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What We Don’t Learn May Hurt Us

Unlike human behavior, all of God’s actions are instructive. This idea is no more prevalent than in the next two weeks’ Torah portions. In them scripture repeats the refrain, “…so that you will know that I am Hashem in the midst of the land.” Thus while all of the עשר מכות, “the 10 plagues,” were punishments and afflicted the Egyptian people physically and destroyed their economy and Egyptian society each plague contained a valuable lesson for them and us as well. God is not only the ultimate true judge but the greatest teacher as well. It is significant and worth noting that over and over again in parshat Vaeira, the Torah uses the word “to know,” not “to believe.”

As directed by God, Moshe first introduced Pharaoh and his people to the difference between himself and the magicians. This distinction was demonstrated by the staff of Moshe. Moshe clearly explained what was going to happen, the same way a scientist explains his experiment. Calling for his magicians, Pharaoh missed the point of Moshe’s lesson. Once magicians are resorted to, sleight of hand cannot be far behind. Youtube “The Great Magicians Unmasked.” This demonstration of the staffs was geared toward getting Pharaoh and his people to begin the process of breaking away from the attraction of magic and its relation to how the world works. By taking the time to observe and discern carefully, that is by using the mind, this distinction can clearly be made.

In fact, it is the magicians themselves that are the primary subject of many of the plagues.  God’s plan to liberate the Israelites from slavery also included His concern that all people should recognize that He is the source behind all that takes place on earth and in heaven. The Egyptian society and culture was based on a system of sub-deities, superstition and magic. Each plague was designed to breakdown one false belief after another and replace each with the true idea. At the same time the esteem the Egyptians placed upon those professing superior powers would also be destroyed.

Turning the Nile River into blood was a direct attack on the chief sub-god of Egyptian culture. The Nile, then as now, was the main source of sustaining life. The Nile becoming blood would show the people that it had no power to protect itself. Their god caused them the loss of a valuable food supply. Furthermore, their god became an object of disgust. “The fish in the River died and the River became foul.” (Shemot 7:21)

The plague of frogs (some say it was crocodiles) next emerged from the Nile. Pharaoh could escape the plague of blood by retreating to his palace. A home is viewed psychologically as a place of security and refuge from the “outside” world. The plague of frogs, however, was designed precisely to counter this false idea of security. The frogs invaded every room and crevice of the Egyptians’ homes. Even their ovens and pots did not escape infestation. The croaking sound only added to the reminder of the reality of God’s word. Interestingly, Pharaoh doesn’t call for his magicians to remove the frogs. Rather, he calls on Moshe. Apparently, Pharaoh began to recognize a difference between Moshe and his sorcerers.

By the third plague of lice, the magicians themselves admit, “This is the finger of God.” (Shemot 8:15) They too begin to realize that Moshe’s plagues are not just bigger, greater, or superior in a quantitative way. They are qualitatively different. Two more demonstrations of this nature follow that of lice. The wild beasts only stay within the confines of the land of Egypt never venturing across the invisible boarder with Goshen, the area where the Jews lived in Egypt. The fifth plague of cattle disease only affected the livestock of the Egyptians. Pharaoh investigated, “… and behold, of the livestock of Israel, not even one died.” (Shemot 9:7)

With the onset of the next plague, boils, the magicians themselves are done in. The Torah makes a point of stating, “The sorcerers could not stand before Moshe because of the boils, because the boils were on the sorcerers and on all of Egypt.” (Shemot 9:11) The Torah in this verse is making a dramatic point emphasizing it in two ways.  The magicians’ inability to “stand before Moshe” was not due to some physical ailment. The boils were a dermatological issue not affecting their bones. Rather it means the magicians finally lost any stature or “standing.” Until this plague the magicians could maintain some level of equality to Moshe. Now they were embarrassed to come before Moshe. There was no longer any comparison to him. At the same time they were reduced in standing within their own society. They were now no different from any other Egyptian. They had no superior power over the common people to escape the plague of boils. Their status in Egypt was destroyed. Finally, they were exposed for the frauds that they were.

It is truly incredible that today we find people, even amongst our co-religionists that subscribe in some fashion to this malady. Wearing a red string, checking mezuzot during illness, putting prayers in the Kotel, or going to a “holy man” for a cure are all examples of what Moshe, through God’s 10 demonstrations, came to dispel. There is a powerful human emotion, stemming from our childhood, to escape reality. Imagination takes over causing us to fantasize about some other way to overcome obstacles of life. As adherents to the Torah, we must remove any vestige of this approach from the way we function and relate to the world.

Look closely and carefully at the teachings of our Torah. It is through these plagues that, “… you shall know that there is none like Me in all the world.” (Shemot 9:14) “Fortunate is the man that God rebukes. Do not despise the Almighty’s discipline.” (Job 5:17)There are valuable lessons in everything God does. They are all for our benefit. “Go and learn” (Haggadah for Pesach) even from the 10 plagues. In that merit may Hashem continue His protecting care over Israel, Jews and God-fearing people the world over.

Shabbat Shalom

Rabbi Robert Kaplan

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