Three Crucial Switches

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by R. Gidon Rothstein

New plan starting with Parshat Va-Era: I’ve been starting from the beginning of the parsha and see how far I get, from now on, I’m going to pick from the end and work backwards, to be sure we see the more often ignored parts of the parsha. We start at barad, hail, the last plague we see this week.

Only the Righteous Get to Pick and Choose

Kli Yakar’s comment to 9:30 notices a difference between verses 28-29 on the one hand and 33 on the other. Par’oh asks Moshe to stop the thunder and hail, and Moshe agrees. When he then prays to God for the plague to stop, verse 33 adds that no matar(precipitation, but Kli Yakar assumes it is rain, separate from the hail) came down. Kli Yakar suggests the change came in verse thirty, where Moshe adds that he knows Par’oh and his coterie do not yet fear God.

To explain what we might take to be an unnecessary comment, Kli Yakar infers that Par’oh was happy to have the rain that accompanied the hail continue, Egypt being a parched land and always in need of rain. Moshe originally agreed, promising to pray to God, and the thunder and hail would stop. However, the rain stopped as well.

Moshe pre-emptively explained: were I to know that you and your servants truly feared God, I would do what you asked. Kli Yakar throws in the phrase “because the Holy One Blessed Be He acts according to the will of those who fear Him,” a potent idea he does not expand upon here. At the least, he means Moshe would have prayed for Par’oh to get all he wanted had he been sure Par’oh was now truly God-fearing.

[Of course, if Par’oh was, why would Moshe’s prayer be necessary? In general, why did it take a prayer by Moshe to stop the plague? Questions Kli Yakar does not address.]

Since Moshe knows Par’oh does not fully fear God, he also knows Hashem will not fulfill all of Par’oh’s wishes, so as not to reward an evildoer. The hail and thunder will be lifted, but they will lose the rain, too, because the full blessing of rain only comes to those who fear God, as Yirmiyahu 5;24 says, when the prophet reprimands the Jews for not thinking, “oh, let’s fear God, Who gives all the rains at their times.”

Fear of God and Meriting Rain, Then and Now

Kli Yakar’s concern was the distinction between Par’oh’s momentary submission to God, enough to remove the punishing parts of the plague, and true fear, what would earn the kinds of blessings Par’oh wanted. For his contemporaries, I bet he was hinting about the difference between looking like God-fearing people and being such, and the expanded bounty available to them if only they served God more fully.

[I have no reason to believe rain was an issue in his time, but it certainly is in ours. As I write this, the parched western portion of the United States is experiencing severe rains, with damaging consequences, although also partially easing a decades-long drought. The publicly discussed solutions to their drought problem all have to do with water management and climate change, neither of which I intend to deny.

I am bothered by the failure, almost complete as far as I have seen, to take seriously the possibility that all or part of the  solution to their problems lies in returning to belief in God, and following God’s dictates. As I write that, I worry even many Orthodox Jews would deny the idea that a turn to faith by large portions of the populations of California, Arizona, and Colorado would effect a better rain pattern. Already sad, it means that even those who observe God’s mitzvot have lost faith in the type of involvement in the world God portrayed for us in Scripture.

Of course, even if they did decide to do that, they’d likely choose a version of God’s service I understand to be deeply flawed, since most religious non-Jews (and many Jews) today are sure the nature of God’s Will differs radically from what Jewish tradition tells us it is. But it would be a really valuable first step, and history tells us God rewards small steps, too.]

Par’oh thinks he has conceded, wants relief from trouble and continued blessing, and Moshe tells him he’s not there yet. The plague will go, with the good parts.

Egypt Becomes a Desert

After he has suffered the locusts, 8;21, Par’oh calls in Moshe, tells him to have the Jews worship God in Egypt (as opposed to the desert, where Moshe has said they need to go). Hatam Sofer wonders what it was about this plague that made Par’oh offer the concession.

He starts with an idea Ramban explained at length in 32;1, the Jews chose a calf to worship because they had seen a vision similar to the one in the first chapter of Yehezkel, where the figures bearing God’s Chariot have four faces, the left one an ox, with left (in Ramban’s understanding) symbolizing the Attribute of Justice. At Sinai, in the desolate desert, the Jews assumed the reigning power was Justice, and worshipped it in to be saved from peril.

An idolatrous step further, Par’oh thought God told the Jews to go worship in the desert because God only controlled the desert. Until this third plague, any suggestion the Jews worship God in Egypt made no sense. After the locusts decimated the land, Hatam Sofer says, Egypt too had been laid waste, and seemed to Par’oh to be an equally valid place to do their service.

It’s About the Idolatry

Except he had

completely missed the point. God insisted the Jews leave Egypt to worship to get away from all the idols and other powers  venerated in Egypt [the reason Moshe told Par’oh he would pray for him only after he left the city, in the plague of hail we were discussing before]. Avodah Zarah tells us not to do business with idolaters three days before and after their holidays, a reason the Jews asked to go three days’ journey into the desert to conduct their service, and also the reason Hashem told the Jews to set aside the Pesah sacrifice three days before they would offer it [they took it on the tenth, and the sacrifice was on the fourteenth, leaving three full days in between].

Hazal in the Mechilta detected a second element to the command to set aside the Pesah sacrifice, 12;21. The verse says mishchu u-kehu, a doubling Sefaria’s translation has as “go, pick out.” Mechilta said it meant mishchu, draw yourselves away from worshipping any power other than God, then take the animal. Three days later, they would be cleansed of their idolatry, ready to participate in a sacrifice for God.

That’s Moshe’s reply to Par’oh, we need to travel three days in the desert, to fully separate from what this land has taught us, then we can serve God.

Hatam Sofer adds one more

reading [his Torah commentary, like almost all his writings, were published after he passed away. I do not know what form or forum they originally appeared in, or how the publishers decided what to include. From the little I have seen, it feels like he had a notebook where he wrote his ideas, and added to it over the years]. After he echoes the essence of what he said about Par’oh thinking Egypt was now destroyed enough for the Jews to worship there, he adds an idea from his teacher, Hafla’ah [according to Wikipedia, Hatam Sofer studied with him for a year]. Hafla’ah said the locusts brought sand/dirt from the desert with them, and it overwhelmed Egypt’s own soil, making the land more literally a desert.

Sages, Sorcerers, Magicians

When Aharon turns his staff into a serpent, Par’oh calls his sages and sorcerers, mechashfim, 7;11, but then says hartumei Mitzrayim, Egypt’s magicians, did it with lahateihem, their spells. Both here and in the book of Daniel, mechashfim seem different from hartumim, so Ha’amek Davar spots a switch here, Par’oh called his wise men and mechashfim, but the hartumim were the ones who reproduced Aharon’s feat.

Sanhedrin 67b helps him find an answer. R. Aybo b. Nagari reported R. Hiyya b. Abba thought lahateihem, the word for spells in our verse, were separate from lateiheim, also translated spells, what the hartumim use in verse 22 to produce blood and frogs in 8:3. Lahateihem, said R. Hiyya b. Abba, is magic, lateihem is summoning demons to effect needed changes.

The hartumim had more powerful magic than the mechashfim, because the hartumim could bend demons to their will. Our verse tells us Par’oh called the sages and magicians to respond to Aharon’s serpentine staff, because it was easy, the sages could trick people into thinking they had turned their staffs into serpents, and the mechashfim able to do it with magic. Even the hartumim, who later turned to the demons for help, here used lahateihem, their

ordinary magical spells, saw no need to bother the demons for this minimal challenge.

That’s as far as he takes it, but he seems to me to suggest Hashem threw a deceptive softball to the Egyptians at first, a Divine miracle they could reproduce without much effort. They were supposed to recognize Aharon had not used any of their tricks and therefore accept God’s Will.

Sadly for them, they instead thought it showed they were as powerful as Aharon, a first step on their road to their complete downfall.

Moshe switches from agreeing the rain to stay to telling Par’oh he was not yet worthy, Egypt switches into a desert, in productivity terms, and Par’oh’s magicians switch the magic they use to show Aharon they can do it, too. Three switches the Egyptians misunderstood, on their way to a harsher outcome than necessary

About Gidon Rothstein

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