This week’s Torah reading is part of the famous story of the Ten Plagues that is recited during the Passover Seder, and includes the first seven plagues of Blood, Frogs (some commentators render the Hebrew word not as “frogs” but as “crocodiles”), Lice, Wild Beasts, Animal Plague (although the Egyptian and Hebrew flocks were interspersed, only the Egyptian animals got sick), Boils, and Hail and Fire simultaneously (the last three plagues of Locusts, Darkness, and the Death of the First Born are recounted in next week’s reading). These plagues are discussed each year at the Seder table, but there is a basic question that is not discussed enough among most families:
Why does God need to have plagues at all?
Pharaoh is ready to let the Hebrews go by the sixth plague of boils, but God “strengthens his heart” (Ex. 9:12) or “hardens” his heart (8:11, 8:28, 9:3, 9:7, 10:1) so that he changes his mind and insists on keeping the Hebrews from freedom. But if God can harden Pharoah’s heart, then the obvious question (that doesn’t get asked often enough) is why doesn’t God just “soften” Pharoah’s heart immediately so that he lets the Hebrews go without all the drama and pain of the plagues.
The answer is found in the sadness of a basic truth of Jews for thousands of years: we assimilate with the cultures around us all too easily.
We can easily see assimilation in 21st century American Jews. While our grandparents may have observed the Sabbath and kept kosher, many “modern” Jews do neither. It’s understandable: we want to fit in with our non-Jewish friends and neighbors. And it was the same for the ancient Hebrews in Egypt. Many Hebrews (they were not called “Jews” yet at that time) had let go of every Jewish practice except for circumcision and Hebrew baby naming. The Hebrews of ancient Egypt, like many Jews today, wanted to be like their neighbors. Our Sages teach that many Hebrews had even gone so far as to worship the Egyptian deities.
This is the deeper reason why God needed to manifest the Ten Plagues. The plagues weren’t for the Egyptians’ benefit, but so that the Hebrews who had adopted the Egyptian cosmology would see the error in their ways and return to a full and complete worship of HaShem, of God. Each of the plagues invalidates a different Egyptian god or goddess, proving each time to those assimilated Hebrews that they needed to come back to their faith.
The first plague of changing the Nile to blood took down Hapi, the Egyptian god of the Nile. Heket, the goddess of fertility and water had the head of a frog, and so the second plague was aimed at her. When Aaron smote the dust of the earth and it became lice (8:12), he demonstrated the fallacy of Geb, the god over the dust of the earth. Khepri, the god of creation and rebirth had the head of fly, and so the next plague was that of flies causing the swarming of wild beasts. The fifth plague of only the Egyptian animals dying corresponds to Hathor, the Egyptian goddess of protection whose head was a cow. Isis, the Egyptian goddess of medicine was shown to be impotent with the sixth plague of boils. The seventh plague of hail and fire from the sky showed the Hebrews that Nut, the Egyptian goddess of the sky, was in fact a myth and not real. (There is a beautiful commentary by both Mizrahi and Rashi that this plague was a “miracle within a miracle” as the fire descended, and was a demonstration that “to serve God, fire and water made peace with one another”.)
The three plagues of next week’s Torah reading continue this pattern. Seth, the Egyptian god of disorder has no control of the eighth plague of locusts. The most worshipped god in Egypt (other than Pharaoh himself) was Ra, the god of the sun. The ninth plague of darkness showed the people again how this was a false deity. And Pharaoh, considered to be the son of Ra and a god in physical form, received his comeuppance with the death of the first born of Egypt.
The assimilated Hebrews needed to see these ten plagues so that they would fully recognize how their adoption of Egyptian practices and worship was antithetical to the truth of one true God. It took all of these plagues for them to fully return to a recognition of the value of Jewish teachings and practices.
Assimilation is understandable, and typically happens a step at a time over a period of years. In the case of the Hebrews in Egypt, they started accepting the Egyptian gods one at a time. In the case of how we assimilate in today’s world, it too happens gradually. It’s sad, but often people leave Jewish practices and don’t return to their spirituality unless there is a crisis of some sort. But it doesn’t have to be that way. One of the lessons from this week’s reading is that we can be wiser than our ancestors in Egypt, and return to our faith practices without needing dramatic and terrifying events like the plagues. The statement still holds true that “there are no atheists in foxholes”.
My friend Ronnie Serr, was once asked by someone how “to become more religious”. Ronnie gave a truly brilliant answer. “One small step at a time.” Each of us can and need to return to our Jewish souls one small step at a time so that we never again have to experience tragic events like the ten plagues or a holocaust in order to find our true souls.
Judaism is a rich tradition with so many different facets, and I enjoin each of us to take on one new aspect of our faith and make it a regular practice. If you don’t observe the Sabbath in any way, then make a decision to just start this year by lighting candles every Friday night. If you’re not ready to become kosher, then make a commitment to just remove pork or shellfish from your diet as a start. If you enjoy exploring ethics and psychology, then begin studying Mussar (Jewish psycho-ethics) once a week on a regular basis; or if you are inclined to meditative practices, then learn and practice some of the ancient Jewish meditation techniques. (I am more than happy to help with book recommendations, or personal discussions to help you in your journey.) Decide to give charity on a daily basis by keeping a tzedakah box in your home and adding a few coins or dollars every day. But do something to ignite the passion of your Jewish soul.
Make the commitment now, in this secular new year, to take on an additional mitzvah, teaching, or practice. One step at a time we all need to return to our soul’s purpose. The blessings will be huge, and over time as we reject assimilating completely into a non-Jewish world and embrace our Judaism, each of us will find ourselves filled with more wisdom and joy, and a greater sense of meaning in Life.
May we all make the choice to step back toward the traditions of our faith, and to never need plagues or tragedies of any sort in order to learn; and may we all be blessed with the joy of being part of the beauty that is the Jewish people. Now and always, Am Yisrael Chai! And may this Shabbat be filled with sweetness and wisdom for us and for all of our people.
Rabbi Michael Barclay January 15, 2021 2nd of Shvat, 5781
The winds have picked up again, and with the lack of rain so far this year, fires are spreading throughout California. If you have been affected by the Erbes fire that started last night in Thousand Oaks and need anything in any way, including a place to stay if you were evacuated; or if you can help anyone in the community who has been displaced… please email me directly at Rabbi@NerSimcha.org so that we can all help each other. May we all stay safe and healthy in these challenging times, and support each other in every way.