The Secret of the 10 Plagues

Va'era By :  Stephen P. Garfinkel Faculty Emeritus of Hebrew Bible and Its Interpretation Posted On Jan 1, 2011 / 5771 | Torah Commentary

Parashat Va-era, this week’s Torah portion, is full of drama, including most of the 10 plagues needed to bring the Israelites out of Egyptian slavery. Moses has just been commissioned as God’s mouthpiece (in last week’s reading), designated to be the person to deliver the divine message of redemption to the people of Israel and to Pharaoh. Before the action, however, the parashah opens with God’s private, even intimate, declaration to Moses:

I am Eternal God (Adonai), and/but I appeared [or in the wording of the Aramaic translation of the verse, “I offered a revelation of Myself”] to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob in [the name] Almighty God (El Shaddai); I wasn’t known to them by my name Adonai.

Let’s consider just two topics: first, what can we make of God’s enigmatic self-introduction; second, what can we make of the way in which the Torah presents the plagues?

Naturally, you will have noticed the odd use of “and/but” in the translation of God’s statement. Why didn’t the editor of this week’s commentary just pick one or the other? Well, because the Hebrew verse uses the letter vav. Although we are usually told that vav means “and,” biblical Hebrew actually uses it to signify a wide variety of meanings, depending on the context. Read the whole sentence both ways: “I am Adonai, and I appeared . . . ” or “I am Adonai, but I appeared . . . ” and you will see that both make sense. So which should it be in this case?

Several well-known medieval Jewish commentators (including Abraham ibn Ezra, for example) focus on God’s continuity over time. This is the same God who dealt with the patriarchal families, who promised that their descendants would become numerous and would inherit a homeland. The nature of God’s relationship with the ancestral generations may have been different from what it would become in Moses’s time or later. God may have been known by different names or may have related to humans by emphasizing different attributes as the times demanded. Nonetheless, Abraham’s God and Moses’s God are one and the same deity. By contrast, some modern exegetes focus on the discontinuity between El Shaddai of the patriarchs and Adonai of the Exodus generation. “Now I am Adonai, but I used to be something different.” In fact, the verses of Exodus 6:2–3 form an important basis of the Documentary Hypothesis, a theory that stresses the differences among disparate parts of the Torah, distinguished partly by God’s names.

The debate of whether the letter vav, in this case, should be understood as “and” rather than “but” highlights whether one stresses continuity or discontinuity. That determination, deciding which tendency we favor, may vary for each of us over time. Is the current situation one in which we need to underscore our unbroken ties with the past, or is it a time when we need to revive the past with creativity and freshness? This is the fundamental balancing act always facing the Conservative Movement. How do we reinvigorate the customs and behaviors of the past; how do we make them enrich the present without undermining their inherent past values? And/but, tradition/change, continuity/discontinuity. Our ongoing challenge is to find the balance point that fits best for the present.

So now, let’s return to the action part of the Torah reading, the plagues. In effect, the plagues are an answer to the question Pharaoh posed to Moses (in Exodus 5:2, from last week’s reading), after Moses and Aaron demanded the release of the Israelites: “Adonai, the God of Israel, says ‘Send out My people so that they may have a celebration to Me in the desert.'” Pharaoh responded to that by asking, “Who is this Adonai that I should listen to Adonai’s voice and send out Israel?” The plagues are God’s response. At God’s direction, Moses and Aaron use the plagues, invoking them—one at a time—to bring increasing pressure on Pharaoh to release the Israelites. Commentators over the centuries have analyzed the plagues and the highly structured way in which the Torah presents them, noting that the plagues are increasingly severe inducements to motivate Pharaoh’s capitulation. Seven of the 10 plagues appear in this week’s reading: blood, frogs, lice, swarms of insects (or beasts—traditions differ, with another interpretation and even a different order of plagues found in Psalms 105), animal disease, boils, and hail. When even those afflictions don’t suffice to compel Pharaoh’s release of the Israelites (although he comes close at times, but then reneges), next week he and Egypt undergo three more plagues: locusts, terrifying darkness, and finally, the death of firstborn sons, including Pharaoh’s own son.

Why are the plagues brought only one at a time? Why not bring them on with full force all at once, or why not cut to the chase and just use the most damaging? We may be able to answer that if we realize what else is going on in the Torah reading at the same time. Moses is trying to negotiate Israel’s freedom, using the plagues—the big guns, one might say—primarily to strengthen his negotiating position when words alone don’t suffice. Moses makes his plea for the people’s release, but Pharaoh merely scoffs. Then the first four plagues occur, after which Pharaoh is willing to negotiate, or so it seems. Moses asks for the Israelites’ release to go celebrate to God, and Pharaoh agrees to let the people go sacrifice to God, but only within the land itself (Exod. 8:21). Moses says that isn’t good enough; the people need to go a distance of three days’ journey, since their sacrificing would be abhorrent to the Egyptians (Exod. 8:22–23). Success! Pharaoh agrees to let them sacrifice out in the desert, as long as they don’t go “too far” away (Exod. 8:24). Something, however, causes Pharaoh to change his mind, and he refuses to release Israel. In next week’s parashah, after three more plagues, Pharaoh will again negotiate, haggling with Moses and Aaron about which Israelites must be permitted to go out to sacrifice to God (Exod. 10:5–12). Pharaoh’s offer is to release only the men; Moses says that all the Israelites must be permitted to go. Pharaoh refuses, but then changes his mind after yet another plague is brought upon Egypt. Pharaoh and Moses continue to negotiate (Exod. 10: 24–26). Then finally, after the last devastating plague, Pharaoh agrees to all of Moses’s demands (Exod. 12:31–32), when the Israelites, under divine protection, are finally released.

Perhaps this is a lesson for today. Negotiations work, as long as there is sufficient force to back them up. And yet, despite the acrimony and force ultimately required for the release of Israel, later tradition reminds us that the angels wept at the unfortunate deaths of so many of the enemy. This week’s haftarah, taken from Ezekiel 28–29 (many centuries after the events of the Torah reading), offers a fitting and timely summation of hope. The prophet proclaims that the House of Israel will be gathered back to its own soil, and “they shall build houses and plant vineyards and dwell on the land in security.” We share the timeless message of unending hope.

The publication and distribution of the JTS Commentary are made possible by a generous grant from Rita Dee and Harold (z”l) Hassenfeld.