Seasons - Then and Now

For the week ending 28 March 2015 / 8 Nisan 5775

The Ten Plagues

by Rabbi Chaviv Danesh
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It is a positive mitzvah from the Torah to speak about the miracles and wonders that were done to our ancestors in Mitzrayim on the night of the fifteenth of Nissan. (Rambam, Hilchot Chametz U’matzah 7:1)

It is incumbent on the leader of the Seder to discuss the miracles that G-d performed for us in Mitzrayim. Since the retelling of the ten plagues is perhaps an appropriate way to fulfill this mitzvah, it would be suitable to study the deeper ideas behind their essence. While there are many questions behind the nature of the ten plagues, there are two fundamental questions that need clarification. Firstly, why did G-d bring exactly ten plagues? After all, once Pharaoh refused to let the Jewish People go, G-d could have flattened Mitzrayim with one mighty blow. What then is the rationale behind ten different plagues?[1] Furthermore, even if we comprehend the motive behind the number of plagues, we still need to understand the reason behind G-d’s choice of bringing these specific plagues. After all, G-d had many forces at His disposal to destroy Mitzrayim. What made these specific ten plagues most fitting for destroying Mitzrayim?

The Mishna in Avot says that G-d created the natural world through ten sayings (Avot 5:1). The Ohr Gedalyahu explains that with each saying of creation, G-d, so to speak, created a mask for Himself. Each saying gave another layer to the natural laws of the world that hide G-d. However, each of the ten plagues, by altering that part of nature, removed one of these masks and showed that G-d is behind each and every one. Through the ten plagues G-d wanted to show the world once and for all that He is the driving force behind everything. This is the reason why the ten sayings of creation parallel the ten plagues exactly.[2] The following is the breakdown according to the Maharal:[3]

Sayings of Creation in the Book of Bereishet The Ten Plagues in the Book of Shemot Connection
1:1 In the beginning…[4] 12:29 Death of firstborn

There is a parallel theme of beginning.[5]

1:3 G-d said, ‘Let there be light’

10:22 Darkness

The opposite of light is darkness.

1:6 G-d said, ‘Let there be a firmament’

9:23 Hail

G-d made the firmament and now commanded unnatural hail (mix of fire and ice) to rain down from it.

1:9 G-d said, ‘Let the waters gather and let the earth appear’

8:13 Lice

G-d revealed the earth and now the dust of earth transformed into lice, as it says: G-d said to Moshe, ‘Tell Aharon, stretch out your staff and strike the dust of the land and it shall become lice throughout the landof Egypt. (Shemot 8:12)

1:11 G-d said, ‘Let the earth bring forth vegetation’

10:13 Locusts

The locusts ate the vegetation. (Even though the plague of hail also destroyed vegetation, locusts only destroyed vegetation, while hail also killed animals.)

1:14 G-d said, ‘Let there be luminaries’

9:6 Epidemic

The luminaries affect the state of the air that we breathe which can cause an epidemic. (See Maharal)

1:20 G-d said, ‘Let the water sprout forth living creatures’

8:2 Frogs

G-d created creatures that came from water; now frogs came in excess out of water.

1:24 G-d said, ‘Let the earth bring forth living creatures’

8:20 Wild animals

G-d created living creatures on earth and now those animals came in excess and attacked in an unnatural manner.

1:26 G-d said, ‘Let us make man’

9:10 Boils

The plague of boils was the only one that affected man’s body so directly. Also, man was made in the image of G-d, and the boils tainted that spiritual idea.

1:29 G-d said, ‘Behold I have given vegetation… for food to eat’

7:20 Change of water to blood

Food of Egypt depended on the Nile and nutrients of food are transported through blood.

Based on the above we can answer the questions with which we began. The purpose of the ten plagues was to show that G-d is the One Who is behind every force of nature. For this reason the plagues paralleled the ten sayings of creation that created the mask of nature. This is precisely why ten plagues were necessary. Additionally, this is why these specific plagues were chosen. Each plague was another glimpse behind the mask of nature, ultimately demonstrating G-d’s providence behind every part of creation.

[1]See Shem M‘Shmuel, Va’era 5678

[2]Ohr Gedalyahu, Parshat Bo

[3]Maharal, Gevurot Hashem, 57, the reason why they don’t match up in order is because the plagues had to be in order of intensity, going from lowest to highest. See Ohr Gedalyahu to Parshat Bo for a different reason for the difference in order. See also the Haggadah called ‘Ma’aseh Nissim’ that similarly points out the parallel between the plagues and “the sayings of creation”.

[4]See the Gemara in Rosh Hashana 32a that says that “Bereishet” is one of the sayings of creation.

[5]The Alshich (Torat Moshe to Shemot 34:17-18) points out further that the plague of the firstborn was done directly through G-d as opposed to intermediaries. As it says in the Haggadah:I (G-d) will pass through the land of Egypt, I and not an angel; I will smite all the firstborn, I and not a seraph; on all the gods of Egypt I will execute judgments I and not a messenger; I am G-d, it is I and no other. This parallels the first saying of creation when there was nothing besides G-d, as angels were only created on the second day. (Rashi to Ber. 1:5 quoting Ber. Rabbah 3:8)

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