in to Pharaoh, for I have hardened his heart and the heart of his servants, that I might show these, My signs, before him, and that you may tell in the ears of your son and of your son’s son what things I have done in Egypt, and My signs which I have done among them, that you may know that I am the Lord.” (10:1-2)

What need is there at this stage for God to “justify” His command to Moshe by describing the current situation?

In order to answer this question, we must look at the plagues from a different angle.

B. “For I know that the king of Egypt will not let you go”

When God initially speaks to Moshe at the burning bush, He declares His intention to redeem His nation from Egypt and foretells the difficulties that await Moshe along the way, together with their solutions:

“Go and gather the elders of Israel together, and say to them: The Lord God of your fathers, the God of Avraham, of Yitzchak, and of Yaakov, has appeared to me, saying: I have surely remembered you and seen that which is done to you in Egypt… And they shall listen to your voice, and you shall come – you and the elders of Israel – to the king of Egypt, and you shall say to him: The Lord God of the Hebrews has met with us; and now, let us go, we pray you, three days’ journey into the wilderness, that we may sacrifice to the Lord our God. And I know that the king of Egypt will not let you go, if not by a mighty hand. And I will stretch out My hand and smite Egypt with all My wonders which I will do in their midst, and after that he will let you go.” (3:16-20)

Indeed, the words have their effect and the people accept the notice of redemption with thanksgiving and worship:

And Moshe and Aharon went and gathered together all the elders of Bnei Yisrael, and Aharon spoke all the words which the Lord has spoken to Moshe, and did the signs in the sight of the people. And the people believed, and when they heard that the Lord had remembered Bnei Yisrael and that He had looked upon their affliction, then they bowed their heads and worshipped. (4:29-31)

However, the first encounter with Pharaoh is not a success, and the situation of the people in Egypt worsens. Immediately, complaints are directed towards Moshe and Aharon. Moshe, in turn, addresses God:

And they met Moshe and Aharon, who stood in the way, as they came out from Pharaoh. And they said to them, “The Lord look upon you and judge, because you have made us abhorrent in the eyes of Pharaoh and in the eyes of his servants, to put a sword in their hand to slay us.” And Moshe returned to the Lord and said, “Lord, why have You dealt ill with this people? Why is it that You have sent me? For since I came to Pharaoh to speak in Your Name, he has done evil to this people; neither have You delivered Your people at all.” (5:20-23)

In response, God rebukes Moshe for his impatience with regard to the process, which he seems to have absorbed from the people:

And the Lord said to Moshe, “Now you shall see what I will do to Pharaoh, for with a strong hand he shall let them go, and with a strong hand he shall drive them out of his land.” (6:1)

C. “And I shall set My hand over Egypt”

From this point onwards, events proceed at a quicker pace, and the negotiations with Pharaoh are at a new level. The signs that he is shown are no longer of the sort that are meant merely to impress, like the staff turning into a snake. Now, the signs cause real damage to Egypt – the Nile turns to blood, frogs are everywhere, lice multiply, etc.

We find ourselves in a cycle of events that repeats itself. God brings a plague upon Egypt, and Pharaoh begs that this natural disaster be removed from Egypt at all costs – sometimes also promising to let Israel go. The moment the affliction ends, Pharaoh is once again firm in his refusal.

The actors in this drama are Pharaoh, Moshe and Aharon, and God. Bnei Yisrael are silent and absent. Can we imagine their feelings as they look on? It is clear that Am Yisrael were aware of what was happening around them. We may assume that as the process moved into higher gear, their situation became easier.[2] Still, we may ask how they felt over the course of the “routine” cycle of warning, plague, false promises, return to normal, and Pharaoh’s refusal once again. Did they perhaps begin to suspect that the process was going nowhere? How were they to understand this repetitious cycle?

It must be noted that a psychological anchor was set down at the outset, when God informed Moshe that the process would not be easy:

“And I know that the king of Egypt will not let you go, if not by a mighty hand. And I will stretch out My hand and smite Egypt with all My wonders which I will do in their midst, and after that he will let you go.” (3:19-20)

It is easy to imagine that during the period of the plagues, the people appealed to Moshe continuously, seeking any possible scrap of information, and that Moshe reported to them whatever took place between himself and Pharaoh. But there was no way of knowing how long this cycle was meant to continue.

Following the plague of arov (wild beasts), Moshe expresses his disappointment with Pharaoh’s fickle behavior, but still achieves no progress:

And Pharaoh said, “I will let you go, that you may sacrifice to the Lord your God in the wilderness; only you shall not go very far away; entreat for me!” And Moshe said, “Behold, I go out from you and I will entreat the Lord that the arov may depart from Pharaoh, from his servants, and from his people, tomorrow, but let Pharaoh not deal deceitfully any more in not letting the people go to sacrifice to the Lord.” And Moshe went out from Pharaoh and entreated the Lord. And the Lord did according to the word of Moshe, and He removed the arov from Pharaoh, from his servants, and from his people; there remained not one. And Pharaoh hardened his heart at this time also, neither would he let the people go. (8:24-28)

D. “For this I have raised you up”

This atmosphere is the background to the plague of hail. Just prior to the plague, God conveys a significant message to Pharaoh, in which for the first time He reveals something of the intention behind all that is going on:

And the Lord said to Moshe, “Rise up early in the morning and stand before Pharaoh, and say to him: Thus says the Lord God of the Hebrews: Let My people go, that they may serve Me. For I will at this time send all My plagues upon your heart, and on your servants, and on Your people, that you may know that there is none like Me in all the earth. For now if I would stretch out My hand, I might smite you and your people with pestilence, and you should be cut off from the earth. And in very deed for this cause I have raised you up, to show in you My power, and that My Name may be proclaimed throughout all the earth.” (9:13-16)

Here, for the first time, God reveals that the plague of pestilence was meant to be the final, crushing blow that would be the end of Egypt. However, God left Egypt in existence, for the purpose of bringing Pharaoh and his people to an awareness of God’s greatness, so that His greatness might be proclaimed throughout the world.

Now, says God, the time has come to make this happen. God declares that this time He will sent the most damaging of all the plagues – “all My plagues” – through which Pharaoh and Egypt will know that there is none like God in all the earth. This speech creates the expectation that the hail will be the final plague.[3]

Indeed, the plague evokes an extraordinary response on Pharaoh’s part:

And Pharaoh sent and called for Moshe and Aharon, and said to them, “I have sinned this time; the Lord is righteous and I and my people are wicked. Entreat the Lord that there be no more mighty thunderings and hail, and I will let you go, and you shall stay no longer.” (9:27-28)

This is not the first time that Pharaoh promises to let the people go, but it is the first time that he acknowledges his sin. Seemingly, then, the mission has been crowned with success. Pharaoh recognizes God, he acknowledges his guilt in having brazenly rebelled against Him, and he is now ready to free the people. However, despite the general euphoria, the familiar, dreaded routine restores itself:

And the heart of Pharaoh was hard, neither would he let Bnei Yisrael go, as the Lord had spoken by Moshe. (9:35)

We can imagine the profound disillusionment that must have spread throughout Bnei Yisrael. This was not just one more round of the same story. God Himself had endowed this plague with special meaning – and yet, the process was still stuck in the same place!

At this stage, it becomes necessary for God to reveal what is happening. Now we can understand the need for the unusual introduction to the command given to Moshe, noted at the beginning of our discussion.

E. “For I have hardened his heart”

And the Lord said to Moshe, “Go in to Pharaoh, for I have hardened his heart and the heart of his servants, that I might show these, My signs, before him, and that you may tell in the ears of your son and of your son’s son what things I have done in Egypt, and My signs which I have done among them, that you may know that I am the Lord.” (10:1-2)

God starts off by “accepting responsibility” for causing Pharaoh’s heart to be hardened. He states that the battle is actually over; Pharaoh was willing already long ago to permit Bnei Yisrael to leave. The point that is being made here is that the process involves other objectives that God seeks to attain, and which have not yet been achieved. For this reason, He maintains the appearance that the struggle is still raging, while in fact the reality is quite different.

This claim would seem to suffice to dispel the uncertainty that has surrounded the process. In truth, nothing new is being revealed here, since God raised this possibility before the plagues began:[4]

And the Lord said to Moshe, “See, I have made you a god to Pharaoh, and Aharon your brother shall be your prophet. You shall speak all that I command you, and Aharon your brother shall speak to Pharaoh, that he send Bnei Yisrael out of his land. And I will harden Pharaoh’s heart, and multiply My signs and My wonders in the land of Egypt. But Pharaoh shall not listen to you, that I may lay My hand upon Egypt, and bring out My armies, My people, Bnei Yisrael, out of the land of Egypt by great judgments. And Egypt shall know that I am the Lord, when I stretch out My hand upon Egypt, and bring out Bnei Yisrael from among them.” (7:1-5)

Indeed, a reading of these verses together with our parasha serves to illuminate with great clarity the crisis in which the process is mired. At the end of the warning about the plague of locusts, Moshe leaves Pharaoh’s presence in anger. Now, for the first time, we witness the intervention of his servants in his decisions:

And Pharaoh’s servants said to him, “How long shall this man be a snare to us? Let the men go, that they may serve the Lord their God; do you not yet know that Egypt is destroyed?” (10:7)

It seems that the Torah notes this intervention of the part of Pharaoh’s servants, after the plague of hail, to show clearly that the stated purpose of the plagues had already been attained.

God had wanted the Egyptians to know Him. It is now clear that not only Pharaoh, but also his servants and all of Egypt know who God is.[5] This being the case, the plagues have seemingly achieved all that they were meant to.

We may assume that Bnei Yisrael were aware of this new consciousness among the Egyptians. Specifically in light of this, the sense of “getting nowhere” is intensified. What, then, is the new message that God seeks to convey in order to explain the delaying of the process?

F. “And they shall know that I am the Lord”

And the Lord said to Moshe, “Go in to Pharaoh, for I have hardened his heart and the heart of his servants, that I might show these, My signs before him, and that you may tell in the ears of your sons and of your son’s son what things I have done in Egypt, and My signs which I have done among them, that you [plural] may know that I am the Lord.” (10:1-2)[6]

The new element in God’s message seems to be that the plagues were meant not only so that Egypt would know God, but also so that Bnei Yisrael themselves would know Him.

To understand this point, we must go back to the beginning of the story.

Moshe is called upon to redeem the nation from Egypt. He informs the people of their imminent redemption – a message that is received with joy and a show of faith:

Aharon spoke all the words which the Lord has spoken to Moshe, and did the signs in the sight of the people. And the people believed, and when they heard that the Lord had remembered Bnei Yisrael and that He had looked upon their affliction, then they bowed their heads and worshipped. (4:30-31)

Encouraged by the demonstration of confidence on the part of the people, Moshe appears before Pharaoh, but here he encounters a brick wall:

And Pharaoh said, “Who is the Lord, that I should obey His voice to let Israel go? I do not know the Lord, nor will I let Israel go.” (5:2)

This sudden turnaround of the plot leads to a chain reaction on the part of Bnei Yisrael, who now begin to doubt the process that is taking place before their very eyes:

And they met Moshe and Aharon, who stood in the way, as they came out from Pharaoh. And they said to them, “The Lord look upon you, and judge, because you have made us abhorrent in the eyes of Pharaoh and in the eyes of his servants, to put a sword in their hand to slay us.” And Moshe returned to the Lord and said, “Lord, why have You dealt ill with this people? Why is it that You have sent me? For since I came to Pharaoh to speak in Your Name, he has done evil to this people, neither have You delivered Your people at all.” (5:20-23)

In the face of this outcry, God defends His plan and assures Moshe that it will indeed succeed. Attention should be paid to the fact that already then, God had “slipped in” the ultimate aim of the plagues – but at that stage it was formulated not as the point of the plagues, but rather as a side effect that would be achieved at the same time:

Therefore say to Bnei Yisrael: I am the Lord, and I will bring you out from under the burdens of Egypt, and I will deliver you out of their bondage, and I will redeem you with an outstretched arm and with great judgments… And you shall know that I am the Lord your God, Who brings you out from under the burdens of Egypt. And I will bring you into the land… and I will give it to you for a heritage, I am the Lord.” And Moshe spoke so to Bnei Yisrael, but they did not listen to Moshe for anguish of spirit and for cruel bondage. (6:6-9)

At that stage, Bnei Yisrael had not responded with praise and bowing, but rather evasion, as a result of the hard labor. If their faith in the message of redemption shatters at the first sign of any challenge, we may assume that it was not very strong to begin with. Thus, God must clearly prove Himself not only in the eyes of the Egyptians, but also in the eyes of Israel.

God indicates the solution through the same route that produced the problem – but in the opposite direction. The submission of the Egyptians will be the vehicle by means of which to acquire the faith of Am Yisrael.

Now it is clear that the submission of Egypt was not an aim in its own right; rather, the focus was on strengthening the faith of Am Yisrael in God. Instead of the people waiting, tensely and passively, for the Egyptians to internalize the awareness of God’s strength, they are called upon to internalize it themselves, and thereby to bring about their own redemption.[7] God’s words to Moshe prior to the plague of locusts – “And you shall know that I am the Lord” – are a quote from the opening declaration prior to all the plagues, but now they apply to God’s new command, clarifying their true intent:

And that you may tell in the ears of your son and of your son’s son what things I have done in Egypt, and My signs which I have done among them, that you may know that I am the Lord. (10:2)

 

Translated by Kaeren Fish


[1] For a different view of the subject treated in this shiur, see the articles by R. Ezra Bick, “Vi-Yeda’tem Ki Ani Hashem” (p. 107) and R. Moshe Lichtenstein, “Tafkidan shel Makkot Mitzrayim” (p. 115) in Torat Etzion, Sefer Shemot.

[2]  Rashi, citing the midrash, writes that when the plagues commenced, the physical subjugation of the nation ceased.

[3] Admittedly, God had declared at the outset that He was going to kill the firstborn of the Egyptians: “And you shall say to Pharaoh: So says the Lord: Israel is My son, My firstborn. And I say to you: Let My son go, that he may serve Me; and if you refuse to let him go, behold, I will slay your son, your firstborn” (4:22-23). However, this might be understood not necessarily as a promise, but rather as a threat, and hence it does not necessarily have to be fulfilled. The speech preceding the plague of hail, on the other hand, reflects the intention that afterwards there will be no further need for any plagues. See further Rashi’s commentary on the words “all My plagues,” and Dr. M. Rafeld’s article in Bar Ilan University’s weekly mailing, no. 687.

[4]  In fact, God had alluded to this possibility even earlier: “And the Lord said to Moshe, ‘When you go to return to Egypt, see that you do before Pharaoh all those wonders which I have put in your hand, but I will harden his heart, that he shall not let the people go.’” (4:21) However, in light of the context, this statement might be viewed as applying only to the signs of the serpent and the blood, which were given to Moshe for the purposes of his first appearance before Pharaoh.

[5]  These verses should be read against the backdrop of the verses preceding the plague of hail, where the situation seemed to be different: “He who feared the word of the Lord among Pharaoh’s servants made his servants and his cattle flee into the houses, while he who did not regard the word of the Lord left his servants and his cattle in the field” (9:20-21).Now, all of Pharaoh’s servants seem to agree that God should be feared.

[6]  Notably, this declaration starts off in the singular (“that you may tell…”), seemingly addressed to Moshe, but it concludes in the plural, addressing Am Yisrael as a whole. Apparently, although Moshe alone receives the prophetic message, the entire nation is following the developments intently. Thus, Moshe’s words are an indication of the mood among the people, and vice versa.

[7]  Indeed, from this point on, there is no further dialogue with Pharaoh, but rather a monologue that Moshe delivers in Pharaoh’s presence, since the effect of the plagues is no longer intended for him.