SHABBAT SHALOM: Tough Love

By RABBI SHLOMO RISKIN

(January 14)

"And God said unto Moses: 'Say unto Aaron, Take your rod and stretch out your hand over the waters of Egypt, over their rivers, over their streams, and over their pools, and over all their ponds of water, that they may become blood, and there shall be blood throughout all the land of Egypt....' " (Ex. 7:19)

What is the purpose of the 10 plagues? If God's intention was simply to free the Jews, couldn't there have been a more efficient way? If we're already suspending the laws of nature, the entire Israelite populace could have been released in one fell swoop, and then the Egyptians could have been destroyed in an explosion of brimstone and fire.

Rashi explains that the purpose of the plagues was to punish, to execute judgment upon the Egyptians. Commenting on the verse "God said to Moses: 'Observe! I will be making you like a god to Pharaoh' " (Ex. 7:1), Rashi says: "as a judge and executioner, who executes with plagues and punishments."

This rationale is in accord with the Bible itself; when the Almighty first shared with Abraham the prophecy of the Egyptian experience, He promises the Patriarch: "And also the [Egyptian] nation who has subjugated them [the Hebrews] shall I judge, after which they [the Hebrews] shall leave with great wealth." (Genesis 15:14)

From this perspective, the punishments had to fit the crime.

Hence the Nile river, recipient of Hebrew male babies who were drowned at birth, turns to blood. The Egyptians attempted to smite the nation which the Almighty had blessed to be as ubiquitous as the "dust of the earth," and Aaron smites the "dust of the earth" from which emerges lice. The Egyptians demonized and dehumanized the Hebrews, considering them as wild animals (or gnats), and so would animals (or gnats - arove) plague Egypt; the Egyptians impoverished the Hebrews, removing all livestock from the Israelite shepherds, and so pestilence destroys the livestock of the Egyptians. The Egyptian task-masters sadistically beat the Hebrew slaves until their bodies became scarred with welts and boils, and so the Egyptians are plagued by welts and boils. The Egyptians "rain" upon the Hebrews their oppression and terror, and so rain, hail and locusts descend upon Egypt. The Egyptians removed all light from the Hebrews, frightening them with the black night of persecution, and so palpable and debilitating darkness descends upon Egypt. The Egyptians murder innocent Hebrews, and so the first-born of Egypt are made to die.

And, just as the developed biblical judicial system insists that "there can be no punishment without prior warning," Pharaoh is warned prior to each of the plagues.

The Midrash Tanhuma suggests another purpose to the plagues: weakening the enemy in order to provide the Israelites with a military victory. Therefore, just as those who lay siege to a city first cut off the water supply, then prevent food from being acquired, then frighten the citizens with all sorts of noises, then weaken their bodies and finally kill them off, so the Almighty initially turns the nurturing Nile into blood, then destroys the food supply, then harms the Egyptians with boils, then terrorizes them by arraying the forces of nature against them, and finally kills off their first-born.

There is yet a third explanation: "Through this you shall know that I am the Lord (Ex. 7:17);" God will be revealed as the only true deity and all of the idols will be vanquished. Hence the Nile - major deity of Egypt - turns to blood, with millions of stinking frogs emerging from its depths. Miserable lice emanating from the dust of the earth demonstrate that "mother earth" is also not a god - these first three plagues together proving that the bedrock of human existence is ultimately controlled by a Power beyond.

God sending wild animals and pestilence afflicting sheep and cattle prove that the reptile and animal Kingdoms are controlled by a higher force, and the third plague in this second grouping - the boils which affect human beings - demonstrate that those who traverse the land-sea terrain are also not deities.

Hail, locusts (filling the skies with their horrific sound) and darkness prove that that which is above the ground and in the sky - even the sun - is not a sovereign power.

And finally and most conclusively, the slaying of the first-born strikes the death knell to Pharaoh's claim to godliness, since the Pharaonic line of descent was dependent upon primogeniture; indeed, the Midrash says the heir apparent was killed in this plague.

These three explanations for the plagues also help illumine another difference of opinion among the biblical commentaries. Based on the verse referring to the plague of wild animals, "on that day I will miraculously set apart the Goshen area," (Ex. 8:18) the Ibn Ezra suggests that the first three plagues applied to the Hebrews as well, and only with this fourth plague and onwards were the Hebrews exempt; the Ramban as well as the majority of commentaries suggest that since wild beasts roamed the entire land of Egypt, the fact that they did not enter Goshen proved conclusively that the Hebrews were exempt from, and most probably responsible for, the plagues. The first three plagues were more locally controlled, although - most commentators argue - these also only applied to the Egyptians.

If the purpose of the plagues was for the sake of punishment or of weakening the enemy, then the Ibn Ezra's position that the first three applied to the Hebrews as well is patently absurd. But if the purpose was to prove that manifestations of nature were not gods, then it's quite possible that the Hebrews required this lesson almost as much as the Egyptians did.

The lesson for us, as supporters of a particular penal-judiciary system as well as parents who must rear children, is a most relevant one: the punishment, which is crucial alongside love in order to teach proper limits, must always fit the crime.

Shabbat Shalom


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