By Rabbi Tani Burton
One Story or More then One?
At first glance, the Torah portions from Shemot to Beshalach contain one story—the exodus of the Israelites from Egypt. The sequence of events is familiar to all of us: the cruel enslavement of the Israelites; Moses cast upon the water in a reed basket; his flight to Midian to avoid the murderous Pharaoh; the burning bush; Moses is charged by G-d to lead the Israelites out of Egypt; the ten plagues; the exodus; the splitting of the Red Sea; the final downfall of the Egyptian forces and the road to Sinai.
However, a deeper look reveals that there is a parallel story. Not once, but five times, a particular message is delivered to Egypt through the personality of Pharaoh. It is stated in several ways, but means essentially the same thing. Here are the first four:
1 Prior to Moses and Aaron’s approaching Pharaoh:
And the Egyptians will know that I am the L-rd when I stretch out My Hand upon Egypt and bring the Children of Israel out from amongst them (Exodus 7:5)
2 Aftermath of the plague of frogs:
[Moses said], when should I pray for you and your servants, that the frogs be cut off from you and your house? And he [Pharaoh] said, “tomorrow”. And (Moses) said, “[it will be] according to your words, in order for you to know that there is no L-rd like our G-d”. (Exodus 8:6)
3 Before the plague of beasts:
And I shall separate, on that day, the land of Goshen upon which My people stands, to prevent the beasts there, in order for you to know that I am the L-rd within the land. (8:18)
4 A forewarning about the last plague (the death of the firstborn):
For this time, I will send all of My plagues upon your heart, and your servants, and your people in order for you to know that there is none like Me in all of the land (Exodus 9:14)
The phrase appears five times, in different iterations. Each time, לְמַעַן תֵּדְעוּ (“in order for you to know”) punctuates an aspect of the plagues that is unmistakably miraculous.
Now, six out of the ten plagues are recounted in this parsha, and only three of these statements are made to Pharaoh, and only in connection with these specific plagues. What makes these plagues distinct that entitles them to be punctuated with the message of “in order for you know that I am G-d”? In order to answer this question, we must take two factors into account. The first is the fact that things that appear supernatural can often be attributed to natural phenomena. After all, strange things do happen that we can’t explain, but we know that this does not mean that they are supernatural. Second, sorcery was common in the ancient world, and as the Torah describes, Pharaoh’s sorcerers were able to replicate the wonders performed by G-d through Moses and Aaron. Until the third plague, their actions could be dismissed as sorcery.
From What Point Did it Become "The Finger of G-d"?
During the plague of lice, however, the sorcerers admitted, “this is the Finger of G-d” (ibid., 8:15). The game had changed. No longer could these unnatural events be explained as man-made, even as magic performed by men. It could only be G-d. And in the three utterances noted above, where events are foretold with the caveat that they will take place “in order for you to know that I am the L-rd”, it is clear that only G-d can do these things.
Only G-d can identify and extract an entire nation of three million souls from within another nation.
Only G-d could have removed the frogs from Egypt all at once, at a specific moment.
Only G-d can send a plague that can be so precise that it affects only the firstborn son of every household in an entire empire.
When it is something that only G-d can do, being witness to it enables the observer to “know that [He] is the L-rd".
What Was the Real Purpose of the Plagues?
G-d decreed to Abraham that his descendants would become slaves for a period of 400 years, but would be emancipated (Genesis 15:13-14). The redemption of the Israelites was imminent, irrespective of the Ten Plagues. Why, then, were these plagues happening? So that “the Egyptians will know that I am the L-rd”.
This is the parallel story. G-d had a message to Egypt in particular, and the world in general.
The ancient Egyptian Empire was not only the most progressive and advanced society in the ancient world. Many of its accomplishments are felt to this day, and even exceed our understanding. The Egyptians achieved incredible breakthroughs in medicine, astronomy, mathematics, architecture, engineering and technology. The speed with which the massive pyramids were built—including the quarrying and transportation of the massive stones from which they are made—has baffled engineers and builders to this day. The Ebers Papyrus is the oldest-known medical text, containing over 700 remedies; Egyptian healers were known to have performed surgeries.
We still use many things that the Egyptians used and, in many cases, invented, including cosmetics, ink and paper. They were using cannabis and drinking pomegranate juice long before the most neuroplasticity-minded of us appeared. Their way of life was egalitarian, millennia before the idea of equality of the sexes became a feature of the modern, democratic society. It boggles the mind to consider what accomplishments might have been made by Egypt if its civilization continued to exist unchecked till today.
But the chief accomplishment of Egypt was its harnessing of the Nile River. They observed and calculated its ebbs and flows, and built a massive, complex irrigation system that enabled them to cultivate a huge agricultural area. It was enough to sustain the population of an empire, transform a desert into a “garden of greens” (Deuteronomy 11:10), and create the basis for a healthy and natural life.
The Nile River is mentioned many times throughout Scripture, both as a praise of Egypt and as a basis for its chastisement. We can see this in the fact that Moses was instructed to deliver G-d’s ultimatums to Pharaoh at the river, and in Ezekiel chapter 32, where the ultimate and final downfall of Egypt is prophesied, using the metaphor of Pharaoh as a sea-serpent controlling the Nile. The Nile River made Egypt independent and self-sufficient, and herein lies the danger.
As we saw regarding the Tower of Babel, technical progress is not necessarily the redeeming factor of a society. It can be a sign of wisdom, innovation and ingenuity. Yet, at the same moment that Egypt reached its peak as a civilization, it had singled out one of its ethnic populations for oppression and back-breaking slave labor. Bear in mind that slavery was a phenomenon that existed throughout human history, even though it has disappeared from Western life (it is still practiced in 167 countries worldwide). Yet, it was often governed by laws that protected the welfare of the slave. The form of slavery practiced by the Egyptians, however, was a terrible injustice.
When societal advancement is accompanied by inhumanity to man, the advancement loses its value. The great Egyptian empire no longer could justify its existence on the basis of its sophistication. But before Pharaoh and his armies were completely destroyed, G-d provided them with a path to redemption. G-d said to Pharaoh, who was himself a firstborn son, “however, it is for this that I have left you standing: so that you will see My Strength, and so that you will tell of My Name throughout the land” (Exodus 9:16).
The Ba’al HaTurim, quoting the midrash, states, “when the Holy One, Blessed is He, exacts judgement upon evildoers, His Name is exalted” (ibid., cf. Mechilta Beshalach 14:4). On the other hand, G-d was offering Pharaoh a chance to repent, for “G-d does not desire the death of the wicked, but rather that he repent and live” (Seforno; Ezekiel 18:32).
G-d's Name will be Sanctified no Matter What
G-d’s Name is sanctified either way—whether the wicked are punished or they do teshuvah (repentance). G-d offered Pharaoh an opportunity to turn this situation around: release the Israelites, repent and encourage others throughout the land to come to G-d, or be destroyed. Either way, G-d’s Name would be exalted, even if the world had to lose its greatest civilization. Pharaoh, unfortunately, chose the path of destruction.
The parallel story mentioned above is the call of G-d to all of the nations of the world to recognize and serve Him. Rabbi Nachman of Breslov notes, “When Yitro came, the Name of the Holy One, blessed is He, became glorified (Zohar, Yitro, 69a). This is related to the concept of, “tell of His Glory among the nations”. For when those who are far away bring themselves close to the service of G-d, this itself is the glorification of His Name. (Likkutei Moharan I:59)
May we be blessed to hear G-d’s call, and tell of His Name throughout the land.
By Rabbi Tani Burton
Tani Burton is a life coach, psychotherapist, author and educator living in Jerusalem, Israel. A special interest of his is the Torah's universal message for humanity, its prescription for right living, a close and personal relationship with G-d, and the opportunities we all have to make the world a better place.
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