The History of the Plagues and the Plagues in History
THE HISTORY OF THE PLAGUES AND THE PLAGUES IN HISTORY
Parshas Bo, 5776
© Rabbi Elly Krimsky, 2016
All the demographic studies in the past five or so years confirm that while American Jews affiliate less and less with organized Jewish life, Jews do participate in greater numbers in Pesach Sedarim.
One of my memories, and that of my siblings, is a very detailed chart my father crafted for the Seder. It was a detailed analysis of the plagues, indicating warnings, who initiated the plague, what did Moshe say, what did Pharaoh say, what did Hashem say and so forth. I didn’t appreciate it until I was older and realized how much information was conveyed on that one page. It has also infused in me a fascination with the plagues.
We are familiar with Rabbi Yehudah’s acronym d’tzach adash b’achav, his brilliant classification of the plagues into 3 series, where each series features thematic consistency, where the first, second and third (or fourth) components within each series also show parity.
Many ask why God needed ten plagues; one would have sufficed. What did He accomplish with the additional plagues and why were the specific forms of punishment chosen? In the spirit of my father’s chart, I’d like to present a chart of my own that offers three rationales for the ten plagues.
The first two sequences below are based on the Midrash Tanchuma (Bo #4). In the first, entitled “Military Strategy” the Midrash explains that each plague paralleled how a military leader would suppress a rebelling state. This midrash not only explains the ten steps, but stands out in that the order of the plagues – i.e. why 4 precedes 5 – are also explained. This approach is unique in that sense. This may also be the most popular and well known approach. In this approach we see God as ‘ish milchamah’ (see Shmos 15:3), as a general defending his nation and wreaking havoc on dangerous enemies.
The second opinion, which can be seen in the row entitled “Punishment Measure for Measure” describes Hashem more as a ‘Kel N’kamos’, a God of consequences who punishes those who transgress basic decent behavior by inflicting on them parallel penalties. In this sequence, Hashem punishes Pharaoh and the Egyptians who caused such pain, suffering and humiliation to God’s chosen nation.
The final rendering below, in the row entitled “Attacking Egyptian gods” is based on a thesis proposed by Professor A.S. Yehudah and mentioned in Rabbi Yissachar Yaakobson’s “Binah b’Mikrah.” In our parshah, God declares, “I will bring punishments to all the Egyptian gods” (Ibid. 12:12). Yet, asks the Ramban and others, where do we see Hashem actually doing this? Ramban answers that wood rotted and metal melted… But professor Yehudah tries to find a punishment addressed to the Egyptian deities. Every occurrence of this thesis that I could find only mentioned 4 or 5 plagues, but the gist is clear. I’d love to read the original work which may provide more information.
Shutting off the water supply
Sending of colony of spies
Seizure of prisoners of war
Chemical warfare/ fire tipped arrows
Catapults and heavy artillery
Mass ground force
ment of leaders
Exe-cution of leaders
Measure for measure
Egyp-tians did not allow the Jewish women to purify them-selves in a mikva.
Slaves had to catch frogs for Egyptians
Slaves had to sweep the streets for no reason
Slaves had to catch wild beasts for no reason
Slaves had to watch the Egyptians cattle in the desert
Slaves had to get boiling water for Egypt-ians
Slaves had to plant gardens; vege-tation was destroyed
Slaves had to plant wheat and barley; therefore they were destroyed
Punishment to wicked Jews. Darkness prevented Egyptians from seeing this.
Egypt-ians killed Jews, so their leaders were killed.
Atacking Egyptian gods
The Nile was a god of Egypt.
The frog was an Egyptian god of fertility.
Egyptian clerics were required to be free of all disease or uncleanliness. For this reason they shaved their heads. But despite their baldness, they were struck with lice.
attacking animal gods of the Egyptians.
Attacking animal gods of the Egyptians.
Boils also attacked the sanitized bodies of the Egyptian priests.
I would like to suggest something new that I have not seen elsewhere. The Ramban famously teaches us that the experiences of our ancestors serve as a guide for us, their descendants.
There is a third sequence offered by the aforementioned Tanchuma; it pertains to paybac to our enemy Edom in the future, as described in the works of the prophets. The Midrash parallels verses that describe payback in the future. Along these lines, I would like to expand on this and offer this thesis. Jews throughout the ages until this very day suffer from anti-Semitism. Holocausts, blood libels, pogroms, inquisitions, expulsions, crusades, forced conversions merely scratch the surface of the collective suffering we have experienced. If one sees the plagues as the paradigm of God’s payback to our enemies for their abuse and hatred, one sees God punishing our enemies for all that they do to us. Hashem tells us through the plagues what our enemies will do to us, and also promises consequences.
We start with the symbol of HASHEM’s power: the snake. The snake represents slander. Jews have been slandered for millennia. This may actually be the largest overall category of anti-Semitism. Whether the medieval impression of Shylock the money grubber, the accusations of deicide, of wanting to control the world, whether Hollywood or Wall Street - or even the disgusting misleading and consistent slander of the international press and the UN and its comrades, we still suffer from slander. I actually got a call this week at work from a non-Jewish young man who was hearing that Jews are terrible and wanted to get confirmation. He asked me, “is the definition of Zionism a desire to rule the world?” This was an innocent American millennial asking a question in January of 2016.
Any student of the tragic annals of Jewish history knows about the Blood Libels. The Egyptians were described as digging wells around the Nile, to find fresh water. The Jews were accused by her enemies of poisoning the wells. Blood makes a lot of sense as a first plague.
The plague of frogs describes the amphibians as “ascending and coming into your house and your bedroom and your bed, and into the house of your servants and of your people, and into your ovens and into your kneading bowls” (7:28). I shuttered thinking of ovens in this context, but truth be told, the history of Jew hatred has our enemy invading our homes, looking for roots of Judaism during the Inquisition. Investigating one’s lineage to determine if one is Jewish according to the Nuremberg Laws is an image too real to us from the Shoah. I need not expand.
The plague of lice began when Hashem commanded Moshe and Aharon to strike the ground. I can’t help but think of the ravines where our people were massacred and mass graves of these k’doshim were fashioned and covered with earth. The image of the “ground calling up to us,” Hashem’s call to Kayin after the world’s first murder, comes to mind. I need not mention the prevalence of lice in Concentration Camps, Death Camps and ghettos.
Many commentaries note that within the aforementioned formula of Rabbi Yehudah – d’tzach adash b’achav – the first of each formula contained the warning from Moshe. That would be blood, wild animals and hail. The warning prior to wild animals states (8:18) so that you will know that I am Hashem in the midst of the land. Hashem continues (although our sages created a cadence between these two verses by making them two different aliyos), “I shall bring about redemption – between My people and your people – tomorrow this sign will come about” (Ibid. verse 19). How many Jews throughout the ages have suffered and died because Jews were separate and different from their surrounding cultures. We have been hated because we are different and maintain our distinction and singularity.
Throughout our history, governments looked the other way as sub-humans pillaged, razed and destroyed our communities, akin to wild animals. Even the ‘domesticated’ were animals in the end. Those of culture and religion were often the worst peddlers of hatred and murder. The Church supported and initiated the Crusades which butchered men, women and children and forever destroyed some of the greatest Jewish communities; we know what the ‘domesticated’ Germans did as well.
The sixth plague began with Moshe and Aharon throwing soot and ashes upwards (9:8-10). Who by fire? Our tradition teaches us that already from the time of Avraham those with beliefs in one God were cast into the fire. Tanach describes the three Jews thrown into the fire during Nebuchadnezzar’s time. Jews have always had to withstand trial by fire. Thousands if not more have been burned for their beliefs.
The seventh plague of hail begins the final series of Rabbi Yehudah’s sequence. God’s warning states the goal “That you shall know that there is none like Me in all the world” (Ibid. verse 14). Plagues seven and eight, hail and locusts, devastated the locales and basically prevented them from eating. Throughout history, latent anti-Semitism began when Jews would not be hired or lost their jobs, merely for their beliefs or their nationality or birth parents. After these two plagues, there was no vegetation left in all of Egypt. Jews have lived in societies that did not kill them, but prevented them from making a living or advancement and, in many cases, they had no alternative but starvation and ravishing poverty.
The connection to Jew hatred and plagues nine and ten are pretty obvious. Darkness has been likened to imprisonment; need not to look further than Joseph of old, Samson or King Tzidkiyahu; or in modern day think of Mendel Beilis or Col. Alfred Dreyfus. Death of the first born… one number suffices to make that case: 6,000,000.
There is much to learn from the plagues, every statistic listed on my father’s chart. At the Seder we pause and read them aloud. Our custom is to spill some wine as our adversaries accept the consequences of their hate. Let us ponder the plagues. Not merely the devastation that it caused our ancestors. Our experience with the plagues should not only show compassion for our adversaries that faced the wrath of God. One of the themes of the Pesach Seder is that we must see ourselves as that generation that experienced the exodus. We need to see the plagues as payback to our foes for crimes they committed, and paradigms of hate that we will unfortunately see and experience until the true ultimate salvation comes. May we too experience that aspect of the story as well – speedily in our day!
Many ask the question why did Hashem need 10 plagues. Some Midrashim and commentaries offer wonderful explanations. Here we look at the plagues as paradigms of antisemitism, warnings for the present and future.