Hashem is Everywhere
After being denied and ridiculed by Pharaoh, and enthused and reinvigorated by the Almighty, Moshe now returns to warn Pharaoh that God is about to smite Egypt with the plague of blood.
The story that follows is probably the most famous biblical narrative of all time. An unusually stubborn leader repeatedly refuses to surrender to the Almighty God. Each time a plague appears, he promises immediate freedom, only to backtrack the instant the plague is revoked.
Slowly but surely, the Egyptian Empire is weakened and economically decimated, yet Pharaoh remains unwaveringly obstinate. It is only in the next parasha, when Pharaoh’s own son dies during the plague of the firstborn, that he eventually succumbs to God’s majesty, whilst simultaneously ‘chasing’ the Children of Israel out of Egypt.
However, even this capitulation was short-lived, and within days of having relinquished his ‘ownership’ of Bnei Yisrael, Pharaoh deeply regrets his moment of weakness, rescinds his original decision, and pursues his freed slaves until the final confrontation in Parashat Beshalach at the splitting of the sea.
Much clarification is needed here, but I wish to focus on the Ten Plagues. We surely cannot assume that this slow, agonizing process, that brought one of the greatest empires to its knees, was the quickest and most efficient way of freeing the people from slavery!
The Omnipotent Creator of the Universe could easily have liberated our people at the click of His metaphorical finger! Furthermore, if we take a good look at the text, we see that Am Yisrael is suspiciously absent throughout the narrative until we reach the final stages of the last plagues. There are infrequent references to the Children of Israel as the story develops, but they are not really part of the main plot.
So what was the purpose of the Ten Plagues? Was this some sort of revenge? A measure-for-measure retaliation? Indeed, some midrashic sources do lean towards this kind of interpretation.
However, I would like to refer to the Maharal, in his famous commentary on the Pesach Haggadah.
The key to understanding the essence of the Ten Plagues comes from the extraordinary statement in the Haggadah informing us that Rabbi Yehuda divided the plagues into three groups: “DeTZaCH, ADaSH, and B’ACHaB.”At first glance, this appears to be a simple memory aid: D = ‘Dam’(blood,) TZ = ‘Tzfardeiya’ (frogs,) CH = ‘Kinim’ (lice,) A = ‘Arov’ (wild beasts,) D = ‘Dever’ (pestilence,) SH = ‘Shchin’ (boils,) B = ‘Barad’ (hail,)A = ‘Arbeh’ (locusts,) CH = ‘Choshech’ (darkness,) and B = ‘Bechorot’(killing the firstborn.)
Yet isn’t this rather redundant? We learn the Ten Plagues by heart in preschool! Of all the detailed Torah data we need to remember, are the Ten Plagues most in need of an abbreviated code?
Rabbi Yehuda must be attempting to teach us something much more important. Before we examine his division of the plagues, let us first try to understand the context, by referring back to Sefer Bereishit.
From Adam through Noach, we see severe deterioration in Man’s relationship to the Almighty. Man becomes increasingly physically oriented and less and less spiritual in essence. By the time Avraham Avinu arrives on the scene, it is as if God has been banished to the Heavens. At best, He is accredited with Creation, but denied any connection with the ongoing process of the world’s development. At worst, He is denied existence and replaced by fabricated gods of bricks and mortar.
When Avraham enters, the world has fallen for a third time. In contrast to the past, the ‘rebirth’ does not come from on High, but rather through the initiative of an enlightened individual. On this occasion, the world will not be exiled nor destroyed, but redirected and educated by Man himself. Society was moving away from God, but Avraham and his followers aimed to ‘reintroduce’ the Almighty to civilization.
Monotheism is not simply to emphasize the fact that there is one God in the world. It stresses that He is actively involved in every moment. Avraham taught that God created the world, and does not remain aloof from the mundane and insignificant actions of humankind. He continues to keep the world moving every single nanosecond.
Avraham and his descendants are seen as Hebrews (Ivrim, which is a derivative of the Hebrew word ‘eiver,’ literally meaning ‘those on the other side.’) Avraham and his children remain a minority opinion, and as the world ‘progresses,’ Avraham’s descendants are exiled from the Promised Land and find themselves embroiled in a crucial battle for survival.
The Children of Israel, who had now evolved into a people, were not particularly bound together by Avraham’s philosophical ideology, but much more by their common hardship and suffering. Avraham’s fundamental concepts, the ideals he had so fiercely fought for, had been temporarily put on standby. And when Moshe first appears before Pharaoh, he is asked:
“Who is God that I should listen to His voice and free Israel? I do not know of God, and I will not liberate Israel.” (Shemot, 5:2)
Yes, Am Yisrael needed liberation, but their ideas and philosophies had to be renewed and reinforced as well. Physical freedom was not an end in itself, but rather a conduit for renewing ethical monotheism. The people were not being saved because it was their right to live as free human beings in the world. They had a mission: to reintroduce God to the world.
Pharaoh’s arrogant statement is something we hear time and again, both from within and without, and it demands a response.
Pharaoh claimed ignorance of God. The Almighty is about to show him and his people exactly who He is. Egypt and the other disbelieving nations are about to discover who really does control the world.
This then is the indisputable objective of the Ten Plagues. The Torah repeatedly explains that the reason for the plagues is so the nations internalize, “I am the Lord, and that I am involved in the world.”
As we mentioned earlier, had the objective been simply to free the people, this entire process could have been avoided. However, since we need to show God to the world, the people will indeed be freed, but in a way that provides Pharaoh with a detailed answer to his question, whilst simultaneously re-establishing Judaism’s fundamental role in the world.
Now, if we follow Rabbi Yehuda’s acronymic division, we immediately see the message:
The first three plagues originated from the ground or the water – blood and frogs from water, and lice from the earth.
The second three plagues originated from living beings – wild beasts, the epidemic that destroyed cattle, and boils.
The third group of plagues all came from the Heavens – hail, locusts, darkness, and death.
When we divide the Ten Plagues like Rabbi Yehuda, we can clearly see the Almighty showed the people of Egypt, and indeed all of mankind, that he is the Supreme Ruler of everything and of everyone.
He shows Pharaoh that He is in absolute control of all areas on the ground, be it the dry earth, or be it the all-powerful Nile. Pharaoh cannot usurp that control, and by pleading with Moshe to ask God to stop those plagues, he is, albeit under duress, admitting the God of the Jews rules the earth.
Having established this fact, disaster begins to appear in the realm of livestock. If Pharaoh was now convinced of God’s existence, but still felt that his Majesty was limited to the inanimate, he is now introduced to Divinity 102. Uncontrollable wild animals roam the streets, followed by an unknown cattle epidemic, and then the Egyptian people inexplicably develop boils all over their bodies.
Again, Pharaoh is powerless to stop the plagues, and by turning to Moshe as a last resort, he is yet again forced to accept that God is also in control of the earth’s inhabitants.
However, before Pharaoh graduates from his course in ‘Abrahamic monotheism,’ he needs to understand the Lord rules the skies as well; hence hail, locusts, and darkness illustrate that God Almighty owns the Heavens too. As the old song says, “Hashem is here, Hashem is there, Hashem is truly everywhere!”
Yet this alone is not enough. The ultimate, irrefutable argument of absolute power is control over Life and Death. When Pharaoh experiences the tenth and final plague, he has no choice but to accept the Almighty’s omnipotence. He has no alternative but to free the Jewish people.
At the very moment Pharaoh surrenders, he unshackles the Abrahamic ideology to influence the world once again. The Jewish people were liberated even before they crossed the Egyptian borders. Not because their faith in God had been rewarded, but because their beliefs and ideologies had now been vindicated. Their essential reason for being had been justified.
The faith that took Avraham and Yitzchak to the Akeidah; the belief that accompanied Ya’akov and Yosef through their many trials and tribulations, is now clear for the world to see. There is no greater proof of God and His absolute supremacy than the Ten Plagues. Judaism has been vindicated, and the world now knows who God is.
Yet having said that, each one of us still has the choice whether we accept and internalize that truth.
Many of us ask the very same question Pharaoh asked, either by what we do or what we say. When the Almighty God commands us to constantly remember Yetziat Mitzrayim, perhaps He is telling us we need to remember the message of those Ten Plagues every single day.
We must be able to convince the Pharaoh within us; the voice that wants us to believe God does not exist, (or if He does He is not the slightest bit interested in what we do,) that he is badly mistaken.
We are always astonished at Pharaoh’s stubborn refusal to see the truth, yet we face the same battle every day of our lives. How often do we think we are in control of our own lives? How much do we worry about the future? How much power do we attribute to our leaders? How often do we do something morally wrong when ‘no-one is looking’? More often than not, (even if we rationalize otherwise,) we respond just like Pharaoh, by denying God’s absolute involvement in this world.
We need a constant reminder that “Hashem is here, Hashem is there, Hashem is truly everywhere.” And so we recall the Ten Plagues on a daily, weekly, and monthly basis in order to constantly remind ourselves: “The Earth is Hashem’s and everything in it; the Universe and all those who dwell in it.” (Tehillim 24)