by R. Gidon Rothstein
Gd makes clear about the central goal of the process of the Exodus, bringing the Egyptians (and Jews, although it was a little easier with them) to accept the full truth of Divine Providence, Gd’s existence, involvement with the world, and power to engineer any chosen result [as a personal aside, not a bad list for what we might imagine our Creator “wanting” from current Covid-19 troubles as well]. Comments of Onkelos, Rashi, and Ramban show how hard it can be for people to reach those goals.
Gd makes clear this is an either/or, according to Onkelos. For a final outcome of the plagues, 8;19, Gd has Moshe say ve-samti fedut ben ami u-ven amekha, I will distinguish My nation from yours; Onkelos thinks Gd means to “distinguish” between the two both by redeeming the Jews and striking the Egyptians, where other commentators read the verse one way or the other. The plagues and Exodus were a moment where one joined the “good guys,” as it were, or suffered the consequences.
My comment about the coronavirus is relevant to the parsha in that commentators leave room to think the plagues themselves did not conclusively and unarguably prove Gd’s involvement in the world; they left room for stubborn denial. Onkelos understood the verse’s reference to the Nile sharatz frogs, 7;25, to mean rabei, bred frogs, the Nile producing new frogs. We might think that would have been a clear sign of Gd’s role, except the sorcerers managed to replicate the feat.
In one of his readings of the plague of lice, Ramban disagrees. The sorcerers react to the lice as if it brought something new to the equation. They say, 8;15, etzba Elokim hi, this is the finger of Gd (Onkelos, ever avoidant of any impression Gd has physicality, explains away the metaphor, says it was maha min kodam Hashem, a strike from before Gd).
Ramban’s first option does not affect our understanding of frogs. He says the sorcerers’ attempts to bring lice indicates they usually could, else why try? Here Gd prevented them, making them realize something supernatural was at hand. I am not so sure others would concede the point so readily. They might instead say the sorcerers were having a bad day.
Two other alternatives come from Midrashim. In one, lice differed from the previous plagues because the plague involved creating something that had not existed before. Ramban explains the plague of blood converted water to blood, and frogs (in this view) either multiplied more than usual or came from other places. Only with lice was something completely new formed, and creation was never in the sorcerers’ playbook. (His last option restricts them further, the demons on whom they relied could not deal with something as small as lice. For this view, too, Ramban could accept the possibility the sorcerers had brought forth frogs).
For the view the plague involved more frogs without it being an influx of never before created frogs, the plague left room to insist it was a natural aberration.
Rashi spotted miracles in how Moshe brought the plague of boils, 9;8. He gathers up dirt with both hands, then throws it in the air with one, and it spreads all over Egypt. For Rashi, Moshe’s ability to hold all the dirt in one hand, as well as to have it spread so widely, were miracles. Ramban naturalized each of those—Moshe could have only meant to throw some of the dirt, or thrown dirt many times, and wind could have carried it throughout Egypt. The less miraculous the action, the more it forces people to be open to the truth in order to be able to accept it.
Onkelos includes a tradition later recorded in Berakhot 54b, cited by Rashi as well, the hail stopped, on its way to the ground, 9;33. Rashi also has the idea the fire and ice mixed (without affecting each other) in each ball of hail, to fulfill Gd’s Will.
The plagues had enough reason for the Egyptians to get the message, and enough room to fail to learn the lesson.
The Egyptians Didn’t Have an Easy Out
Onkelos and Rashi give us a sense of how far the Egyptians would have had to go to save themselves. Rashi to 7;3 thinks Gd decides to harden Par’oh’s heart because idolaters do not care to repent with all their hearts. Without a full and sincere repentance, they can be used as object lessons of the consequences for disobeying Gd.
Onkelos seems to have thought more yet was required. Moshe agrees to ask Gd to stop the plague of hail, adding he knows ki terem tir’un mipenei Hashem, 9;30. Onkelos translates tir’un, fear, as itkena’un, humbled. To me [ArtScroll has another view, Moshe was saying they hadn’t been humbled yet, let alone fear], he is saying the only way the Egyptians could stop the plagues would be by reaching the level of humbled before Gd (I take humbled to be a higher level than fear). The Egyptians feared Gd enough to ask for plague removal, had not yet reached humbled.
Earlier in the parsha, 6; 16, Rashi did see some positive in the Egyptians. He explained the Torah’s listing Levi’s lifespan as a way to calculate how long the Jews were enslaved, because the Egyptians did not start the process until Levi passed away. The presence of a member of the original generation was enough living history, a reminder of what Yosef and his family had done for them, stopped them from mistreating the Jews. [In contrast, for example, the Nazi, yemah shemam, started persecuting Jews when there were still Jewish World War I heroes living. In that sense, the Egyptians were not as bad as the Nazis.]
Decent people in the gratitude sense, they would have had to do more to avoid all the troubles coming their way. [We would do well to ponder this question for ourselves, what it takes to save ourselves if we have fallen into a destructive path. Sometimes, it might take full repentance, happily engaged, and sometimes it might take more, a total humbling of oneself before Gd. Saying any more here would be political, but I do believe these are crucial questions for people in our time, as much as they were back in Egypt.]
Jews Can’t Hear
Sadly, the Jews at this point do not show us much better. The verse says Moshe spoke to them and they did not listen mi-kotzer ruah u-me-avodah kashah, 6;9. Onkelos translates it as ma’ayak ruha, distress of spirit. Rashi sees it as a physical matter, a person in distress cannot catch his or her breath. For them, the Jews literally could not hear what Moshe had to say.
Ramban notes the verse does not say whether the Jews believed Moshe. He thinks they may have, yet their worry over personal survival—Moshe did not promise each Jew would get out– drowned any joy at Moshe’s words.
Personal concerns can interfere with our ability to hear the good in a truth coming our way.
The Jewish People’s Precious Resource
Ramban, 6;10, reads the word leimor, repeated often by the Torah when Gd speaks to Moshe, in a way that puts more unfortunate light on the Jews. He thinks the word means Moshe’s prophecy was clear and direct, conveyed without hints, allusions, or other ambiguating factors. The Jews were unable to accept the words of a prophet who shared exactly what Gd said.
I think Rashi also gives Moshe more of a role in the events than we might originally notice. After Moshe agrees to Par’oh’s plea to ask Gd to remove the plague of wild animals, 8;26, the verse says va-ye’etar, a word Rashi thinks means Moshe put effort into the prayer. The idea he needed effort to ask Gd to remove a plague Gd always intended to remove implies Moshe had some obligation as well. I suggest Gd empowered him to decide when plagues should end, as long as he then “convinced” Gd it was the right time.
For all Aharon is relegated to more of a backseat role during the Exodus, verse 6;26 groups him with Moshe as the leaders when the plagues start. Rashi comments on the verse’s stressing hu Moshe ve-Aharon, they are Moshe and Aharon, to remind us they were of equal value and/or stature, although the Torah sometimes puts one or the other first.
Sometimes, I think the Exodus shows us, Gd’s objectives are challenging, but still the only way to a future better than the one towards which we are seeing the Egyptians stumble their way.