|TEN PLAGUES FOR TEN STATEMENTS
HEARING G-D'S VOICE THROUGH WORLD EVENTS, THEN AND NOW
Rabbi Michael Shelomo Bar-Ron
The world is dominated by governments and press that, under the banners of "freedom" and equality, relativize (bulldoze) humanity's most bedrock concepts of morality. And it never ceases to amaze me how they continue such policies, trampling Torah-based ethics, in the face of such terrifying disasters so clearly Heaven-sent—such as the Southeast Asian tsunami and last year's 26 hurricanes in one season (the exact numerical value of G-d's Holy Name). How do they do it? They manage to neutralize these powerful Divine statements through the power of interpretation. In a world saturated with deep meaning and sanctity, they broadcast their shallow, G-dless view of it all, in the name of remaining "unbiased"—glaringly revealing their own overwhelming bias… no matter what the cost. They haven't the courage to consider the roots of the detachment and spiritual despair of the youth: feelings of emptiness and purposelessness that, at least in Israel, have contributed to a dramatic rise in suicide rates and violent crime. The result is a generation that feels so powerless and unconvinced of its right to exist, it will stand idly by as its government strips the nation of its heartland as a present to a murderous enemy.
Part of the long struggle against the seemingly-conspired attempt to ignore and forget G-d, is to actively remember and remind the world of Him and—through the lens of Torah—open our hearts to what He is trying to tell us through world events. What better a time to rededicate ourselves to this task than the holiday of Shavu'oth, when we remember the Giving of the Ten Statements, erroneously called the "Ten Commandments" (there are 613 essential Commandments in the Torah), to the Hebrew nation through Moses, in the fire, thunder, and quaking of Mount Sinai. They remain the most powerful, eternal reminder to mankind of the Divine Judge and the certainty of Divine Justice.
The ramifications of the Sinai experience are staggering for today's world: Did it not occur in the aftermath of the utter destruction by G-d of the most powerful and advanced nation, the world's greatest superpower? When one compares the disastrous political decisions that preceded Egypt's demise and those that threaten today's secular Western states, it becomes clear that although technology and population explosions have transformed our world, in terms how people behave, not much has changed.
As far as Halakhah is concerned, the 10 Statements do not stand out in importance above any other part of the Law. At one time they were recited in the Temple with the daily recital of the Shema`’, but the Sages removed it from the daily liturgy in response to apostates who fell into the error that the Decalogue, in fact, is the whole the Torah—G-d forbid. In fact, according to RMb"M, standing up for the 10 Statements during public Torah reading in synagogue, is a custom of apostates.
On the surface, they seem to have little in common: A few of the 13 Principles of Faith (HaShem's Existence, the obligation to worship Him exclusively, the prophecy of Moses)... Selected, fundamental social laws prohibiting jealousy and legislating parental honor… Even one ritual—the Commandment to keep Shabbat! What do these select Statements all have in common? What is their purpose? Clearly they have a symbolic importance that transcends Halakhah.
I suggest that they can only be fully understood from the perspective of those who actually heard them (and saw the sounds) in person: in the context of entire Redemption experience… that is, as the climactic aftermath of the 10 "Statements" that had just laid waste to Egypt, changing their lives forever…
Remember that except for the tribe of Levi, who had preserved the traditions of the patriarchs, the newly-freed Hebrews (and Egyptians who had joined them) were ignorant of the most basic Torah concepts. HaShem needed to underscore certain foundational laws representing the entire Law (which would continue to be written and taught throughout the sojourn in the desert). Accepting the 10 was an acceptance of all 613. Therefore each Statement came to replace corrupt, G-dless tenets of Egyptian culture; to give them a new world outlook—a Torah lifestyle with Torah values. And such a revolution of thought could only succeed after a prior, initial step:
No matter how awesome the Sinai experience was, replacing the old worldview of a nation required an initial step: uprooting the old, idolatrous worldview, so the new values could be planted. The plagues that devastated Egypt had an educational function: to neutralize the values of Egyptian society that could block the way for Hebrews and gentiles to accept HaShem’s law. How? Consider that one out of every three or four in the new nation were non-Hebrews who had personally suffered in the terrible plagues, while the rest had witnessed them in terror and awe. We can assume that their precise order and details were well ingrained in everyone’s memory. The 10 plagues were given, plague by plague, to psychologically prepare the nation and the world for the 10 Statements, Statement by Statement…
1) BLOOD -- I am HaShem your G-d, who brought you out of Egypt, from the
place of slavery.
2) FROGS -- Do not have any other gods before Me….
3) LICE -- Do not take the Name of HaShem your G-d in vain.
4) WILD -- Remember the Sabbath to keep it holy. You can work during the
CREATURES six weekdays… But Saturday is the Shabbat to HaShem your G-d.
5) EPIDEMIC -- Honor your father and mother. You will then live long on the
land that HaShem your G-d is giving you.
6) BOILS -- Do not commit murder.
7) HAIL -- Do not commit adultery.
8) LOCUSTS -- Do not steal.
9) DARKNESS -- Do not testify as a false witness against your neighbor.
10) DEATH OF -- Do not be envious of your neighbor’s house. Do not be envious THE FIRST-BORN of your neighbor’s wife… or anything else that is your neighbor’s.
There may seem to be little or no connection at first, but let’s look deeper.
1) When HaShem smote the Egyptians with the first plague, it had to be a plague that would introduce, in the RMb"M’s words, “the foundation of foundations”: the knowledge of HaShem’s existence. That was impossible as long as the river Nile, Egypt’s god and source of all sustenance, remained fresh and lifegiving. Living in a hot, desert land with little rainfall, the ancient Egyptians depended on the regular, annual flooding of the Nile. The river was therefore seen as a power in and of itself; it was worshipped as the very source of life. When HaShem turned the River into blood, killing all the fish, it sent powerful message to Egypt: some previously unknown Master Deity had just rendered their Nile god impotent and utterly false.
2) The first plague carried the message of HaShem’s existence and sovereignty. However, it did not rule out the honor and worship of any other being that He had created. The second plague came to drive home a further concept to the world: You may not fear any other powers (literally “have any other gods”) before Me. Since HaShem created all that exists, everything exists before Him—in His Presence. Worshipping anything else means honoring G-d's own Creation that exists before Him. The next plague came to show how despicable that is to the Almighty. He caused something ugly and repulsive to be "created" from the defeated Nile god, to emerge from the river and invade Egypt. In another context, this “Nile creation,” the frog, might have been honored by Egypt as a power to reckon with in and of itself—like the Nile god… But now it must have been clear to all that this creature "before the Nile" was merely an agent of punishment by this “new” unknown Master Deity.
3) In Moses’ initial contact with the Creator, he asked to know His Name. This seems strange, since the Midrash teaches that Moses knew the Divine Name, using it to kill the Egyptian taskmaster. Being a Levite, whose tribe faithfully preserved the holy traditions of the nation, how couldn’t Moses have known the Name of His G-d? Notice that HaShem did not then reveal to Moses the essence of His most sacred Name, but replies, “I Shall Be What I Shall Be.” Now E-hiyeh (I Shall Be) is indeed one of the seven holy Names of G-d that may not be erased. However, it may well have been a mild form of rebuke. Ancient magic and sorcery involved the use of various “holy names” in incantations to cast spells and manipulate supernatural powers. This practice is alive and well in India, as well as in largely extinct schools of pseudo-Kabbalah (as opposed to genuine Qabbalah). Considering Moses’ upbringing, his question could hint to the magical perspective of the ancient world, in which Moses was raised and educated. (Moses is not a flat character, but one who grows and develops, which could warrant a special essay in itself!) It is not inconceivable that at this initial encounter with the Almighty, he requested a holy name through which he might be expected to perform HaShem's wonders.
HaShem's answer carries a simple, powerful message: “I am what I am always. I am unique and totally sovereign. You cannot control or manipulate Me with any Name. My Name(s) (are) Holy, and not meant to be used as magical implements.”
This was the next message the Almighty wanted to give anyone with the heart to consider the meaning of current events. The Master Deity who demands exclusive worship is not like any other deity Egypt had been worshipping; He is totally unique. His Name can only be sanctified in the way He dictates. And it can only be pronounced according to His rules. Therefore, the 3rd Statement—not to take the Lord’s Name in vain—was foreshadowed by the first plague that the necromancers couldn’t replicate with their silly 'divine' names. Even they—for the first time—were forced to say, “It is the finger of G-d!” –lice.
Lice are the tiniest creatures able to be seen by the naked eye. Similarly, taking HaShem’s Name in vain—such as reciting an improper blessing—is considered to be the tiniest, most insignificant error. Yet it is regarded by the two Tannaic giants, Ribbi Yochanan and Reish Lakish, as equivalent to taking G-d's Holy Name in vain (if it is a careless, conscious mistake)… Taking His Name in vain, particularly when swearing a vain oath, is one of the gravest sins, of which the Torah warns, “HaShem will not allow the one who takes His name in vain to go unpunished.” (It should be noted that today, ignorance of the Laws of Blessings is epidemic...)
4) In his Guide for the Perplexed, the RMb"M explains the reasoning for the 4th Statement, the Commandment to remember and guard the Shabbat:
“…no opinions retain their vitality except those which are confirmed,
publicized, and by certain actions constantly revived among the people. Therefore we are told in the Law to honor this day, in order to confirm
the principle of Creation which will spread in the world, when all
peoples keep Shabbat on the same day.”
In other words, the Shabbat day was instituted in order to spread the fundamental principles of G-d's existence, exclusivity, and uniqueness throughout the world.
Egyptian culture, however, was rooted in a slave mentality (it isn’t for nothing that Egypt was literally called Beit ‘Avadim—the Home, the Bastion of Slavery), similar to the one that characterizes today's secular work world: "Nothing can be allowed to interfere with productivity. Why risk losing 1/7 of profits to 'religious' concerns of a few? Why set aside a whole day consistently from work, telephone, laundry, etc; it just doesn’t make sense…"
What few secular people realize is that their attitude is no different from that of ants, flies, beavers, birds—any hardworking, wild animal that cannot be tamed. Ribbi Neħemiah understood the 4th plague, ‘arov, to be a swarm of flies. Ribbi Yehudah states that it denotes a mixture of wild animals. Another source states that it was a mixture of insects and snakes. All of these are wild, untamable creatures that cannot cease their labors; they rely on nothing but their own strength and instinct. G-dless human beings are no different. They claim, “my strength and the might of my arm made me this wealth.” No wonder that the “foundation of all foundations,” the proper awareness of HaShem's existence and the sense of obligation to serve Him properly, doesn't naturally take root in their hearts.
HaShem needed to prepare those who left Egypt for the Sabbath day, the day when the Jewish People demonstrate to the rest of the world man’s ability to transcend our animal instincts to labor, to produce, to horde… to rely totally on our own instinctive judgment, rather than obeying G-d’s higher call. He therefore sent wild creatures to invade Egypt, to punish them for their animal approach to life.
The first three plagues corresponded to three laws that obligate gentiles as much as Jews. The fourth plague paved the way for Shabbat, which would eventually obligate the Jewish people only. Amazingly, it is the first plague in which HaShem distinguished the Hebrews, and spared their land from His wrath. Furthermore, it is the first plague that moved Pharaoh to recognize the Hebrews’ right and obligation to serve our G-d. Shabbat became the exclusive mode of worship of the Jewish People.
5) The 5th Statement given to the Hebrews was, “Honor your father and mother. You will then live long on the land that HaShem your God is giving you.” Interestingly, epidemic is one of the reasons for which it is permissible to leave the Land of Israel (Pesach in the Swiss Alps is not!).
Honor of parents would be essential for the Hebrews in keeping the Torah, which is ideally passed down from parents to children (not institutions to children!). Therefore, this would be a Commandment that would only obligate the Hebrews, and not the gentiles explicitly. It is reasonable to believe that—in the crucible of Egyptian bondage—the Hebrews did honor parents, given their strong sense of tribal identity. Fittingly, their land was spared again, while Egypt was punished again for Pharaoh’s stubbornness (suggesting that nations deserve their leaders…)—this time with a plague that threatened to remove the Egyptians from their land.
It is no coincidence that the epidemic was directed against Egypt’s livestock. In those days, livestock was the principle inheritance passed down from father to son. If HaShem was giving a message that parents should be honored (regardless of what is in their will), it makes great sense that he would destroy their livestock, their wealth. It would have forced children to relate to fathers with no promise of an inheritance.
6) The 6th plague, the boils that appeared on the Egyptians’ skin, like all the plagues, was a direct punishment for Pharaoh’s obstinacy. However, it also sent a powerful message to anyone willing to consider the implications of what was happening: The nation was guilty of a sin involving the bodies of human beings—their own bodies were smitten… A sin that people imagine can be covered up—HaShem spread a symbol of their guilt over the surface of their skin… A sin whose punishment was carried out through ash, furnace soot scattered in the wind—representing a crime involving total destruction and loss… The soot would “settle like dust on all Egypt… when it falls on man or beast…”, implying a national crime in which they had buried others in the dust of the earth… Murder.
The Midrash relates that Pharaoh had the blood of the firstborn Hebrew babies collected and publicly bathed his body in it during their springtime festival… His body was now “bathed” in painful boils. The ash Moses threw into the air brings to mind a later holocaust, over 3,000 years after the first one in Egypt: millions of our people were murdered, and burned in furnaces; their bodies reduced to ash. “Do not commit murder!” HaShem thundered at Mt. Sinai. It was a repetition of one of the 7 laws given to Noaħ, obligating all mankind. In regards to this crime, the Hebrews were innocent; our bodies were spared.
7) The Vilna Gaon understands sexual immorality to be a crime between man and himself. Many otherwise religious people today commit sexual crime in the eyes of the Torah, yet consider their actions a private affair—not in any way an insult to G-d, who they believe “understands” them, and isn’t terribly bothered. They still consider themselves “good people.” The RMb"M clearly views sexual immorality as a direct crime against HaShem, and I think this view is much truer to the Torah.
Sodom and ‘Amorah are the arch-example of sexual immorality until this day (hence the word “sodomy”). The Midrash is replete with accounts of the widespread promiscuity of ancient Egypt. Sodom and ‘Amorah were destroyed by fire or lightening bolts from heaven (a reaction by G-d which seems to indicate He took it personally). This cataclysm only occurred a few hundred years before the Exodus; the memory of the event would have been strong and widespread. It is therefore not surprising that the Egyptian plague that would pave the way for the Statement “Do not commit adultery” was a frightening storm of fiery hail, hail with thunder and lightening striking the ground, or perhaps a heavy shower of flaming meteorites. Once again, the innocent Hebrews were spared. The message must have given a jolt to anyone with the heart to ponder the meaning behind this catastrophe.
8) There is a popular notion that “being a good person” is far more important than “being religious.” The truth is, however, both are problematic in G-d's eyes. There is no valid religion in the world; only HaShem’s objective Will as He gave it to Moses, just as the prophets and sages of Israel have passed it down. Likewise, there is nothing “good” or “bad” in and of itself; such terms outside of a Torah context are merely the efforts of one group to impose their own made-up belief system on others. There simply cannot be an absolute standard of ethics in the world other than G-d's. Even though it is not mentioned in the Bible, it is not a leap to conclude that a nation whose leader asked “Who is HaShem that I should obey Him” were not only idolaters, but thieves as well. (This may also be implied by HaShem’s command to the Hebrews that they drain Egypt of its wealth, upon leaving. Perhaps the Egyptians’ forwardness in giving the Hebrews all they asked for was an admission of their guilt.)
Locusts are one of the most vicious thieves of the natural world. Months of grueling field labor can be obliterated by a single swarm. The crop on which an entire community depends can be devoured in a number of hours. It is no surprise that this was the agent of punishment by HaShem, who had already commanded Noaħ and his descendants not to steal. It is fitting that HaShem sent them as an 8th plague to prepare the way for the 8th Statement, “Do not steal.” Once more, the Israelites were innocent of this crime and were spared; they continued on to hear HaShem’s Voice.
9) False testimony impairs the ability of a community to carry out civil justice—which is one of the seven fundamental Noahide Laws. False testimony about one’s neighbor is a conscious desire to cover up the truth. If truth brings light to the world, nothing darkens it like false testimony. And even though the Torah doesn’t mention it, a nation that didn’t know HaShem couldn’t have been careful in this regard—especially given its track record with the most basic human crimes: idolatry, murder, and sexual deviance. Perhaps Pharoah's unwillingness to admit the significance of the miracles he personally experienced—his denial of HaShem’s sovereignty in the face of awesome proof—was tantamount to false testimony. Measure for measure, Egypt was smitten with a plague of thick darkness. Israel, on the contrary, accepted Moses' prophecy merely on the basis of two small miracles that could be imitated by Pharaoh’s necromancers! We were spared, thank G-d.
Modern secular Israeli government, academia, and press claim the corner on understanding and relating to reality—“ha-metziut, ha-matzav kemot she-hi” ("reality" "the situation as it is"). Yet so many refuse to accept a higher reality that requires slightly more thinking and maturity than digging into a juicy non-kosher steak, driving to the beach on Shabbat, or getting carried along with friends to the nightclub. Their refusal to question their shallow paradigm in the face of the suffering of the people in this country is comparable to Pharaoh’s. Although we have evidence of HaShem's Existence and Guidance so much more convincing than Moses’ staff and hand miracles, today’s Torah-observant Jews—regardless of our faults—are so praiseworthy for our steadfast faith, like the Hebrews in Egypt. May we merit to be redeemed as they were, and may our non-observant kin awaken, and may we all return to HaShem in repentance and be redeemed as well.
10) The Torah records the terrifying climax of the 10 plagues as follows: “HaShem killed every first-born in Egypt, from the first-born of Pharaoh, sitting on his throne, to the first-born of the prisoner in the dungeon…” The Gemara asks an oft-overlooked question: Pharaoh we can understand. But the poor, miserable prisoners in the dungeon—what had they done? The answer is, like most Egyptians, they had no direct hand in the persecution. But when they heard about the drowning of the Hebrew infants, they stamped their feet in pleasure.
What could elicit such an evil reaction? Prison inmates generally feel a deep, raging hatred for the establishment that imprisoned them; they often feel a kinship with any other underdog the establishment has oppressed. Here we see just the opposite. The truth is, the Egyptians were intensely jealous of the Hebrews. Their envy was given a voice in the bitter remark from the Pharaoh of the Oppression: “The Israelites are becoming too numerous and strong for us… they may increase so much, that if there is war, they will join our enemies and fight against us, driving [us] out of the land.” This feeling must have been widespread, down to the grassroots of society, much like anti-Semitism remains to this day.
HaShem had a special punishment in store for such wicked jealousy that resulted in the massacre of innocent baby boys. It was the 10th blow that corresponded to the 10th Statement He would give to His People: that we never be jealous of our neighbor, nor covet anything he has. Just as they were envious of our beautiful children to the point of murder, HaShem took away their own dear firstborn sons.
In doing so he gave them the opportunity to overcome their envy. Envy is rooted in a feeling of inequality. One feels envy when his neighbor has something that he lacks. Therefore HaShem was careful to bereave every single Egyptian father—from Pharaoh to the lowliest prisoner in the dungeon. The Egyptians could finally learn to empathize with the plight of others—from the Hebrews whose children had been murdered, to their own brethren.
Envy is further rooted in a feeling of injustice. One feels jealous when he believes that he has less than he deserves, and his neighbor has more than is rightfully his. This is tied to lack of belief or trust in HaShem. Therefore, just as He brought the Egyptians down to pit of anguish, he openly protected and spared the children of His innocent nation—both in one awesome, terrifying miracle. Afterwards, the Egyptians could not deny that Divine justice had been done.
One thing is clear from all of this: HaShem expects human beings to open their eyes and hearts to what is happening around them and actually think. I not only wrote this essay as a Jew to fellow Jews. The Giving of the 10 Statements at Sinai was ultimately for the entire world. The entire universe, our Sages say, trembled with the piercing sound of the ram's horn. Thunder and lightning filled the skies. Then -- silence. Not a bird chirped. No creature spoke. The seas did not stir. Even the angels ceased to fly, as the voice was heard: "I am HaShem your G-d ..."
May all of us, Jews and non-Jews, be inspired to pay attention to the powerful messages HaShem sends us through the "natural" events that occur, and learn Torah honestly with humble and pure hearts, that we might understand them in the correct light. And may our inspiration be translated into action: to take HaShem's Law seriously (all of it—according to our respective Covenants at Mt. Sinai and Ararat), to make His Will our own, and to be a bright light to those who remain in darkness. And in this, may we merit to be spared from all plague and terror.
Hag Mathan Torah sameaħ—A Happy 'Giving of the Torah Holiday'!
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