For the week ending 6 April 2019 / 1 Nisan 5779

All My Plagues

by Rabbi Nesanel Kasnett
Library Library Kaddish

13... ‘So said Hashem, the God of the Hebrews: Send out My people that they may serve Me. 14 For this time I shall send all My plagues against your heart, and upon your servants, and your people, so that you shall know that there is none like Me in all the world. 15 For now I could have sent My hand and stricken you and your people with the pestilence and you would have been obliterated from the earth. 16 However, for this have I let you endure, in order to show you My strength and so that My Name may be declared throughout the world. 17‘You still tread upon My people, not to send them out. 18Behold, at this time tomorrow I shall rain a very heavy hail, such as there has never been in Egypt, from the day it was founded until now. 19And now send, gather in your livestock and everything you have in the field; all the people and animals that are found in the field that are not gathered into the house — the hail shall descend upon them and they shall die.’ ”[Exodus 9:13-19]

In the synagogues of ancient Babylonia the entire Torah was read in one-year cycles [in Eretz Yisrael the public reading was concluded once every three years (see Megillah 29b)]. Further, as early as the time of the Gemara — if not before — the Torah was divided into individual weekly portions (sidras) [see ibid., 29b-30a, where the Gemara discusses the proper sequence of laining the weekly sidra along with one or more of the special readings, such as those pertaining to Rosh Chodesh and/or Chanukah]. Hence, the sidras were of at least Amoraic origin. (The Gemara there even mentions some by the names we use today — e.g., Tetzaveh, Ki Sisa, and Vayakhel.) Thus, the sidra divisions are authoritative, and the Sages presumably intended that each one should be studied as a discrete entity. It follows, then, that one may legitimately question the logic of a particular subject’s sidra placement — for example, why the command to construct an Incense Altar appears at the end of Parashas Tetzaveh (Exodus 30:1 ff.), after a lengthy description of the priestly vestments, rather than in Parashas Terumah with the other Tabernacle furnishings and components.

In light of the above, two related questions involving the Ten Plagues unavoidably arise: First, why are they divided into two groups that appear in separate, free-standing portions (seven in Va’eira and three in Bo), when arguably they should have been recorded as one continuous narrative in a single text-entity (sidra)? And further, why is the plague of hail (ברד) placed in Va’eira, as the seventh and concluding makkah of that sidra, when seemingly it belongs in Bo?

Our second question obviously requires elaboration:

Ramban (Exodus 13:16) famously defines the underlying purpose of the Ten Plagues: viz., to refute the three primary heretical beliefs held by mankind, which by then had subverted the three authentic principles of faith. For from the days of Enosh (a) some people began to deny the existence of a Creator Who had created the world ex nihilo, from nothingness; (b) while others, who acknowledged the Creator, nonetheless denied that He has knowledge of human events, supervises them, and rewards and punishes accordingly; and therefore, (c) in consonance with their refusal to recognize G-d’s absolute control of world affairs, these people denied that He is all-powerful.

Malbim (ibid., 7:14) takes up Ramban’s approach and explains how and why ten (plagues) were deployed to uproot three (false beliefs). He first cites the Pesach Haggadah, which after enumerating the ten plagues informs, “Rabbi Yehudah made of them a mnemonic: D’tzach (דצ"ך), Adash (עד"ש), B’achav (באח"ב).” From here we see that Chazal themselves divided the plagues into three groups, thus implying that each came to teach one of the true, cardinal principles of faith [and thereby disabuse mankind of its mistaken, corruptive beliefs]. Thus, explains Malbim, the first group of plagues[1] (דצ"ך) demonstrated the existence of a Supreme G-d — as it says: Through this (plague of blood) you shall know that I am Hashem (7:17) — for G-d strikes and bloodies Egypt’s deity, the Nile, and then turns the River against its worshipers by having it spawn an infestation of frogs. [Malbim notes that only these first two plagues were instructive, in line with: according to two witnesses ... shall a matter be confirmed (Deuteronomy 19:15). The third plague in each group, which comes without a warning to Pharaoh, is a punishment for Egypt’s failure to heed the lesson of the “two witnesses.”]

The second group[2] (עדש) then teaches that the Most High G-d oversees the affairs of even lowly mankind: So that you will know that I am Hashem in the midst of the land (8:18). Thus, He distinguishes between the Egyptians and the Israelites in the fourth and fifth plagues, directing them against the persons of the Egyptians (wild beasts) and even their property (pestilence), but sparing the Israelites in both.

Finally, the third group of plagues[3] (באח"ב) proclaims that G-d alone is all-powerful, that He can suspend the laws of nature at will, as He Himself advises prior to sending down the makkah of hail: So that you shall know that there is none like Me in all the world (9:14). For fire and ice miraculously coexisted in the hail,[4] and it was an unnatural and unprecedented east wind that carried the locusts all the way from Assyria and Babylonia to Egypt.[5] [As intimated above, the third plague in the group (darkness) served only as a punishment, and the killing of the firstborn came not to instruct or punish but to force Pharaoh to send out the Jews. Thus, the tenth plague was not integral to the tripartite arrangement of the makkos.]

So ... it was with the interpretations of Ramban and Malbim in mind that we asked above why the plague of hail appears in Parashas Va’eira, as the seventh and concluding makkah of that sidra, and not more appropriately in Parashas Bo — by which we meant to ask: why not in Bo with the other third-group (באח"ב) plagues?!

At this point the reader is encouraged to review the seven verses quoted at the head of this essay, for several other questions concerning the plague of hail arise from a close study of that text. In short order they are:

Why does G-d call the single plague of hail ,,כל מגפתי", all My plagues (v. 14)?

Why does He specify when this plague will commence — ,,כעת מחר", at this time tomorrow (v. 18), whereupon “[Moshe] made a scratch on the wall for [Pharaoh] (and said to him), ‘Tomorrow, when the sun will reach this line, the hail will descend’ ”[6] — whereas for no other plague is the precise starting time disclosed.[7]

Why does G-d warn Egypt to gather in their livestock and workers from the field lest they die in the hail (v. 19), if the plague’s purpose is to show you My strength, בעבור הראתך את כחי(v. 16)? What, indeed, doe show My strength mean?

One final question, from a verse found later in the passage: ,,וה' נתן קולות וברד ותהלך אש ארצה", And Hashem sent thunder and hail, and fire went earthward (9:23). Scripture here reveals that the plague of hail consisted of three elements — thunder, hailstones, and lightning (“fire”). It is therefore reasonable to assume that all three had to reach the earth simultaneously (i.e., as one unit), at precisely the moment “the sun reached the scratch on the wall,” lest Moshe be proven a liar (see Malbim ad loc.). Now, the maximum speed (terminal velocity) achieved by free-falling matter such as hail is 122 mph. Sound (e.g., thunder) travels at 767 mph, and light (lightning) at approximately 670,000,000 mph. Does the reader see the problem here? Under natural law the lightning would have reached the earth instantaneously, followed a few seconds later by the thunder and afterward the hail, thereby discrediting Moshe’s prediction. G-d thus performed a great miracle and sent down the hail and thunder at the speed of light (Malbim) — so that all three components of the plague arrived simultaneously!

But our question is: Why was such a dramatic miracle necessary? Do thunder and lightning always accompany hail? Certainly not! To achieve the full destructive impact of this plague G-d could have sent down the hail alone, for indeed Scripture later reports: The hail struck in the entire land of Egypt, everything that was in the field from man to beast; all the grass in the field the hail struck, and every tree of the filed it smashed (9:25). No mention here of damaging lightning or thunder.

* * * * *

The key to answering all these questions is the synthesized interpretation of Ramban and Malbim discussed above. Recall that they taught that the purpose of the plagues was to debunk the three principal heresies espoused by mankind, with each group of makkos refuting one of those beliefs. דצ"ךthus proclaimed that the world is not eternally ancient, but that a Supreme Being exists Who created it ex nihilo. עד"שthen introduces the concept of Divine Providence, through which this Supreme Being indeed involves Himself in and directs the affairs of the world. Finally, the supernatural plagues of באח"בteach that G-d is omnipotent.

My thesis is that the plague of hail uniquely incorporates all three lessons, and with that understanding all our difficulties will be resolved. Permit me to explain.

We mentioned above that when G-d announced that the plague of hail would commence ,,כעת מחר", at this time tomorrow (9:18), Moshe made a scratch on the wall and told Pharaoh, “Tomorrow, when the sun reaches this line, the hail will descend.” Now, it is obvious that the progress of a rising sun can be visibly detected only on a sunny, cloudless day. However, thunder, lightning and hail normally originate in a moisture-laden overcast sky!? Be’er Yosef[8]opines, in line with the midrash, that this makkah had a second miraculous dimension, in that it did occur on a sunny day — which for our purposes means that the hail, lightning and thunder were, in effect, created ex nihilo, from nothingness! The makkah thus affirmed that G-d exists and He created the entire world ex nihilo. It thereby corresponded to the דצ"ךgroup of plagues, which had refuted the first heresy — that the world is eternally ancient.

The second false belief was that G-d does not involve Himself in the affairs of man. To refute that untruth Hashem specified when this particular plague [of hail] would commence (at “this” time tomorrow), which ipso facto demonstrated His precise providential conduct of world events — as, a matter of fact, did His warning to the Egyptians to remove their workers and livestock from the fields lest they die in the hail. Indeed, the warning made abundantly clear that Divine Providence extends to all mankind. [Question 4]

Further, this warning bespoke restraint, which was in fact G-d’s “showing of strength,” as in “Who is strong?” (Avos 4:1).[9] That is, G-d showed His strength by smiting the remaining vegetation but not any living creature, and the warning facilitated that show of restraint. Alternatively, the warning itself was a show of restraint. [Q 5]

In sum, the plague of hail affirmed that G-d supervises and directs world events. It therefore corresponded as well to the עד"שgroup of plagues, which had debunked the second heretical notion, that of G-d’s non-involvement in such matters.

* * * * *

We can now venture to say that because the hail incorporated the lessons of the first two sets of plagues (דצ"ךand עד"ש), it appears together with them in the same Torah portion (Va’eira). Indeed, it is precisely to associate hail with those two groupings that the ten plagues were split between two sidras, for without such division — i.e., if the plagues were recorded one after another all in one sidra — the only groupings derived would be those of Rabbi Yehudah. [Q 1] For the natural grouping of the hail, wherein fire and ice miraculously coexisted,[10] is with the third set of plagues (באח"ב), which likewise were inherently supernatural phenomena and thus demonstrated G-d’s absolute power over the natural order. Indeed, to emphasize hail’s natural grouping and counterbalance its placement in Parashas Va’eira, G-d magnified the miracle by causing thunder and lightning to accompany the hail so that the hail and thunder would have to be sent down at the speed of light. [Q 6]

And now, finally, we can understand why G-d called the single plague of hail כל מגפתי, all My plagues — namely, because it encompassed the lessons of all three groups of plagues! [Q 3]

* * * * *

And yet we wonder: If each group of plagues indelibly imparted its unique lesson, what purpose was served by the hail modeling all three? In other words, why give hail a special status?

Scripture states:

Moshe went out from Pharaoh ... and stretched out his hands to Hashem, and the thunder and hail ceased and rain did not reach the earth(9:33).

Moshe’s intercession literally stopped the plague in its tracks. The Midrash elaborates:[11]

תלאן ברפיון. ואימתי יָרְדוּ? בימי יהושע על האמוריים, שנאמר וגו', והשאר שהיו בשמים יֵרְדוּ על גוג ומגוג לימות המשיח.

“[The hailstones] remained suspended in the air. And when did they come down? In the days of Joshua, [when he fought] against the Amorites, for it is stated etc. And the rest [of the hail] that was [suspended] in the sky will descend upon Gog and Magog in the Messianic era.”

A remarkable midrash, but what is the significance of King Gog and his armies of Magog being struck with the selfsame hailstones that G-d had hurled against the Egyptians? Another midrash[12] provides the clue:

כל מכות שהביא הקב"ה על המצריים במצרים הוא עתיד להביא על אדום, שנאמר וגו'.

“All the plagues that the Holy One, blessed is He, brought upon the Egyptians in Egypt He will in the future bring upon Edom,[13] for it is stated etc.”

The Midrash proceeds to support this amazing prediction of future plagues with verses from the post-Pentateuchal books of Isaiah, Ezekiel and Zechariah — which indicates that those afflictions will be replications of the original blood, frogs, et al.

However, the plague of hail will be unique, in that it will consist of the very same hailstones that were hurled against Egypt over three millennia before!

The hail thus serves to connect the makkos in Egypt to the plagues that will ensure the final, future destruction of Israel’s enemies, thereby bringing the history of Klal Yisrael full-cycle: Pharaoh sought to quash the emerging Jewish nation; and Gog, in one final massive effort, will seek to deny Israel its glorious destiny. As they did in the distant past, the Ten Plagues will once again thwart the enemy’s wicked design.

About the author: Rabbi Nesanel Kasnett was one of the six original talmidim of Yeshiva Shema Yisrael, the forerunner of Ohr Somayach. He subsequently learned in Beis Hatalmud (Yerushalayim) and the Mirrer Yeshiva kollel (Brooklyn), for a combined total of 16 years. He has written four books of essays on various Torah subjects, and served as a senior editor and author at ArtScroll/Mesorah for 25 years, working on their English Shas, Ramban, Midrash Rabbah and other projects.

[1] An acronym for דם(blood), צפרדע(frogs), and כנים(lice).
[2] An acronym for ערב(wild beasts), דבר(pestilence), and שחין(boils).
[3] An acronym for ברד(hail), ארבה(locusts), חשך(darkness), and [מכת] בכורות(killing of the firstborn).
[4] See verse 9:24 with Rashi.

[5] See Malbim to 10:13.

[6] Rashi ad loc., from Shemos Rabbah 12:2.

[7] Not even for the tenth plague according to the Rabbis (see Rashi to Exodus 11:4).

[8] To verse 9:18.

[9] The Mishnah reads: “Who is strong? One who subdues his (evil) inclination, for it is stated: He who is slow to anger is better than a strong man, and a master of his passions is better than a conqueror of a city (Proverbs 16:32).”

[10]See verse 9:24 with Rashi.

[11]Tanchuma, Va’eira 16. See also Shemos Rabbah 12:7.

[12]Tanchuma, Bo 4.

[13]I.e., Gog and Magog.

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