The Ten Plagues of … Israel

Pesach 5772 / 2012

Why the ten plagues of Israel, and not Egypt? A midrashic suggestion

Exodus tells the story of ten plagues that afflicted Egypt, prior to the flight of the Israelites into the desert. Why are the plagues given in such detail? Is there any allegorical meaning to be derived from the nature and sequence of the plagues? In this new midrashic reading of the account of the plagues I suggest that the plagues brought upon Pharoah and the Egyptians represent far more than just an attempt to convince them of God’s power and that they should let the Israelites go free. Perhaps, before the plagues on the Egyptians, it was the Israelites themselves who suffered ten ‘plagues’, ten categories of insults and deprivations during their enslavement in Egypt. The plagues on the Egyptians then become both a terrible balancing of accounts, and a form of ‘experiental education’ for them – the oppressors karmically had to endure adversities similar to those they had inflicted on their slaves.

The plagues as ‘experiential education’

The first time we hear Pharaoh speak, he says ‘mah adonai?’ – ‘who is God?’ (Ex 5:2), and given the use of the God-name YHVH, he is asking ‘who is this compassionate God?’. Pharaoh is ignorant of the nature of the God of the Israelites, and he also has no apparent understanding of what compassion might be. At the start of the story, his heart is already hard, even before God is said to harden his heart.

If we look at the next three words, we get ‘mah adonai asher eshma v’kolo’ – ‘who is God that I should listen to his voice?’ In the history of the Israelites, repeatedly the key figures are spoken to by God, and they listen, and at Sinai, they will be taught to listen ‘Shema Yisrael’, and they will be told that God is One. But Pharaoh does not know this God, who models compassion, and must be listened to; and he therefore will not make the connection that he, Pharaoh, has a God-given responsibility alongside all humanity, to relieve the sufferings of others, help release them from their struggles. Pharaoh’s first words, in full, are: Mah adonai asher eshma v’kolo, l’shalach et-yisrael ‘Who is this compassionate God that I should listen to his voice to release Israel?’

What I imagine at this point is that between them, God, Moses and Aaron set about answering Pharaoh, educating him on this question. They do their best to help him understand, by communicating, graphically, within Pharaoh’s frame of reference. They tell an allegorical story in ten parts, describing the experience of Israel under the Egyptians. And so that Pharaoh might have at least a chance of empathizing, they try to get him to imagine how he would feel if he experienced what they had – perhaps then, he might change his ways, and let those who struggle (Yisrael), go straight to their God (yashar el), as they had asked in the first place, to return to their God-directed, religiously observant lives.

And this is where the story of the plagues begins. To understand this meta-interpretation of the plagues, we need to read ‘Israelites’ when the Exodus story says ‘Egyptians’, and vice versa; the account of the ten plagues then becomes a window (half literal, half allegorical) into what actually happened to the Israelites over 400 years of slavery in Egypt – their spiritual, physical, cultural, economic, emotional and social decay. It is the story of how one people with great power (Egypt) can oppress another (Israel).

10 plagues on the Israelites over 400 years

[1] The first plague is the contamination of the water by blood. What does water commonly symbolise in the Torah? The Torah itself, and, by extension, the religious commitments and rituals, and life of spirit that go with that. In the Jewish mind of that time, blood, which must be completely absent from kosher consumption, would count as contamination. One of the key ways that a conquering power and tyranny disheartens and weakens the enemy it wishes to subdue is to undermine its culture and values. We are told in Exodus that the people could not drink from the water – the metaphor is that the Israelites were denied their life-affirming religious rituals and deepest values.1

[2] How else does a conquering power traditionally subdue a community? By doing what they will with their victims’ bodies, and sexually taking and invading. Frogs in ancient times were symbols of fertility, and also often of sexual excess.2 The imagery of the second plague is about putting frogs ‘on all the borders’ (Ex 7:27). Why borders? It is an unexplained detail. The Israelites’ sacred and sexual borders were crossed, abused and disregarded. Where were the ‘frogs’? On beds, in bed-chambers, we are told. And nobody was exempt – servants and masters, all sectors of society were all taken advantage of. When the frogs were removed, they were confined to their rightful place, the river – perhaps the teaching is that predatory, sexual imperialism and licence must be curbed. And then we read that “the land stank” (Ex 8:10): once sexual boundaries had been crossed, whether violently, or through mixing cultures’ genes, there was an unmistakable aftermath, evidence that could not be erased or forgotten.3

[3] By the time of the third plague (ie Egypt ‘plaguing’ the Israelites), the dominating power’s influence is so pervasive that it enters every aspect of life, down to the finest detail. This is symbolized by the gnats and fleas – these are tiny and get everywhere. An intriguing detail is that, unlike with the frogs, this plague is not removed. Once the influence has gone into every corner of people’s lives, it cannot be reversed. It will always be there in some measure. When the conquering force is so pervasive, and oppressive, it is not surprising that people might say, “This is the finger of God.” (Ex 8:15) Whatever the Israelites once thought was the true source of power before (the God of Israel, whom they worshipped before the first ‘plague’ took away their Torah and rituals), the memory has all but vanished and been replaced by awe for this terrestrial, human power, the Egyptians.

[4] In the fourth plague, the flies represent the squalid conditions in which an oppressed community often has to live. One area4 is kept clean; of course, those with power on their side reserve tend to have the best living conditions. At the end of this episode, all the flies – the symbol of poverty and deprivation – are removed so there is “not one” remaining. This would truly be an example of tikkun olam (healing of the world) on a grand scale. All living areas would become equal, all people would be restored to sharing equally good living conditions, a simple parable of social justice (which, of course, Pharaoh withholds from the Israelites).

[5] In the fifth plague, those with power behind them have all the good cattle and resources, and the downtrodden lose out.5 “Not one” head of cattle remains with the downtrodden, and not one of the wealthy’s cattle is ill (Ex 9:5) (presumably because they keep the best for themselves). The poor get poorer, the rich get richer. The hungry begin to starve. Again, no social justice. This plague can be stopped, but its effects cannot be reversed. What dies cannot be brought to life. What is lost is lost forever. The Israelites lived under the brutal conditions of Egyptian slavery. Cattle in the Torah are sometimes considered in kabbalah to represent the nefesh, the basic level of the human soul. Could this be a reference to the erosion of the soul strength of the Israelites?

[6] What happens to a community whose spirit is broken, their members abused, living in squalid conditions and not enough food? They become ill, the sixth plague, the plague of boils and pestilence. To be cut off from the earth min ha-aretz (Ex 9:15), is to be cut off from earthy health. In kabbalah, physical health suffers when the nefesh suffers.

[7] In the seventh plague, people and crops are battered by the elements, the thunder and hail. Again, we are told of a stark contrast – there is one place6 that is protected from death and destruction, while everywhere else is at the mercy of whatever destructive forces that may arrive. The oppressed Israelites would most likely have lived in precarious conditions, with poor accommodation, and little protection for their own crops and grain. Centuries before, the Egyptians at the time of Joseph suffered famine, but survived by putting grain in storage, and having enough to feed all the people. But Egypt has not learned from history, and has shirked its responsibilities; they have not looked after the Israelites in their midst, and left them unsafe and unsheltered.

[8] It is becoming clear that social inequities, and abuse of power as described allegorically in the plagues mean that those in power take, consuming everything in their path, not respecting ownership or the needs of others. The eighth plague, the swarm of locusts, eats everything, even “the residue of what has escaped” (Ex 10:5) – the Israelites under the Egyptians were left with nothing of their own. This detail has resonance in the ethical teachings of Leviticus, the locust-oppressors contrasting with the instruction to leave the corners of the field so that the poor can gather food there and not go hungry. At the end of this episode, the locusts are driven into the Red Sea where they all perish; there is an unmistakable pre-echo of Pharaoh and his men who will also perish in the Red Sea. The moral is that to be greedy and neglect the needy is wrong, and akin to death (at least spiritually).7

[9] And what comes with such spiritual barrenness? A darkness of the soul, the ninth plague, the darkness that covers everything and everyone – actually, only the oppressed, for the powerful have ‘light in their dwellings’ (Ex 10:23). But the depression, despair, and spiritual bleakness of the oppressed are so extreme that they no longer are even a community – the text says “they did not see one another”. Told as a story of the Israelites, this almost completes their disintegration as a community. They are disconnected – exiled – from themselves, each other, and hope itself.

[10] And so we come to the final plague. What happens to a community that loses

i) its religious commitments and rhythms,
ii) its sexual morality and sanctity,
iii) the distinctiveness of its ways of living and thinking,
iv) social justice,
v) wealth,
vi) health,
vii) safety and shelter,
viii) access to food and resources, and
ix) hope?

One answer is that it loses its cohesion as a community and its will to continue. What is the symbol of continuity? Children. Pharaoh knew this when he ordered the death of all the first-born Hebrew boys; the midwife Puah (Miriam, Moses’ sister) knew this when in the midrash, she insisted her father remarry her mother and have children, so that all the tribe would do the same. The tenth plague strikes at the children, and, symbolically, the continuity of the people, of humanity itself, and of the values represented in the lifestyle that has been undermined particularly by the first three plagues. Imagine how Pharaoh – a man preoccupied by a culture and cosmology that would steer his psyche towards aspirations to immortality – might have been influenced by this final argument. And of course, the horror of this final event re-sensitizes us to that central tenet in Judaism, p’kuach nefesh, the preservation of life, and perhaps, in another formulation, Moses teaching that we have been given blessing and curse, and must “choose life”.

These ten plagues represent the losses and erosion of identity and vision that the Israelites suffered during their time under Egyptian rule. This is what Moses has been called to lead them from. In the Bible story, Pharaoh and his people are given large doses of what the Israelites have experienced – for the purpose of punishment, balancing the scales, edification? The story says it is for Pharaoh to learn about the nature of God, of compassion, and how this should translate to action. And it is also a morality tale for us all.

There are two Hebrew words meaning ‘freedom’. Chofesh means ‘freedom from’, and cherut means ‘freedom to’.8Pharaoh and the Egyptians were free from oppression, and had the power to do what they liked. But they did not use that power wisely, compassionately or justly. Freedom from slavery or oppression is the beginning of the Israelites’ journey, not its conclusion. The Israelites had to learn how to use that freedom in the service of not just themselves but of all humanity; reading Torah with expanded eco-kosher consciousness, that might include all sentient beings (to borrow Buddhist terminology), and the life of the planet too. In each generation we must learn this, hence the repetition of the Passover story every year. And unless we do so, we will not be free from our smaller selves; we will be like Pharaoh, limited in vision, slaves to our own self-interest, and trapped in the hardness of our own hearts.

This Pesach, let us re-dedicate ourselves to remember, to hope, and to do all we can to alleviate the plagues of deprivation, abuse, injustice, suffering and depression, wherever they are.

Chag sameach!

  1. Egypt’s river, the Nile, was seen as a god, so it would make sense for the first plague to undermine this symbol of the Egyptian ruler’s power.
  2. Hepat was an Egyptian goddess with a frog’s head; she was goddess of fertility and midwives.
  3. I prefer this reading to one that stresses fear of assimilation, which can be driven by a misguided and unhealthy notion of maintaining ‘racial purity’, or a disguised form of racial prejudice that does not recognize the potential for the meeting and marriage of hearts, minds and cultures.
  4. Goshen, in the story of the plagues on the Egyptians
  5. The retribution story in the Torah tells that the Israelites, with God on their side, have their cattle preserved, but my inference is that until this turning point it would have been the Israelites who lost all their resources to the Egyptians.
  6. Goshen, in the story of the plagues against the Egyptians
  7. This perhaps supports the traditional midrash that when the Israelites finally leave, it is not that they take the jewelry of the Egyptians, but that they retrieve what was taken from them unfairly by the Egyptians.
  8. Public internet teaching from Lord Jonathan Sacks, Chief Rabbi of the UK Orthodox community.
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