Back to This Week's Parsha| Previous Issues

Torah Attitude: Parshas Va'Eira: The multiple purposes of the Egyptian plagues

Summary

G'd punished the Egyptians with plagues. The hardening of Pharaoh's heart seems to contradict free will. "And I will multiply My signs and wonders in the land of Egypt and Egypt will know that I am G'd." Whenever G'd punishes a nation for their sins, there is an additional purpose to remind the Jewish people of the grave consequences when one does not follow G'd's instructions. The Jews in Egypt did not fully grasp the message that came with the plagues. Every year we have an opportunity again to internalize G'd's message and understand how G'd conducts the world for our benefit.

Egyptians punished with plagues

In this week's parasha, the Torah describes how G'd punished the Egyptians with the first seven of the ten plagues. The early commentaries ask why the Egyptians were punished, as G'd had decreed the suffering of the Jewish people in this exile (see Bereishis 15:13-14). The Ra'avad (in his annotations on the Rambam's Laws of Teshuvah (repentance) 6:5) explains that although G'd had decreed that the Jewish people would suffer, He already revealed to Abraham that the nation that would oppress them would be punished for mistreating the Jewish people. For the Egyptians obviously did not commit their atrocities against the Jews in order to fulfill G'd's prophecy to Abraham but due to reasons of their own.

Harden Pharaoh's heart

However, if this was the only purpose it would have been sufficient with one major plague, like the death of the first born. This plague would continue until Pharaoh broke down and agreed to send the Jews out of Egypt. An additional difficulty arises as G'd informed Moses and said (Shemos 7:3): "And I will harden the heart of Pharaoh." This seems to contradict the basic concept of man's free will.

G'd's signs and wonders

The Sforno explains that just the opposite is true. Only the death of the first born and the drowning of the Egyptian army at the Red Sea were actual punishments "measure for measure" for the Egyptian's atrocities against the Jewish people. The purpose of the first nine plagues was to show and prove G'd's sovereign total power over every element in the world. As it says (Shemos 7:30): "And I will multiply My signs and wonders in the land of Egypt and Egypt will know that I am G'd." Says the Sforno, G'd wanted that Pharaoh and his people should understand who G'd is and accept and be subservient to Him, not under duress but out of their own free will. He therefore sent them the various plagues to help them to repent and accept G'd. However, G'd was well aware that if He would not counterbalance the plagues with the hardening of Pharaoh's heart then Pharaoh would agree to send the Jews out in order to avoid the plagues. This would not constitute an acceptance of G'd. G'd therefore strengthened Pharaoh's heart. In this way he was able to endure the plagues and had the opportunity to accept G'd out of his own free will. Had Pharaoh repented on his own, and accepted G'd's demand to send the Jewish people away, the plagues would have stopped. But Pharaoh failed and the plagues continued to bring destruction and devastation upon Egypt.

Nations punished to remind the Jewish people

The Sforno quotes from the beginning of next week's parasha, where we find an additional aspect of why G'd afflicted the Egyptians with so many plagues. It says (Shemos 10:2): "And in order that you tell in the ears of your son and grandson about the wonders (see Targum Onkelus) that I performed in Egypt and the signs that I placed on them, and you shall know that I am G'd." This, says the Sforno, teaches us that G'd wanted to teach the Jewish people that every deed a person does has a consequence. As the Ramban writes, at the end of next week's parasha, that when a person listens to G'd and observes the commandments, he will be rewarded, and if he transgresses the commandments he will be punished (see also the eleventh principal of Rambam's thirteen principals of faith printed in most siddurim). Rashi (ibid) adds that this is how G'd conducts Himself throughout the generations. Whenever G'd punishes a nation for their sins, there is an additional purpose to remind the Jewish people of the grave consequences when one does not follow G'd's instructions. As the Prophet Zephaniah (3:6-7) says: "I destroyed nations, made their places desolate I said just fear Me and accept chastisement."

Chofetz Chaim

When the Chofetz Chaim heard of a calamity that had taken place in China he shuddered and trembled. For, as the Talmud (Yevamos 63a) teaches, every time a nation is punished there is also a message to the Jewish people. G'd prefers that we learn a lesson from what happens to other nations and return to Him, rather than G'd having to punish us.

Jews not fully grasp message of plagues

When the Egyptians pursued them soon after their exodus, they complained and said to Moses (Shemos 14:11): "Are there no graves in Egypt that you took us to die in the wilderness." How could they express themselves like this after experiencing the ten plagues that afflicted the Egyptians, and from which they were spared? The answer is that the Jews in Egypt did not fully grasp this message that came with the plagues, as King David says in Tehillim (106:7): "Our ancestors in Egypt did not internalize Your wonders, [therefore] they did not remember the abundance of Your kindness and they revolted at the sea by the Red Sea." A person can live through and experience wonders and miracles, if one does not internalize what one sees and does not take it to heart, it will have no lasting effect and be of little value. Although the Jewish people saw G'd's wonders in Egypt, they did not internalize what they experienced. It therefore did not help them to overcome their fear when they were pursued by the Egyptians.

Opportunity to internalize

Every year, as we read about these events in the Torah, we have an opportunity again to internalize G'd's message and understand how G'd conducts the world for our benefit. This in turn will help us to overcome our difficulties and appreciate when we experience G'd's kindness in our personal lives. If we go through life with such an awareness, it will help us to repent and get close to G'd without having to suffer the consequences for our transgressions. And in this way, we will be able to enjoy life both in this world and the World to Come.

These words were based on a talk given by Rabbi Avraham Kahn, the Rosh Yeshiva and Founder of Yeshivas Keser Torah in Toronto.

These words were based on a talk given by Rabbi Avraham Kahn, the Rosh Yeshiva and Founder of Yeshivas Keser Torah in Toronto.

Shalom. Michael Deverett

P.S. If you have any questions or enjoyed reading this e-mail, we would appreciate hearing from you. If you know of others who may be interested in receiving e-mails similar to this please let us know at michael@deverettlaw.com .


Shema Yisrael Torah Network
info@shemayisrael.co.il
http://www.shemayisrael.co.il
Jerusalem, Israel
732-370-3344