By: Yossi Ives
From a young age, we are taught about the 10 plagues that G d visited upon the Egyptians: Pharaoh stubbornly refused Moses’ demands to “Let my people go,”1 so G d struck Egypt with 10 mighty blows to force him to relent. Only after the repeated crippling attacks did Pharaoh finally have no choice but to let the Israelites go free.
Indeed, this narrative seems justified based on the way the Torah portrays the interactions between Moses and Pharaoh. Moses demanded that Pharaoh cede to the will of the Almighty, but Pharaoh refused.
When Moses insisted that he let the Iraelites go free, Pharaoh responded defiantly: “Who is the L rd , that I should obey him and let Israel go? I do not know the L rd, nor will I let Israel go.”2 In response, G d warned: “The Egyptians will know that I am the L rd when I stretch out my hand against Egypt and bring the Israelites out of it.”
So the plagues were sent to humble Pharaoh and force him to cooperate.
But Why So Many Plagues?
As neat as the storyline is, there is a major problem. If the goal was to liberate the Israelites, there were many much simpler ways to achieve that. G d could have unleashed a single plague so unbearable and so prolonged that Pharaoh would have been compelled to capitulate. Alternatively, G d could have simply instructed Moses to lead the Israelites out of Egypt and paralyzed the Egyptians to prevent them from doing anything to stop them.
Even simpler still, G d could have influenced Pharaoh’s mind so that he would be inclined to allow the Israelites to leave. After all, we read repeatedly that “G d hardened Pharaoh’s heart” so that he would be resistant to Moses’ demands. If G d had the power to harden Pharaoh’s heart, surely he also had the power to soften it. As we know, “The hearts and minds of kings are in the hand of the L rd.”3
So, why 10 plagues?
The great classical commentators broadly take one of two central approaches.
One view is that the purpose of the plagues was to punish Pharaoh and the Egyptians for their evil acts. For generations, they had exploited and mistreated the Israelites, and it would hardly be acceptable if they were not made to pay for their crimes. Indeed, G d hardened Pharaoh’s heart, so that he would continue to receive his full measure of punishment.
This is the view of Maimonides, who explains how it was justified for G d to punish Pharaoh if He was the one preventing him from complying (by hardening his heart).4 According to Maimonides, Pharaoh’s behavior was so appalling that it became necessary to subject him and his country to a fitting punishment in the form of the 10 plagues. By the time the plagues came around, it was irrelevant whether or not Pharaoh was ready to comply; it was about giving him a taste of his own medicine.
This is expressed in the prophecy told to Abraham, that “the nation that will subjugate [your descendants] will be judged.”5
Demonstrating G d’s Greatness
A second approach is that the plagues were designed to demonstrate G d’s sovereignty and might. Egypt was the most powerful empire at the time, and bringing it to its knees was to serve as a lesson to both Egypt and the whole world that the universe has an all-powerful creator.
This is the view of Rabbi Ovadia Seforno, who explains that the plagues were intended to subdue the Egyptians to accept G d’s will.6 According to Seforno, the purpose of the plagues was so that the Egyptians would repent of their evil ways and recognize G d’s greatness.
This sentiment is expressed in the verse in which G d tells to Moses to tell Pharaoh: “I have preserved you for this very purpose, that I might show you My power and that My name might be proclaimed in all the earth.”7 Pharaoh had brazenly denied any recognition of G d by repeatedly declaring, “Who is G d?”8 and “I don’t know of G d.” The Divine show of force offered a resounding response to his defiance.
A Third Approach
These two perspectives (a punishment or a lesson) were the dominant views of the purpose of the 10 plagues for centuries. Yet, in an astonishing twist, the Rebbe demonstrates a third, entirely new approach. The purpose of the plagues was not primarily intended for the Egyptians, argues the Rebbe. Rather, the main aim was to inspire the Israelites. Any impact the plagues would have on the Egyptians was secondary.
The Rebbe bases this perspective on a comment from Rashi. On the verse, “I will harden Pharaoh’s heart, and I will increase My signs and My wonders in the land of Egypt,”9 Rashi explains:
“Since he [Pharaoh] behaved wickedly and defied Me, and I know full well that there is no delight among the nations to make a wholehearted attempt to repent, it is better for Me that his heart be hardened, so that [I can] increase My signs and My wonders in him, and they will recognize My mighty deeds.” This is the custom of the Holy One, blessed be He: He brings retribution on the nations so that Israel should hear and fear.
Indeed, when Moses was sent one last time to confront Pharaoh, G d told him that the plagues were also a message for the Israelites: “In order that you tell into the ears of your son and your son’s son how I made a mockery of the Egyptians, and [that you tell of] My signs that I placed in them, and you will know that I am the L rd.”10
The Cosmic Arc
But what makes Rashi attribute the main focus of the plagues to their role with regards to the Israelites, when the Torah primarily highlights their role in relation to the Egyptians?
The clue is in Rashi’s very opening comment to the Torah – Genesis 1:1. There, Rashi states that the world was created according to an overarching Divine plan. At the heart of this was that the Children of Israel would arrive at Mount Sinai for the Torah to be revealed to the world. Pharaoh and the Egyptians played a part in that process, but they were never the end game.
Yes, the Egyptians deserved to be punished, and justice was indeed meted out. True, Pharaoh’s arrogance towards the Almighty required a powerful response, and he sure got one. But the ultimate purpose was that the departing Israelites would learn an eternal message that would resound for generations. The Egyptian pharaohs would fade from history several generations later, but the lessons of the Exodus would live on forever in the descendants of those Israelites. Ultimately, the Israelites carrying this lasting message would go on to transform the world.
Adapted from Likutei Sichot, vol. 36, Parshat Vae’ra II.