The Educating Plagues

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by R. Gidon Rothstein

After his long introduction, R. Arama addresses the verses in order, to show how his reading fits the way the Torah tells the story. I will try to avoid repetition, share only the points which strike me as new. It does mean I will jump around, skipping repeat or more minor points. Discontinuity is my fault, then, not R. Arama’s, in the hopes of salvaging a bit of brevity.

For an example of a standalone point, R. Arama says the Torah tells us Moshe and Aharon’s ages because they are moving up a level in life, from extraordinary human beings to what he calls Elokiyyim, Gdly ones. He apparently thinks the change a stark divide—for eighty and eighty-three years, they were certain kinds of people and are now embarking on a new era.

First Forays Into Convincing Par’oh

When Hashem alerts Moshe and Aharon of Par’oh’s expected intransigence, R. Arama focuses on Hashem’s saying “ve-lo yishma ‘aleichem Par’oh, Par’oh will not listen to you.” He thinks Hashem was making clear only Par’oh’s refusal to listen prevented ending the plagues. As soon as Par’oh would accept the fullness of Hashem’s message, the process would have reached its fruition, the Jews would leave, Egypt’s troubles would end [an implicit reminder our troubles sometimes continue because of our refusal to heed messages we could receive were we open to them, at the same time as we likely complain about them and long for them to cease].

Par’oh’s demand of a sign or proof struck R. Arama as reasonable, and Hashem responds with a sign which proves the point while also leaving room for stubborn people to deny it. Par’oh’s sorcerers were able to imitate the sign, yet Aharon’s serpent eating theirs should have made clear his sign was qualitatively different.

Sadly for Par’oh and his people, Par’oh decided Aharon was a more expert sorcerer rather than Hashem’s representative. R. Arama is explicit on the psychological point, Par’oh wants to convince himself of the idea, to be able to keep the slaves. He has to address their greater skill, not readjust his worldview [today, these ideas are almost commonplace, people deny simple truths and read reality as they want it to be rather than how it is; seeing R. Arama recognize it already in the fifteenth century makes it more tragic we still fall into the trap all this time later.]

Hashem as Creator: The First Set of Plagues

His refusal sets off the process of forcing him and his people to accept four propositions (R. Arama thinks Hashem reminded Moshe of all four), the first of which he introduces by saying “be-zot teda ki ani Hashem, with this you will know I am Hashem.”

Hashem’s existence includes the idea of Hashem having created the world, R. Arama says, which is why the first three plagues all create items. Hashem will turn water to blood, have the river produce frogs, and create lice anew. The series starts with creativity the sorcerers could imitate in the hopes of making clear to them how much more creative Aharon’s version was, inspiring a full concession right away. [R. Arama means those most skilled at an activity should be able to see when they are being superseded supernaturally. Instead, the sorcerers and Par’oh took it as an advance within the field of sorcery, remarkable rather than miraculous.]

Here again, R. Arama attributes their insistent blindness to their desire to retain their slaves. Helping them in their delusion, Egyptians were finding water by digging around the Nile, making the plague a bother as opposed to an existential threat.

Digging for a water for a week didn’t kill anybody, whereas the frogs were unavoidable, why Par’oh (at the people’s urging) asked Moshe to remove them (a step of progress). Par’oh promises to release the people if Hashem removes the frogs, which R. Arama reads as a declaration of his readiness to concede Hashem’s existence and creative powers, to be proven by removing the frogs.

Warningless Third Plagues Do Not Fully Win the Day

Lice come without any warning, which will be true of the third plague in each set. R. Arama thinks Hashem follows an intuitively sensible pattern. Hashem makes a demand, with a warning of what will happen should the Egyptians reject the call. When the first consequences do not drive the point home, Hashem issues another warning, with a harsher result. Spurned one more time, Hashem no longer bothers with a warning, brings a plague which forces their concession.

As happens with lice. The sorcerers’ inability to reproduce the plague removes any plausible deniability, and Par’oh yields, fully. Going forward, it will be taken as fact Hashem is Creator, and has powers no human can match.

Demonstrating the Jews’ Exceptionalism

Par’oh found the wiggle room, however. He decided Hashem’s powers, impressive and superhuman as they are, do not show a particular connection with the Jewish people, letting him tell himself he has no reason to believe Hashem cares about removing them from Egypt. The next plagues therefore focused less on creativity—wild animals and pestilence were well-known—and instead focused on the contrast between the Jews and the Egyptians. Moshe’s warning makes explicit the Jews’ being spared the coming plague, to show Hashem’s special concern with them (He has made a careful textual inference here, in that the idea of the Jews’ difference is not highlighted in the first plagues. We all grow up learning the Jews’ water did not turn to blood and the frogs did not affect them. The text itself does not make a point of this).

Beset by wild animals, Par’oh offers to let the Jews sacrifice to Hashem in Egypt, a claim R. Arama thinks had more going for it than at first sight. Having proven Hashem’s ability to affect events in Egypt, Par’oh sees no reason the Jews cannot also serve Hashem there. Moshe explains the infeasibility of the idea (the Egyptian people will object to people sacrificing their gods), and insists on going out three days’ travel into the desert.

As a side point, R. Arama notes Moshe never promises to return, a partial answer to those who wonder how Moshe could phrase the discussion as one about letting the Jews go worship, when they never intended to come back. Par’oh concedes the need to leave Egypt for their worship, asking they stay close, and Moshe agrees to pray to remove the plague.

For all he had not made a full concession, R. Arama says, Moshe did not want to be too exacting (an interesting educational comment), so he prayed for the plague to be removed.

Taking Away All Their Claims

After the first plague, Par’oh could tell himself Goshen had some quality which prevented the wild animals from entering. For the pestilence, he could point to the star-determined fortunes of the animals’ owners as what have separated those struck by the plague from those spared.

The boils struck people themselves, including the sorcerers, whom the verse says could no longer “stand before Moshe.” I think most commentators take the phrase to mean they were embarrassed of the boils on their body. In a very creative reading, R. Arama says they could no longer present a plausible argument to Moshe, seeing as how the boils struck the very best of the Egyptians and none of the Jews. [R. Arama here seems to me to ignore two counters to his argument: First, if the stars could be why the pestilence struck only Egyptian animals, I’m not sure why the same fate could not force boils on people. There may be an easy answer, I am not familiar enough with astrological beliefs to know.

In what may be another nitpick, the Torah does not make a point of the boils striking only the Egyptians. We assume it did, as we do for blood and frogs. For R. Arama, the Torah should have emphasized it here as well, to clinch the argument of these three plagues, Hashem treats the Jews separately and specially.]

A Local or Universal Gd

Par’oh’s only remaining refuge was the idea Hashem did not control the whole earth.

[R. Arama does not explain why Par’oh would care—as long as Hashem had full power over Egypt and cared directly about the Jews, I would think he already needed to let them go. How would it help Par’oh were it to be true Hashem did not control Norway or North America? Perhaps R. Arama thinks a fantasy of limitations fooled Par’oh into thinking he could find other ways to circumvent Hashem’s commands and/or punishments].

The next three plagues therefore did the unprecedented, as the verse stresses regarding hail and locusts, their never having been such versions of them before. Were the world natural, controlled by the stars (or the laws of nature), the unprecedented should be impossible, says R. Arama. What goes around comes around, he sort of says (referring to revolutions of the stars).

[His assumption contrasts interestingly with the claims of atheistic rationalists today, whose faith in their worldview lets them take complete novelty serenely, supremely confident they will eventually find an explanation.]

To stress the point, the verse attributes these plagues more to Hashem than previous ones, and says those who feared Hashem put their animals inside, safe from the hail. (R. Arama says those who ignored the warning deserved what they got, a reminder he thinks rejecting a warning is itself a punishable evil).

Par’oh asks for the hail to be removed, and Moshe agrees, despite his explicit recognition they were not yet ready to accept Hashem fully. R. Arama says Moshe made the point to encourage them to more complete submission, or spark fear which would lead them to it. Moshe singled out Par’oh’s servants to awaken them to what was coming, to spur them to reason with Par’oh. As they then do, challenging him as to whether he realizes Egypt is being destroyed.

Attributing plagues to Heaven, The Wind, and Whatever

The hail stopped, and rereading history began. R. Arama thinks Par’oh told himself hail came from heaven, was controlled by the stars, which apparently did not also predict the Jews’ leaving. In reply, Hashem brought locusts, which have no direct connection to the heavens, and which the verse says would never be replicated, making them an absolutely one-time only phenomenon (which can therefore not be natural, R. Arama says, since anything natural must be replicable, where the verse is sure it would never happen again).

Hashem sends a wind to remove the locusts, giving Par’oh room to decide the wind had brought them as well, his latest clinging to denial. Darkness struck the air itself, leaving no recourse.

How Hard It Is to Let Go

Darkness made enough of an impression for Par’oh to still be ready to let the Jews go after it had gone away. However, he balks at sending the animals, R. Arama thinks because it does not fit his picture of what Gd would want. Par’oh therefore decides Moshe added the idea of taking the animals, out of spite, in response to when Par’oh told Moshe he would said only a minimal core of people. To show him, Moshe had said, we’re taking it all.

In Par’oh’s mind, having now conceded the whole people could indeed go, the animals part of the demand could be dropped. In his mind—and, again, I draw your attention to R. Arama’s deep understanding of how we fool ourselves—he had done all Moshe wanted. When Moshe contradicts him, Par’oh is positive he is making up new demands, which angers him, leads him to tell Moshe not to see his face again.

Two Last Points

We are rapidly running out of room, and I will therefore restrict myself to only two more of R. Arama’s points. First, he thinks the last plague proved Moshe’s status as Hashem’s messenger, by bringing a plague Moshe had spoken of at the outset, when Hashem had told him to say the Jews were His first-born, and failure to let them go would lead Hashem to kill the Egyptians’ first-born. Bringing back what must have seemed outlandish at the time closed the circle and showed Moshe to be Hashem’s faithful messenger.

Second, he notes the verse’s saying the Jews were in Egypt for 430 years, when we know they were there for only 210. He says the verse reminds us Hashem can adjust counts of predicted periods in various ways, for our benefit should we merit it. By starting the count earlier (Rashi thinks from the birth of Yitzchak, for example), Hashem could say they had been strangers in a land not theirs for the required four centuries. Although not new or novel to him, I share it because it reminds us of the malleability of history, as a function of our merits or failings.

It reasonably summarizes the sha’ar as a whole, a sha’ar in which R. Arama insisted on the irrevocability of freewill, saw slavery as a consequence of the Jews’ actions, and saw Par’oh’s troubles as more than a little self-inflicted. All as ways to force the lesson the Egyptians (and many others) resist: Hashem created the world, retains power over the “laws” of Nature, has formed a special and eternal relationship with the Jewish people, and sent Moshe Rabbenu to perform what no other prophet ever would.

Not a bad set of lessons to bring to our Seder this year.

About Gidon Rothstein

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