Last week's parsha described the first seven plagues and their devastating effect on the land of Mitzrayim, as well as Pharaoh's obstinate refusal to release the Jews.
This week, the Torah portion opens with Hashem sending Moshe in to warn Pharaoh about Number 8: "And Hashem said to Moshe, 'Come to Pharaoh, for I have made his heart hard, and the heart of his servants stubborn in order that I may put these signs of mine in his midst.'" (10, 1; Artscroll translation, p. 341, my emphasis)
Rabbi Chaim ben Attar, author of the classic commentary on Chumash, Ohr HaChaim, asks why Hashem, in referring to the three upcoming plagues (l ocusts, darkness and the death of the firstborn), says, "these signs." It sounds as if G-d hardens Pharaoh's heart in order to bring about these specific afflictions; no other ones, it seems, would do the trick, even if they were to be of comparable magnitude.
The Ohr HaChaim answers that Hashem stresses the importance of these three because He realizes that Moshe might be wondering why there need to be any more plagues at all! Surely the first seven have conclusively demonstrated Hashem's complete power over the world, His ability to alter the laws of nature at will; hailstones with fire flashing inside of them (a miracle within a miracle, as Rashi points out) had only just stopped falling. What further display of power is really needed at this point?
The answer is that "these signs" are needed
not to extend the punishment of Pharaoh, but to complete the spiritual education of the
Jews. We tend to forget that the purpose of the 10 plagues was not only to humble Pharaoh
and the Egyptians, but also to strengthen the faith of our people. G-d multiplied His
wonders so that the Jewish people--in that generation, and for all time--would have
perfect faith in His omnipotence and His providence: "...so that you may relate in
the ears of your son and your son's son that I made a mockery of Egypt...that you may know
that I am Hashem." (10, 2; ibid.) Obviously, Hashem could have punished Egypt and
whisked us out in one fell swoop; he extended the process over a period of almost a year
(a plague a month), however, because WE needed a refresher course in true emunah (faith).
We had been deeply affected by the idolatry of Egypt, and we were not ready to become His
people and receive His Torah until the rust on our Jewish souls had been sanded away
through witnessing the plagues.
But a Jew could conceivably still think that though G-d
rules in the heaven and earth, over winds and the heavenly bodies, He has no jurisdiction
over the womb! Perhaps He is not the Former of human beings, and doesn't know everyone's
true parentage. To convince His skeptical people otherwise, G-d brings the final plague,
and strikes down only those who were the firstborn of their mothers (some say the
firstborn of fathers, too). Not such an easy task. In fact, in describing His complete
attention to every detail of His creation, the Almighty invokes this final plague, saying
of Himself (as quoted in the Talmud!): "I am the one who distinguished between a drop
[of semen] that became a firstborn, and a drop that didn't..." (Babylonian Talmud,
Bava Metzia 61b) You just can't pull ANYTHING over on Hashem.
Rabbi Yosef Edelstein, Savannah Kollel. Phone: 355-0157; fax: 354-9923; e-mail address: Yosef18@aol.com
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