"And They Shall Know that I am the Lord" – The First Seven Plagues and the Haftara
This shiur is dedicated in memory of
Saul Zelkowitz - Zalmen ben Yaakov Halevi zt"l
and Ephraim Spindler - Ephraim ben Zelig zt"l.
Dedicated in loving memory of
Shmuel Nachamu ben Shlomo Moshe HaKohen (whose yahrtzeit falls on 10 Tevet),
Chaya bat Yitzchak Dovid (whose yahrtzeit falls on 15 Tevet),
and Shimon ben Moshe (whose yahrtzeit falls on 16 Tevet).
The two upcoming parashot, Vaera and Bo, deal with
And you shall say to Pharaoh, Thus 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. (Shemot 4:22-23)
God threatens Pharaoh with an awesome and decisive blow that will bring him to his knees. There is no mention of ten plagues, but merely a single plague that will solve the problem. Why, then, did the process drag out to ten plagues?
To understand the matter, we must take note of the difference between Parashat Vaera and Parashat Bo, and the function of the plagues in each of them. There are seven plagues in Parashat Vaera and three in Parashat Bo (corresponding to the numerical value of the Hebrew letters comprising the word Bo, bet and alef). This division is not accidental; rather, we are dealing with two different sets of plagues, as we shall explain.
Pharaoh's initial reaction to Moshe's demand to set
This is explicit in the verses: "Thus says the Lord, In this you shall know that I am the Lord: behold, I will smite with the rod that is in My hand upon the water in the river, and it shall be turned to blood" (ibid. 7:17) – and this is what underlies the phenomena that accompany the plagues. First, the recurring demand throughout the two parashiyot to allow the people to celebrate for three days in the wilderness and then to return to
According to this, we also understand the role of the magicians. When they appear in the argument between Moshe and Pharaoh, the issue in dispute is not
The third point relates to the intensity of the plagues. In truth, the first plagues were a nuisance, but not life-threatening. Turning the water into blood did not endanger the population, for it is possible to drink blood. But it troubled them and was laden with great symbolic meaning. Likewise the frogs were a terrible nuisance, but they did not endanger the Egyptians, nor bring about an economic crisis. The same is true regarding the plague of lice. This is even stated explicitly in our parasha:
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 have I raised you up, to show in you My power; and that My name may be proclaimed throughout all the earth. (9:15-16)
Pharaoh is being told here that with the pestilence God could have struck a mortal blow against all the vital systems in
This is also the reason that there does not appear to be any great urgency to remove the plagues. Even when Moshe promises Pharaoh that a particular plague will cease, this does not come about immediately, but only the next day. The principle that Moshe wishes to demonstrate to Pharaoh is God's control over nature, and he achieves this by showing how he is capable of pinpointing the hour as he pleases. On the other hand, extending the plague another day is not so problematic, because it does not cause
In light of what we have said, we can understand why
In truth, we are dealing with two series of plagues. The first, the plagues of detzakh – dam (blood), tzefarde'a (frogs), and kinim (lice) – was meant to establish the very recognition of God, and therefore its goal is defined as "in this you shall know that I am the Lord." This series came to an end the moment that it achieved its goal and Pharaoh and his magicians said: "This is the finger of God" (8:15). The second series, the plagues of adash – arov (beasts), dever (pestilence) and shekhin (boils) – and the plague of barad (hail), was meant to establish the principle that Divine providence acts in history, and its purpose was "that you may know that there is none like Me in all the earth" (9:14). These plagues are characterized by the distinction that they make between
At this point, Parashat Vaera comes to an end. Its plagues have achieved the goal of subduing Pharaoh in the wake of his declaration, "I know not the Lord," but they did not deal at all with the second objective of overcoming the second part of his statement, "nor will I let
Let us now examine the haftara (Yechezkel 28:25–29:21). Just as Parashat Vaera focuses on God's war with Pharaoh from the theological perspective, so too the haftara deals with this dimension. Yechezkel comes to strengthen the principle of "that you may know that I am the Lord," and his prophecy is directed toward this goal. Therefore, the prophet opens by turning to Pharaoh in his capacity as king-god, rather than to the people as a people. The claim against Pharaoh does not deal with the feelings of military and political power that lead to human pride and arrogance, but rather with Pharaoh's far-reaching declaration, "My river is my own, and I have made it for myself" (Yechezkel 29:3). The importance of the
The symbol of the crocodile (tanin) in this context is significant. Both because of its primality and its strength and because of the symbiosis between it and the river, Pharaoh identifies himself with the crocodile in order to present himself as master of the river. If the crocodile is king of the river who lived there from ancient times, it is the most fitting symbol for Pharaoh to use to illustrate in idolatrous manner, "My river is my own, and I have made it for myself." In this context, it should be noted that in Parashat Bereishit the Torah emphasizes the fact that it was God who created the crocodiles ("And God created the great crocodiles" [Bereishit 1:21]). Besides man, the crocodile is the only creature regarding which Scripture uses the verb bara, "create." In light of our haftara and Pharaoh's claim brought therein, it is reasonable to assume that Scripture was precise here, and that it used the term "create" in order to clarify that God is the sole Creator and to refute those who claim otherwise.
Because of the use that Pharaoh makes of the crocodile as a symbol, the prophecy against him adopts the same approach and speaks of undermining the status of the crocodile, i.e., Pharaoh. The metaphors that the prophet uses come to undermine the power of the crocodile as ruler ("I will put hooks in your jaws" [v. 4], which refers to the ring placed on the animal's snout as a rein and bridle), and to sever the connection between it and the river: "And I will bring you up out of the midst of your streams, and all the fish of your streams shall stick to your scales. And I will cast you unto the wilderness, you and all the fish of your rivers: you shall fall upon the open fields; you shall not be brought together, nor gathered: I have given you for food to the beasts of the earth and to the birds of the sky" (vv. 4-5). Removing the crocodile from the river and sending it to the wilderness not only impairs its strength and causes its death, but severs the connection to the river upon which the creation myth was based. The crocodile lying in the river and its place as part of the primeval river symbolize the creation, and its removal to the wilderness proves that the river is merely an appropriate habitat for it, but nothing more, the crocodile and the river being separate entities.
The conclusion of the process, which appears in the next verse, is "And all the inhabitants of
The prophet emphasizes this point again later in the haftara:
Therefore, says the Lord God: Behold, I will bring a sword upon you, and cut off man and beast out of you. And the
As is evident, Yechezkel speaks of a powerful plague against
The end of the haftara continues along these lines. The exile of
The answer to this question lies in what we have seen.
All this is stated explicitly in the haftara in the concluding verse of this section:
And it shall be no more a safe standby for the house of
In this context it is important to add that in similar fashion to the parasha where there is progress from recognition of God's very existence to His providence, here too the prophecy concerning the ingathering of the exiles certainly fills the same role, because it focuses not on the question of the creation, but on control and providence over history.
In the light of all that has been said, we are not surprised to discover that the concluding verse of the haftara also returns to this motif:
On that day will I cause the horn of the house of
No less than four times over the course of the haftara does the prophet repeat the key sentence, "And they shall know that I am the Lord." This is undoubtedly the essence of the haftara, for Yechezkel's prophecy regarding
 Of course, if we adopt the view cited by Ibn Ezra and Abravanel that the "tzefard'im" were crocodiles, rather than frogs, the picture changes…
 One point must be addressed here, namely, the classification of the plague of hail. In the outline presented here, the plagues are divided into a group of seven versus a group of three, when the group of seven sub-divides into groups of three and four, so that we are left with three groups of plagues. This, of course, is the famous model of Rabbi Yehuda, who gave the plagues signs: detzach, adash, be'achav, thus dividing them into three groups. Rabbi Yehuda's division, however, differs from that which follows from the parashiyot, for it assigns hail to the third group, whereas the parashiyot assign it to the second group. As stated above, this is not merely a matter of convenience, but rather a basic characterization regarding the nature of the plague.
On second thought, however, this need not surprise us, for the key to understanding the plague of hail and its place among the plagues as a whole, lies in the double role that the verses assign to it. On the one hand, it is the plague that brings Pharaoh to proclaim God's righteousness and to the recognition that accompanies it regarding God's actions in this world. Thus, it belongs to the second series of plagues in Parashat Vaera, and the division of the parashot presents it as the concluding plague of Vaera. On the other hand, hail is the first plague that causes substantial damage to
 The division of labor between the parashiyot of Vaera and Bo is found also in their respective haftarot. Just as Parashat Bo does not deal with the struggle regarding the recognition of God, but only with the struggle regarding the exodus of the people from Egypt, so too its haftara focuses on the smiting of Egypt as a people, rather than on the theological struggle with Pharaoh.