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by Dr. Avigdor Bonchek


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Parashas Vaera(75)

This week with your permission, I would offer a devar Torah on the Torah's words, not on Rashi. I believe it conveys a very central idea of the Torah.

The seventh Plague

The seventh of the ten plagues - the plague of hail - visited on Pharaoh stands out as unique is some obvious ways and some less obvious ways. Its lesson is both profound and central to one of the Torah's main messages.

The obvious ways this plague is unique include the fact that this plague has more words (119) to Pharaoh than the introductory words to Pharaoh before any other plague, even the last and decisive plague of the killing of the first born. (Blood has 87 words; Frogs, 43; lice none; Mixed multitude, 71; pestilence, 63; boils none; hail, 119; locusts, 98; first born 77).

Also this is the first plague where Pharaoh admits his error when he says: "And he said to them 'I have sinned this time. G-d is the righteous one and I and my people are the wicked ones." (9:27). Also this is only plague where Pharaoh was not asked to free the Israelites in order to avoid the plague. Then the most puzzling words of Moshe "This time I send all My plagues against your heart.." (9:14). Commentators struggle to understand why this, and only this, plague is referred to as "all My plagues" ? In what way is this one plague considered "all My plagues" ? Neither is it the final plague nor is it the plague that convinces Pharaoh to free the Israelites.

We will point a less obvious way this plague is unique further on in our discussion.

The purpose of the Plagues

To understand the significance of this plague, we must first understand the purpose of the plagues in general. At first glance we would say they are G-d's way of subduing Pharaoh, bringing him to his knees in order to force him to free the slaves. But this explanation must be rejected because Moshe was told before any of the plagues were inflicted " You shall say to Pharaoh 'So said Hashem, My firstborn son is Israel, So I say to you: Send out My son that he may serve Me. But you have refused to send him out, behold I will kill your first born son." (4:22,23). So we see that the plan from the very beginning was to kill the firstborn son and G-d knew this would break Pharaoh and lead him to free the Israelites. So we ask: Why all the unnecessary suffering to the Jews for the additional months in slavery, if G-d could have killed the Egyptian firstborns at the outset?

We must look elsewhere for the purpose of the plagues. Nechama Leibowitz has pointed out that Pharaoh's first words to Moshe's request were "Who is Hashem that I should listen to His voice to send out Israel? I do not know Hashem, nor will I send out Israel." This is the challenge of the plagues, to teach Pharaoh to know Hashem. The words "to know Hashem" are repeated throughout the story no less than ten times, underscoring the centrality of the idea of ultimately knowing Hashem.

Along this line we see the each group of three plagues is Introduced with words such as "With this you shall know that I am Hashem" (7:17); "in order that you will know that I am Hashem in the midst of the earth"(8:18); "In order that you shall know that there is none like Me in all the land." (9:14). Knowing the G-d of Israel

Clearly knowing Hashem is the point here. But what does it mean to "know Hashem" Knowing his name and how to pronounce it? That would seem to be quite unremarkable. What would it take for Pharaoh to learn this? We must say that Pharaoh must learn what is unique about the G-d of the Jews; how does He differ from the pantheon of gods that existed in the ancient world?.

The seventh plague's lesson

This then is the point of the plagues. Let us see what the seventh plague teaches us.

As we said this is the only plague that G-d did not demand freeing the slaves in order to avoid punishment. "Behold at this time tomorrow, I shall rain a heavy hail such as never been in Egypt, from the day it was founded until now. And now send, gather in your livestock and everything you have in the fields ; all the people and animals that are found in the field , that are not gathered into the houses- the hail shall descend upon them and they shall die. (9:18 ff). He, among the servants of Pharaoh who feared the word of G-d chased his servants and livestock into the house (and they were saved). And whoever did not take the word of Hashem to heart- he left his servants and livestock in the field" (and they were killed).

It was this kindness that Pharaoh respected and which led to him to say: " 'I have sinned this time. G-d is the righteous one and I and my people are the wicked ones." (9:27). For Pharaoh to release 600,000 males, able workers from his economy may have been too much to ask of the leader of Egypt, but this simple request (gathering them into the house for few moments ) would be acceptable to all except the most stubborn and rebellious individual.

It is this mix of fair kindness and judgment that exemplifies the G-d of Israel.

A Remarkable verse

Let us see a most remarkable verse in this section. After the hail falls and Pharaoh asks forgiveness from Moshe, then Moshe say (9: 30) ""I know that you are not afraid of Hashem, G-d." This remarkable verse looks quite unremarkable!

The Ibn Ezra points out (not on this verse but on 3:13) that nowhere in the Torah does a human being ever say the words "Hashem, G-d", except in our verse. This term is used in the Creation story, but there it is the Torah speaking, while in Devarim, Moshe says dozens of times "Hashem our G-d" or Hashem your G-d" but in these phrases the words "your G-d" are an adjective. Only in our verse are the two names of G-d (Elohim and Hashem) juxtaposed, each stands alone. Why don't we find this combination elsewhere in the Torah? Because Elohim reflects justice, while Hashem reflects mercy. Justice and mercy are mutually exclusive terms. Justice ignores mercy and mercy avoids justice. It difficult for the human mind to conceive of these opposite attributes living together in peace and harmony, so no one ever says this, except Moshe here. Why? Because this plague and this plague alone exemplifies this unique attribute of Hashem/Elohim.

This is what Moshe means when he said "all My plagues" this plague was the epitome of all the Plagues; because it contains the essential message of all the plagues.

That Mercy and Justice are central to G-d's essence can be seen by G-d's seminal statement about Abraham. (Bereishit 18:19) "Because I know him because he commands his children and his household after him that they keep the way of Hashem, doing charity and justice.."

Symbolism of this plague

Look at the beauty of the symbolism in this plague. It was "hail and fire flaming among the hail" (9:24). Hail and fire are incompatible opposites - fire melts hail and the melted hail - water - extinguishes the fire. Two mutually exclusive elements brought together to teach Pharaoh the deeper meaning of this plague.

This is the essence of the G-d of Israel. This stands out more clearly when Torah Judaism is compared to Christianity, on the one hand, which emphasizes love as the be all of their religion and Islam, on the other hand, which emphasizes cruel, unbending judgment for sinners.

These G-dly attributes- justice and mercy- have become part of the Jews' DNA. As an example, in the recent war with Hamas in Aza, while the IDF pursued justice in war, they also set up a field hospital on Aza's border to treat the wounded civilians and enemy soldiers. Mercy and Justice.

Shabbat Shalom
Avigdor Bonchek "What's Bothering Rashi?" is a product of the Institute for the Study of Rashi and Early Commentaries. All 5 volumes on What's Bothering Rashi? are available in Jewish book stores.

Dr. Bonchek is publishing a new book on Rashi, called "Rashi: the magic and the Mystery" . It has a biography of Rashi & his special character traits. And outlines clearly Rules for interpreting Rashi in depth. We are looking for dedications to help publish this book. Those interested, please contact Avigdor Bonchek at Drbonchek@gmail.com.

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