Shabbat candles: 4:19 p.m.
Torah reading: Exodus 6:2–9:35
Haftarah: Ezekiel 28:25-29:21
Havdalah: 5:22 p.m.
‘By this you will know that I am the Lord: With the staff that is in my hand I will strike the water of the Nile, and it will be changed into blood.” [Exodus 7:17]
What was the purpose of the plagues? If God’s intention was to redeem the Jews from slavery, wasn’t there a more efficient way? In Genesis, God gave people time to repent, but once punishment began it was swift and effective, leaving no further opportunities to repent.
Why should Egypt be different? When God decided to suspend the laws of nature, the Egyptians could have been eliminated in one explosion of fire and brimstone, liberating the Israelites instantly. Why do we need these ten steps, turning the screw tighter and tighter until even the most resistant Egyptian could not maintain his stubbornness? Were the plagues sent to free the Israelites, or was there more involved?
The liberation from Egypt represented the inauguration of a people brought together not by geography but by ideology — a holy kingdom. Egypt. the most powerful nation on earth, would be challenged by a group of slaves who, despite their long years of bondage, were chosen by God to stand at the center of history. They were to become the living expression of a way of life that stands in direct opposition to that of the pharaohs.
The Ten Plagues not only served to free our nation but to demonstrate that the time had come when "Egypt shall know that I am God, when I stretch out My hand over Egypt and bring out the children from among them" [Exodus 7:5]. Throughout the duration of the plagues, this idea is constantly repeated as God breaks the chain of bondage and establishes fundamental truths for all time.
The first principle of Judaism is the existence of one God, who takes a specific interest in His creation and has the ability to establish and destroy civilizations.
The second principle is that the world is not an arbitrary place, where those on top are entitled to treat their slaves however they wish while living off the fruit of their labors. There is a Divine system of reward and punishment, and people who act cruelly and cause pain to others will be held responsible.
The third principle is that there is a plan to history. Judaism promises a final Redemption with the arrival of the Messiah, the return to Zion and the rebuilding of the Temple. There is light at the end of the tunnel.
From a theological perspective, the Ten Plagues hammered away at the idolatrous beliefs of the Egyptians. The Egyptians worshiped the Nile, attributing Egypt’s position at the helm of civilization to the godly powers of this mighty river. When its waters were turned to blood and then infested with frogs, the Egyptians were forced to rethink the Nile, seeing their fertility god transformed into a source of death and destruction.
Apart from the Nile, the Egyptians worshiped animals, birds and insects, but as the plagues progressed, these deities appeared to devastate the local agriculture and were then themselves destroyed. As the Egyptians witnessed the decimation of their livelihoods and the ruin of their country, the country’s idolatrous infrastructure began to buckle, and the people realized that it was not Pharaoh in charge, but the Creator of the Universe.
So the plagues offered a profound lesson in theology, including an important message about social justice. Slavery was one of the great sins of Egypt, and the perpetrators had to suffer in a manner so graphic that it would illustrate for all time the relationship between the crime and the punishment.
The Egyptian reign of terror against the Israelites began with the decree that all Hebrew male children be cast into the Nile. Pharaoh’s use of the river as a means to persecute Jewish families led God to appropriate it for the punishment of Egypt. With the plagues of blood and frogs, the source of Jewish suffering becomes the focus of Egyptian suffering. Then the plague of boils mimics the boils and blisters inflicted on the Israelite slaves when their taskmasters beat them. Plagues on the animals show that it is forbidden to dehumanize a person. In this way, the plagues offer a measure-for-measure punishment for the persecution of an innocent slave population.
Through each plague, God teaches Pharaoh and his people basic lessons in theology, and informs Pharaoh of the Divine concern for every human being.
Most importantly, the plagues form the backdrop for the liberation of the Israelites so that they can sacrifice the paschal lamb, showing that it’s not enough to end slavery; one must begin serving God in freedom. In this way, the plagues exchanged the Egyptian obsession with death for a life-enhancing focus on the God of freedom, redemption and hope.
Rabbi Shlomo Riskin is chancellor of Ohr Torah Stone, and chief rabbi of Efrat.