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עשה תורתך קבע – אמור מעט ועשה הרבה

The Final Plague

Posted by rabbiart on February 1, 2009

The “Ten Plagues”. To borrow from West Side Story “say it loud and its music playing, say it soft and its almost like praying.” However you say it, everyone knows exactly what you mean; just like the HaShem’s words at Sinai have been labeled The Ten Commandments. Of course neither set is actually labeled or numbered in the Torah. How do we know there are ten of each? Because everyone says so? Because the tradition decided? Or because ten is an orderly number and the human role is to bring order to a chaotic universe?

What makes a plague? Divine intervention into the natural flow of events? Something that cannot be duplicated by mortal human beings? The plagues are HaShem’s signs and wonders that freed us from Mitzrayim. Pharoah’s aides can duplicate all of the blood sign just as they can turn a staff into a snake. Arguably then, blood is not a plague despite what we say in the Pesach Seder. And since Pharoah’s magicians can make frogs (but not remove them), that is only half a plague.

Are the plagues really all that terrible? A great deal of discomfort is visited upon Egypt, but until the end, not a single person is injured, much less killed. Are we overly sensitive when we read the plagues? How many of have reacted, or heard others react with a variation of a theme on “G-d wasn’t very nice to Pharoah.”

(Remember this version of the plagues that has circulated for a number of years on the Internet, and who knows how long before that?)

I count 8 1/2 or 9 1/2 plagues before we get to Yam Suf. And compared to the death and destruction of modern – and ancient – warfare, how bad are they?

In our parshah we see a final plague that really lives up to the name “plague”; Pharoah’s hosts drowning in the sea, the last prelude to our redemption. As it began so it will end. HaShem instructs Moshe to wield his staff, this time to part the waters. Once already we have seen water become blood. Now we will see it again. What began with a demonstration of turning Egyptian water into blood will end with spilling Egyptian blood into water.

The plagues are celebrated both loudly and softly. After the Israelites emerge from the Sea, they sing a song of deliverance.  In synagogues where the morning davening goes page by page, the Song of the Sea is the penultimate prayer before the Hatzi Kaddish marking the end of pezukei d’zimra. It is soft; the custom is to daven it silently and to  stand while reciting the passage.  In the Shacharit service, an except from the song – Mi Chamocha – immediately precedes the the Amidah.  It is sung out loud and in some tunes, with great gusto.

At times I get a queasy feeling when davening these passages, but they are a part of, and a model of our history that has played itself out through our generations.  It might be the only useful model for the modern day Egypt in which we find ourselves embroiled now.

It’s an unpleasant thought to be sure. Sometimes blood must be shed for people to be free.

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