God’s Every Action is a Learning Opportunity
Unlike human behavior, all of God’s actions are instructive. This idea is clearly stated throughout the next two Torah portions. Repeatedly we read, “…so that you will know that I am Hashem in the midst of the land.” Thus, while each of the עשר מכות, “the Ten Plagues,” was a punishment, afflicting the Egyptian people physically, destroying their economy and Egyptian society, each plague also contained a valuable lesson for them as well as for us living today. God is not only the ultimate true judge but the greatest teacher. It is significant and worth noting, in parshat Vaera, the Torah specifically uses the expression “to know,” not “to believe,” over and over again.
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 series at first is enjoyable but then comes the let down when you see how the “magic” is contrived to deceive our perception.
The 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 purported relation to how the world works. By taking the time to observe and discern carefully, that is by using the mind, the distinction between the truthfulness of one method over the other is readily shown.
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 were 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 Egyptians placed upon those professing superior powers would 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. How can a god be subjected to other forces that convert it into something destructive and repulsive? 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 second plague, frogs (some Torah scholars say they were crocodiles), 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. It was also to teach Pharaoh, in particular, that no person can escape God. 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 does not call for his magicians to remove the frogs. Rather, he calls on Moshe. When Moshe does remove the frogs, the Torah points out, “…Moshe cried out to Hashem concerning the frogs He had inflicted on Pharaoh.” (8:8) Apparently, Pharaoh was the major aim of this plague. A small turning point was reached as 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 advanced demonstrations of this realm follow the lice.
The fourth plague, wild beasts, only stay within the confines of the land of Egypt. Strangely, they never venture across the invisible boarder with Goshen, the area where the Jews lived in Egypt. Egyptians believed in the powers of many gods: “Ptah,” the god of creation; “Ra,” the sun and wind god; “Matt,” the god of stars and seasons; “Horus,” the god of the sky; “Osiris” and “Anubis,” gods of death. Through this fourth plague God taught the profound lesson that His control extends to Earth. This demonstration was “in the midst of the land.”
The fifth plague, cattle disease, only affected the livestock of the Egyptians that were “in the field.” (Shemot9:3) Pharaoh investigated, “… and behold, of the livestock of Israel, not even one died.” (Shemot 9:7) Not only did this plague inflict great harm on the Egyptian economy but it taught the idea that God rewards those that follow His word and punishes those that do not. Had the Egyptians brought their livestock into barns, they would have been spared.
Finally, with the onset of the next plague, boils, the magicians 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) Torah is making a dramatic point emphasizing it in two ways. The magicians’ inability to “stand before Moshe” was not due to a physical ailment.
The boils were a dermatological issue not affecting their bones. “…could not stand before Moshe,” means the magicians finally lost all stature or “standing.” Until this plague, the magicians could maintain some level of equality to Moshe. Now they were embarrassed to come before him. 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. This was the first edition of “The Great Magicians Unmasked!” 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 among our co-religionists, subscribing in some fashion to these false notions. Wearing a red string on the wrist, putting a red or blue string on a new object, checking mezuzot during illness, putting prayers in between the stones of the Kotel, or going to a “holy man” for a cure, these are all manifestations 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 the 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” implores the Haggadah, even from the Ten Plagues. In that merit may Hashem continue His protecting care over Israel, Jews, and God-fearing people the world over.
Rabbi Robert Kaplan