By Joy Scott, Am Haskalah Congregant
Last week’s Torah Parsha (SHEMOT) ended with Moses and Aaron both discouraged, as the Pharaoh of Egypt denied their request to free the enslaved Israelites. This week’s Parsha (VA’EIRA) describes with precise detail, the first seven of the ten plagues, which would eventually decimate all of Egypt. A major feature of the series of plagues is the behavior of the Pharaoh, in reaction to the destruction of his nation.
When Moses and Aaron bring about the first plague, which turned the Nile River into a profusion of blood, “all the fish died, and the Nile became putrid; the Egyptians had nothing to drink, and there was blood throughout the land” (1). The very next verse of the Parsha states: “Pharaoh turned and went to his home; he did not pay any attention to this” (2). The plague of ‘blood’ is the only one, which did not harm the Pharaoh, personally. Because he did not experience the pain himself, it was this plague where his apathy for his people is most pronounced (3).
The second of the ten plagues was ‘frogs’. Rashi cites a rabbinical source which describes how this plague manifested itself: “At first, one single frog emerged from the river, and the Egyptians tried to kill it by stomping on it; however, instead of it being harmed, the frog split into swarms of frogs; This action continued repeating itself, until the frogs were so numerous that they inundated the entire land” (4).
Then the third plague enveloped all of Egypt: “Aaron stretched forth his hand with his staff; hit the dust of the earth; and, lice set upon all man and beast in the land” (5). The Egyptians worshipped a multiplicity of gods, most of whom represented different forces of nature. The Pharaoh believed that the combination of aid from the gods, combined with the ‘secret arts’ of the magicians, would enable him to combat the plagues, which were afflicting Egypt (6). However, there is no Egyptian god of ‘lice’, and at this point the magicians said to their Pharaoh: “This is the finger of their God – -but, the Pharaoh’s heart remained steadfast” (7). The next plague was a mixture of noxious insects, which pervaded the homes of the Egyptians, as well as the entire land. Still, the Pharaoh was unshaken; and released his fury with increased harshness and burdens for the Israelites.
Then God said to Moses: “Tell the Pharaoh that if he refuses to let my people go, I will release a pestilence, which will kill all the livestock of him and his people” (8). This was followed by a plague of ‘boils’, which infested the entire bodies of each Egyptian; then ‘hail’, “the like of which had never been experienced” (9).
After these first seven plagues, there is a subtle, yet essential shift in the language: “And the Lord hardened the heart of Pharaoh” (10).
We read in the Book of Genesis, how all mankind was created with ‘free-will’, for both good and evil. A simple, but frequently asked question presents itself. How can God punish Pharaoh, if he was not even acting of his own volition?
Our most highly esteemed sages, rabbinical scholars, Talmudists, and philosophers eagerly espoused their (frequently contradictory) opinions on the implications of this one line in the Torah Parsha.
This is the true essence of Torah: the opportunity for us to reflect, and discuss the significance of this statement; and, how it relates to our own perceptions of the concept of ‘free-will’.
(1) EXODUS (7:21)
(2) EXODUS (7:23)
(3) Medresh HaGadal, Semot (7:29)
(4) Brehas Peretz (VA’EIRA)
(5) EXODUS (8:13)
(7) EXODUS (8:15)
(8) EXODUS (8:20)
(9) EXODUS (9:18)
(10) EXODUS (9: 34)