Before the onset of the first of the ten plagues that God brought upon Egypt – the plague of blood – God sent Moshe to issue a warning to Pharaoh. Moshe was to tell the king, “So said the Lord: Through this shall you know that I am the Lord! I am hereby striking with the staff which is in my hand the water in the river, and it will be transformed to blood” (7:17). The objective of this plague was for Pharaoh to recognize God – “Through this shall you know that I am the Lord.” Yet, as we know, this is not what happened. Even after Egypt’s water turned to blood, we read, “Pharaoh’s heart was hardened and he did not listen to them… Pharaoh turned away and went home, and paid no attention even to this” (7:22-23).
We might wonder how it is possible that God made such a definitive pronouncement – that the plague of blood would convince Pharaoh “that I am the Lord” – which turned out to be wrong. Why did God declare that this plague would be effective in changing Pharaoh’s heart, knowing that it would not?
Rabbeinu Bechayei, sensitive to this question, explains God’s pronouncement to mean, “Through this you ought to know that I am the Lord” (in Rabbeinu Bechayei’s words, “ra’ui lekha she-teida…”). In other words, this statement was prescriptive, not descriptive; God was not declaring what would happen, but rather declaring what should happen, that this plague should have the effect of proving to Pharaoh that he should recognize God as King of the universe whose command must be obeyed. But He did not predict that this would indeed happen.
A different explanation is indicated by the commentary of Rabbeinu Chaim Paltiel. He interprets the phrase “be-zot teida” (“through this shall you know”) to mean “be-zot tatchil lei-dai” – “through this shall you begin to know.” The Tolna Rebbe explained that according to this understanding, God’s pronouncement was indeed accurate. Although it outwardly appeared after the plague that, as the Torah tells, Pharaoh paid no heed to this plague and was unchanged, God saw the slight stirrings of change in the king’s heart. Even Pharaoh himself was unaware of any internal impact, but God, who knows people’s minds and hearts far better than even they do, was able to definitively foretell that such an impact would take place. The process of changing Pharaoh’s mindset was not intended to occur in an instant; it would occur gradually, one small step after one small step, with each plague bringing Pharaoh ever closer to the recognition “that I am the Lord.”
The Tolna Rebbe noted the practical implications of this understanding of “be-zot teida,” which reminds us of the value and significance of even slight stirrings of change, and that these stirrings are not necessarily discernible. Often, when people try to grow and improve, they despair too quickly, seeing that their efforts are fruitless, yielding no results. Moshe’s prophecy before the plague of blood shows us that change can occur even without our realizing it, that every bit of effort we invest yields a positive result, difficult as it might be for us to see. Even when the discernible outcome of our attempts at self-improvement is very far from our goal, we must not despair, because every bit of work we put in brings us a small step closer to our goal – and every small step should be celebrated as a significant accomplishment.