Make a Fixed Time for Study

עשה תורתך קבע – אמור מעט ועשה הרבה

Posts Tagged ‘plagues’

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.

Posted in Torah Commentary | Tagged: | Leave a Comment »

Two Negotiations

Posted by rabbiart on January 31, 2009

When we read the early stories of Breshit we often link two of Avraham’s conversations and struggle why he argued on behalf of the (innocent) citizens of Sodom and was silent when he was called to sacrifice his son.  He negotiates with HaShem in the first, but in the second he seems to have nothing to say.  In our parshah this week we are in the middle of another, actually quite elongated, negotiation; this time between Moshe (or you might prefer HaShem) and Pharoah.  You may not have thought of the plagues as a negotiation, but that is exactly what it is.

Avraham’s negotiation is with words only, Moshe’s words are accompanied by an increasingly emphatic set of signs and wonders.  Avraham is ultimately unsuccessful, as there are not ten innocent citizens of Sodom.  Moshe (and of course HaShem) succeed vividly – and violently. But there are additional instructive differences between the two, and perhaps lessons that apply to some elongated and violent negotiations that are going on today.  (Yes, of course, the situation in which Israel finds ourselves today.)

Consider the opening of Avraham’s conversation with HaShem.

וַיהוָה, אָמָר:  הַמְכַסֶּה אֲנִי מֵאַבְרָהָם, אֲשֶׁר אֲנִי עֹשֶׂה.</p?

Shall I hide from Avraham what I am going to do?

Once he has heard what HaShem plans to do, Avraham appeals toHaShem. His argument is simply put in Breshit 18:25. Shall not the judge of all the do justice!?!.  Avraham can appeal to HaShem’s sense of justice, because HaShem not only understands what justice is – HaShem is the creator of justice. So Avraham is able to negotiate with the ultimate power in all universe without resorting to arguments of power or any demonstrations.

The conversation with Pharoah is a different story altogether.  Moshe is not invited to negotiate for Israel’s freedom, he must force Pharoah to consider it.  Appeals to justice will not be useful; this is a negotiation about power, and power is the chief bargaining tactic. This is what really underlies the plagues – Pharoah must be convinced to do what he must, not what is just. The plagues – or something to substitute for them – are necessary. We cannot imagine that Pharoah can be persuaded by appeals for justice… or mercy.

Like any power struggle, the means escalate as the conversation is prolonged.  What starts with magic tricks and creeping animals turns all too soon into destruction, darkness and ultimately death.

As the balance of power shifts away from Pharoah we see his attitude change along with it. Egyptian magicians are able to duplicate the early plagues, and Pharoah’s heart was hardened. But in the 2nd plague (frogs) we see Pharoah begin to soften, as he tells Moshe and Aaron to ask HaShem to remove the frogs. When the gnats and flies come, he tells Moshe to take the Israelites out into the wilderness to pray, but not to go too far.

After the hail Pharoah confesses to Moshe and Aharon that he has sinned, HaShem is righteous and he (Pharoah) and his people are wicked. After just the threat of locusts, Pharoah’s staff begins to lose faith in him. When the locusts have completed their destruction Pharoah tells Moshe and Aharon that he has sinned, and begs for forgiveness.
וַיֹּאמֶר, חָטָאתִי לַיהוָה אֱלֹהֵיכֶם–וְלָכֶם. יז וְעַתָּה, שָׂא נָא חַטָּאתִי אַךְ הַפַּעַם, וְהַעְתִּירוּ, לַיהוָה אֱלֹהֵיכֶם; וְיָסֵר, מֵעָלַי, רַק, אֶת-הַמָּוֶת הַזֶּה.
He said “I have sinned against the HaShem your G-d, and against you. Please pray to forgive my sin this one time – I beg you – to HaShem your G-d, that he may take away from me this death.

Finally after darkness, the harbinger of death, Pharoah simply tells Moshe gai mir kebenyeh fenyeh although its unlikely Pharoah spoke Yiddish. The negotiation has broken down, and only the tenth plague is left.

Did these negotiations succeed or did they fail? In Sodom and Gemorah ten innocent citizens could not be found, and perhaps the story of Lot, his guests and his daughters is meant to tell us that there was not even one innocent person in that town. So even had Avraham bargained all the way down to a single innocent, the cities would still have been destroyed.  But that examination can wait until after Simchas Torah when we start our cycle all over again.

In our parshah, Pharoah seems to be coming to a realization that his behavior is not only wrong, but that it’s wrongness must be recognized, and he must ask forgiveness. But at the eleventh hour the text tells us only that Moshe left Pharoah in a great anger.  Was this negotiation successful? It is difficult to judge. The Israelites do not reach an accomodation with Pharoah, but they do succeed in getting out of Egypt.  Is that perhaps the only meaningful test. On this one, you will have to be the judge.

Posted in Torah Commentary | Tagged: , , | 1 Comment »