Letter and Spirit

For the week ending 5 January 2019 / 28 Tevet 5779

Parshat Vaera

by Rabbi Yosef Hershman
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Reverse Magic

When Moshe and Aharon first display their miraculous signs before Pharaoh, the Egyptian magicians try to show off their powers too. But Aharon’s staff-turned-crocodile devours theirs. They try their luck again when each of the first three plagues strike, seemingly in an effort to disprove the divinity of Moshe and Aharon’s mission.

For example, the Torah records, “and Aharon stretched out his hand over the waters of Egypt, and the frog[s] came up and covered the land of Egypt. The chartumim did likewise with their secret arts — and they brought frogs upon the land of Egypt.”

This narrative is puzzling. If the meaning is that these magicians also attempted to bring frogs upon the land and did so, then this verse is hard to understand. If Aharon had already brought the frogs upon the land, what was there left for the magicians to do?

One might suggest that when Aharon stretched out his hand, these magicians quickly performed some hocus pocus, so that it would appear that they had caused the frogs to emerge. But if that were the case, then we would have expected the same action — with the same success of illusion — to have been recorded at the third plague, the plague of lice. There, the Torah records that the magicians tried to copy the actions of Moshe and Aharon, but, due to their failure, were forced to declare the plagues directed by the Finger of G-d.

If there were some power to their magic, they should have used their powers to remove the frogs rather than increase them. The narrative sounds like they possessed madness more than magic! Rav Hirsch suggests, contrary to conventional interpretation, that their efforts in the case of each plague were aimed at eliminating the plague. Indeed, when the Torah records their efforts in the third plague, it says the chartumim also “did thus” with their secret arts to remove the lice, but they were unsuccessful.

The expression “and they did thus” does not mean that the magicians performed the same act designed to bring about the same result. Rather, they used the same means, but intended to reverse the effect of the plague. They mimicked the motions of Aharon, intending to nullify the result that Aharon brought about.

In the case of the frogs, their magical arts brought about the opposite results: instead of removing the frogs, they increased the frogs. Pharaoh, then, upon seeing the ridiculous helplessness of his magicians, sent immediately to Moshe and Aharon to end the plague.

§ Source: Commentary, Shemot 8:3

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