We watch Pharaoh, over the course of the Ten Plagues, go from being
the ruler of the most powerful country in the world to being a
veritable punching bag, taking blow after blow after blow. As his
power diminishes, he resorts to more and more desperate attempts to
maintain some measure of control in his confrontation with the Jews.
But after the eighth plague, Pharaoh explodes and threatens
Moshe, ending their dialogue. No one has ever suggested that Pharaoh
was anything less than a competent, perhaps even brilliant, leader,
but cutting off his dialogue with Moshe appears counterproductive for
him, making himself even more vulnerable. But he does it anyway.
Perhaps one can develop an explanation for Pharaoh's behavior by
finding a pattern in the way the plagues are visited on the Egyptians.
Many commentators, notably the Ramban, have described patterns that
repeat throughout the various plagues, at particular intervals.
There are four plagues during which Pharaoh attempts to bargain
with Moshe in one fashion or another, either to end the specific
plague or to end the exile and all the plagues. In every one of these
plagues, some reminder of the plague remains even after the plague is
The first is the plague of tzefardei' a, frogs.
Pharaoh makes his first offer to let the Jews go and asks Moshe to
pray for him that the plague end. Moshe, of course, agrees and the
frogs die. The Egyptians, we are told, gather the dead frogs in heaps
and, as expected, a terrible stench fills the land. The plague may be
over, but not completely over.
The second of these "dialogue"
plagues is arov, wild beasts. Pharaoh asks Moshe to pray for
him and Moshe accedes to that request because again Pharaoh promises
that the Jews will be allowed to go.
When the plague ends,
the beasts leave. Not a single one remains. Over the long term,
however, this would have a negative effect in Egypt's ecosystem, as
the lack of wild animals would cause overbreeding in other species.
Thus there would still be a reminder of the plague after the plague.
In the third plague, barad, hail, the barley and flax
crops were eradicated, but the wheat and spelt were not affected
because they were late in ripening and were not yet grown. So each
time the Egyptians looked at their fields, they saw the limited crops
that remained (until the plague of locusts destroyed that too) and
were reminded of what the hail had done.
Finally, the fourth
plague, arbeh, locusts, ends when G-d brings a strong westerly
wind to bear on Egypt, and, as a result, not a single locust remains
within the entire borders of the land. This is remarkable. Not to
have a single member of this species is a feat that modern science
cannot even begin to approximate. And since locusts may well have
been an important food source, their absence hurt the Egyptians as
well. The pattern is set. In each case, the plague continues in some
Following this pattern, at the plague of
choshech, darkness, Pharaoh would have feared that some aspect
of the darkness would remain. Even more frightening was the inability
of the Egyptians to move during the plague of darkness, while the Jews
could move about. The increasing weakness of the Egyptians was
contrasted to the growing strength of the Jews.
realization must have hit Pharaoh very hard. He must have been truly
demoralized by this turn of events.
I suspect that the
combination of his realizing that he had nothing left with which to
bargain coupled with his increasing awareness of the collapse of the
Egyptian empire was too much for him. Continued dialogue meant
continued punishment, which meant continued exposure of weakness.
This was simply intolerable and so he cut off all dialogue in a
desperate attempt to break the cycle.
The only problem with
his thinking is that shortly after the plague of darkness came a
different kind of darkness, when in the middle of the night, G-d
Himself descended on Egypt and killed the first born of every
household, including Pharaoh's. In that sense, the plague of darkness
Rabbi Barry Freundel
Rabbi Freundel is Rabbi of Congregation
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