Most of us are familiar with the plagues that struck Egypt because they are recited during the Passover Seder. They are named in order and a drop of wine is removed for each of the plagues. Extracting that sweetness from our meal is a symbolic way to empathize with the Egyptians, whose suffering we mourn even as we celebrate our freedom at Passover.
Modern Jews often read the story of the plagues, the first seven of which appear in this week’s Torah portion, and — no doubt influenced by those ten drops of wine taken from the cup at the Seder — lament the pain and destruction that was required to let our people go. Perhaps uncomfortable with the idea that the plagues are arbitrary and without greater meaning, biblical scholar Nehama Leibowitz (1905-1997) delves deeper into the rationale for the plagues. She identifies ten places in the Exodus story that refer to the Egyptians knowing God.
Drawing on the scholarship of Isaac Abravanel (1437-1508), Leibowitz distills three distinct lessons the plagues are supposed to teach the Egyptians about God. They are that God exists, that God metes out punishment for misdeeds, and that God can control the forces of nature. Each of these is a direct response to a defiant utterance of the Pharaoh. The first place where Pharaoh sheds his defiance, if only for a moment, and exhibits both contrition and an understanding of God, is following the seventh plague, the hail.
The plague of the hail also stands out because it is the first one to give the Egyptians a way to avoid the destruction. After announcing the hail, Moses says: “Therefore order your livestock and everything you have in the open brought under shelter; every man and beast that is found outside, not having been brought indoors, shall perish when the hail comes down upon you” (Exodus 9:19). The Torah reports that there were two responses among the Egyptians. Those who feared the word of the Lord brought their livestock in and took shelter, and those who paid no regard did not.
Pharaoh saw the destruction of the hail. In his mind, at least, he had to realize that God could mete out punishment and control nature. So he said to Moses and Aaron, “I stand guilty this time. The Lord is in the right, and I and my people are in the wrong” (Exodus 9:27). The words tzadik and resha’im—right and wrong — reflect a legal usage, according to modern scholar Robert Alter.
I couldn’t help but connect these two unprecedented aspects of the seventh plague: the explicit way for Egyptians to avoid the fiery hail, and Pharaoh’s acknowledgement of God’s justice and his own guilt.
In addition to the three lessons that Leibowitz draws from Abravanel’s commentary, perhaps there is a fourth — that justice can be identified through mercy. Until this moment, the standoff between Pharaoh and Moses had been an escalating series of threats, attacks, and reprieves. Again and again, Pharaoh sees God’s power and, after making an empty promise to release the Israelites, God’s mercy. But until now Pharaoh hadn’t seen mercy expressed as a caveat to the threat. No one had. Anyone could have avoided the hail by simply going inside, and those who recognized God did exactly that.
This intersection of mercy and punishment was identifiable even to the Pharaoh as justice. And maybe Pharaoh pleaded guilty in that moment because he realized that he was incapable of acting similarly.
Within our interpretive tradition, it is important to contextualize the plagues as more than just a grudge match between two warring deities. If the story of the plagues is to have enduring value then its lessons must be deeper and more nuanced than simply that God was more powerful than Pharaoh.
In distilling the lessons that were intended for the Egyptians, Leibowitz and Abravanel are really articulating the lessons that we are to learn from Parashat Va’era. A first reading shows God of Exodus has immense power to punish and inflict pain; that is why we remove the wine from our cups. But by looking closely at the text, we can see that God also has the power to reward faith, to exhibit mercy, and to inspire justice. Let us also remember this when we grapple with the meaning of the plagues.