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G-d brought us out of Egypt with a strong hand and an outstretched arm… (Deut. 26:8).
The Passover Hagadda links the ‘strong hand’ and the ‘outstretched arm’ to the Plagues that G-d imposed on Pharaoh and the Egyptians, to persuade them to release the Israelites. As the Hagadda relates:
‘With a strong hand’ – that is the plague of pestilence (fatal animal disease), as Moses warned Pharaoh, ‘Behold the Hand of G-d is on your animals – horses, donkeys, camels, cattle, sheep, and goats, to bring them a very heavy pestilence’ (9:3).
‘And an outstretched arm’ – that is the sword, as the text says, ‘there was extended sword in his hand, outstretched over Jerusalem’ (Chron. I 21:15).
Two issues immediately come to mind in the Hagadda’s interpretation of these verses:
1. Why was the ‘strong hand’ of the Exodus related specifically to the plague of pestilence – the fifth out of the ten plagues? What special qualities did the death of the Egyptians’ domestic animals possess over and above the other plagues, so that it was the crucial one that helped the Israelite Exodus to take place?
2. Why does the Hagadda state that the outstretched arm refers to the sword? The Torah relates that the Egyptians suffered ten plagues from the Almighty through Moses, but the sword was not one of them. In addition, the verse quoted by the Hagadda from Chronicles I does not even relate to the Exodus. It is brought in the context of a much later and apparently unrelated event - namely the narrative of when King David was punished by the Almighty with a plague of pestilence on his people because he wrongly conducted a census.
A careful look at the narrative of the census, related twice (Sam. II 24, and Chron. I 21) may provide a key towards answering the above questions.
The text relates that ‘G-d continued to be angry with Israel’ (Sam. II 24:1), and – presumably as a result, Satan (Chron. ibid.) persuaded David to count the people. G-d was annoyed with David for having done so, and He gave him a choice of three punishments – seven years of famine, three months of defeat at the hands of the enemy, or three days of pestilence. David replied that, ‘the smallest one of the three is too severe – let me fall into the Hand of G-d, because His mercies are great’ (Sam. ibid: 14 – translated according to Rashi ad. loc.). G-d therefore made the choice for David: He brought pestilence on the people for a day only – but many thousands died – and that was the sword referred to in the narrative of Chronicles that was ‘extended over Jerusalem’. When David saw the angel had been bringing the plague of pestilence on the Israelites, he appealed to him with the words, ‘behold I have sinned, and behaved iniquitously – but these flocks (my people) – what wrong have they done?’ (ibid. 17). Finally, G-d became reconciled to his people and the plague came to an end.
The narrative does contain several problems – amongst them is that the text does not give an initial reason for G-d’s anger with the Israelites before David counted the people. To this end, Rashi states ‘I do not know why’. The Metzudat David makes two suggestions for G-d’s continuing anger. One possibility is that it was a consequence of the Israelites having followed Absalom, David’s son, in open rebellion against his father (Sam. II 15-18). The other is because they followed Sheva ben Bichri’s rebellion that was also against King David. In both cases, the objects of G-d’s anger had been David’s enemies that he himself had not touched.
Thus the very people that David himself wished to punish were the cause of G-d’s wrath. It may be argued from here that that was the reason David counted the people. As the text which deals with taking a census states:
When you take a census of the Israelites according to their numbers… there shall not be a plague amongst them when counting them… everyone who passes through a census shall give a half-shekel (30:12-13).
The words ‘there shall not be a plague amongst them when counting them’ imply that a plague would break out if a simple headcount were taken. This may well be the reason that David counted his people using a simple headcount. He knew that G-d was looking at His people with displeasure, and by counting them, he thought that he could get invoke the plague on the guilty. G-d – who knew who was guilty of rebelling against David would punish the guilty and spare the innocent.
However, David had to learn that G-d did not work so simply. The verse ‘there shall not be a plague amongst them when counting’ was not something that he could employ to settle old scores against those who had been disloyal to him. G-d was not a political convenience. He demonstrated to David the consequences of his deliberately putting the people into danger in this way, by killing people who had nothing to do with rebellion. The outstretched sword over Jerusalem did not distinguish between those who were in the rebellion and those who were his loyal supporters. As David protested later on – ‘those – my flocks – (my loyal people) – what have they done?’ (Chron. I 21:17).
We learn from here that a person may not put someone else into danger with the idea that he will not come to any harm because we trust that G-d will look after him. The ways of G-d are known only to Him. As in a very different context G-d put it to Job when explaining the reasons for his great suffering:
Who is this who darkens My counsel without knowledge?…
Where were you when I founded the Earth?…
Have you walked to the springs of the sea, or walked in the recesses of the deep?
Have you seen the gates of the shadow of death?…
Do you know the laws of the heavens? Can you set up (G-d’s) dominion over the Earth? (Job 38)
Job, said G-d, had no grasp of the Eternal G-d that designed and conducted the universe, and where he himself fitted in with the Divine Plan.
This was David’s failure. As only a mortal, he did not understand the apparatus of Divine displeasure, and he had no right to invoke it for his own needs.
This principle helps us understand the significance of pestilence being the ‘strong hand’ and the ‘outstretched arm’ with which G-d brought the Israelites out of Egypt. The Egyptians regarded cattle as deities (8:22). Whereas David believed that the innocent people would be saved through Divine justice, Pharaoh believed that his cattle – being deities themselves, would be powerful enough to resist Divine action. David’s ‘use of G-d’ did not help him – he lost many of his people. Pharaoh’s ‘use of his gods to save him’ did not help him either – he lost virtually all his cattle: the very forces he trusted would save him. This plague brought home to him his very helplessness. So the fifth plague – pestilence – caused his major defense to crumble. He knew by then that it would only be a matter of time before he would capitulate completely. Only his stubborn resistance against reality prevented him freeing the Israelites at that moment.
This explains the importance of the plague of pestilence. Pestilence demonstrated the ‘hand of G-d’: Pharaoh was completely dependent: not in his own gods, but in the G-d of the Hebrews. And the method by which His action was activated was by the sword – meaning, as in Chronicles, pestilence that did not discriminate in favor of any of his cattle because they were deities…
This article is provided as part of Shema Yisrael Torah Network
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