Shabbat Parshat Va'eira
The first six plagues have produced the foretold results: Hashem has been shown more and more clearly as the Only G-d; the Egyptians have been punished repeatedly for enslaving the Children of Israel; and Pharaoh has stubbornly refused to release them. The last set of plagues, known from the Haggadah by the acronym B’ACHAV, is about to begin: And Hashem said to Moshe, “Arise early in the morning and present yourself before Pharaoh and say to him, ‘Thus says Hashem G-d of the Hebrews: Let My people go that they may serve Me. For this time I shall send all My plagues against your heart, and your servants and your people, so that you will know that there is none like Me in all the world. For now I could have sent My hand and I struck you and your people with the [fifth plague of] pestilence, and you would have been obliterated from the world. However, it is for this that I preserved you, in order to show you My power, and in order to tell My Name in all the world. You are still oppressing (MISTOLEL) My people, refusing to release them. Behold, I bring down at this time tomorrow a very heavy hail, the like of which has not been in Egypt from the day of its founding until now. And now send word and gather your livestock and all that is yours in the field; any people or beasts that will be found in the field and not gathered inside, the hail will fall on them and they will die.’”
Some of Pharaoh’s servants who feared Hashem made their slaves and livestock flee into the houses. But anyone who did not pay attention to the word of Hashem left his slaves and livestock in the field (Shemot 9:13-21). During the ensuing plague, there is thunder and hail, with fire flashing to the ground (verse 23).
As Abravanel (R. Yitzchak ben-Yehudah,
1437-1508) points out, Egypt’s climate is too hot and dry for hail to be a
common occurrence. The resulting destruction is total:
Let us examine some elements of Hashem’s
merciful warning to Pharaoh:
Also, none of the earlier plagues frightened Pharaoh as did the hail, after which: And Pharaoh sent word and summoned Moshe and Aharon, and he said to them, “ I have sinned this time. Hashem is the Righteous One, and I and my people are the wicked ones” (verse 27).
Some commentaries seem to read this phrase as “the greatest of My plagues.” As Rabbenu Bachya (ben Asher ben Hlava, 13th Century) emphasizes, this is because the plague of hail mixes opposite elements — fire and ice. He compares hail to two antagonistic dukes between whom the king negotiates an alliance when he needs both of them during war. Sforno (R. Ovadia ben Yaakov Sforno, c. 1470-c.1550) notes that the first plagues caused no lasting damage, whereas hail did. Abravanel’s second interpretation develops this further: Had Hashem not imposed His control, the first plagues would have bred fatal diseases. Hashem will prevent the hail from destroying Egypt completely so that people will be left to endure the remaining plagues, which they deserve as punishment.
You are still oppressing (MISTOLEL) My people, refusing to release them. The root of the verb MISTOLEL is SAMECH-LAMED-LAMED. Rashi, quoting Onkelos (v.17), sees a connection between this word and MESILLAH, a road. The root must mean “to stamp down.” MISTOLEL thus means trampling or oppressing.
Ibn Ezra also sees the connection to MESILLAH,
but deduces that SAMECH-LAMED-LAMED means “to shore up.” In a related form it
means to praise:
Haamek Davar (R. Naftali Tzvi Yehudah Berlin,
1817-1893) suggests an innovative interpretation. He too connects MISTOLEL to
MESILLAH, path, and translates our phrase, “you continue to look for new ways to
avoid releasing My people.” This hearkens back to the warning before the fifth
into the house or barn – will be safe from the hail. Pharaoh has been waging a battle for control of Egypt. His absolute power over slavery and freedom, life and death, is his definition of control. Hashem, however, demonstrates Who is truly in control. And He thereby teaches that real glory and power lies in self-restraint.