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Dvar Torah delivered by Mike Garmise, Shabbat, 6th Shvat 5776, 16th January 2016
While discussing today’s parsha, I was asked: If the plagues are supposed to be getting worse, how is number nine, darkness, worse than number one, blood? Without water you can’t live. Without light, you can’t move around. What’s so terrible about that?
And that’s not the only question that arises about the ten plagues. We will not deal with the perpetual question of free will and God hardening Pharaoh’s heart or the question of collective punishment for all of Egypt. But what about the question of why not just bring out the heavy artillery and kill the first-born as the first and last plague. And the overriding question: what is the purpose of the plagues in general?
I saw an explanation about the final three plagues that we read in today’s parsha – locusts, darkness and death of the first-born – that brought to mind a possible answer to some of the questions.
According to Rabbi Ari Kahn, what we have in today’s parsha is no less than a battle between deities, between the God of Israel and the gods of Egypt. This brings to mind the sentence that appears several times in various forms – “And I shall bring down justice on all the gods of Egypt.” The sequence of makot, plagues, was intended to free the Israelites in more ways than one.
Let’s start with the blood and frogs. The Nile was more than a river to the Egyptians. It was a god. It was what ensured fertility of the fields and a relatively secure agricultural life. Unlike Canaan, in Egypt rain was no problem – they had the Nile. This, then, was the first Egyptian deity to be attacked and defeated. Their precious, holy Nile was not able to withstand the hand of the Lord. Their fields, protected by their gods and the Nile, became easy prey. Pharaoh, as a living god, was also being battered. Next it was the air they breathed. Boils and pestilence were the airborne weapons harnessed by this omnipotent God of the Hebrews.
But the strongest god in the pantheon of Egyptian deities, was Raa, the sun god. And what do we see in the eighth plague, locusts, which opens our parsha and also marks an important turning point in the relationship between Moshe and the Egyptian court? We see that Pharaoh’s servants or advisers or magicians or henchmen speak their minds to Pharaoh! This is a breach not only of etiquette but of sovereign rule. Nobody tells the Pharaoh what to do if he doesn’t ask. Yet here they do. And Pharaoh listens, and calls back Moshe and Aharon to tell them: You can go, and, by the way, who of you are going?
Is this question just a ploy to save face, to be able to say that I forced them to cut down their demands, or is it more? Rabbi Kahn thinks it is much more. It is no less than the beginning of the final battle between Raa, the sun god, and the Lord of the Hebrews. What in this plague made Pharaoh acquiesce to his servants’ pleas? The locusts would come in a cloud that would cover the sky and the sun, and then cover the earth so completely that the sun would be useless. This was a threat to the dominion of Raa, the sun god. If defeated, Pharaoh would have recourse to no higher power. And that’s why he at first agreed to talk to Moshe. But his arrogance and belief in his way of life were too deeply engrained to allow him to capitulate.
Proof? One semantic allusion, which we can miss or misread with ease. Pharaoh says to Moshe: יהי כן ה’ עמכם כאשר אשלח אתכם ואת טפכם ראו כי רעה נגד פניכם.
The simple translation is: “God will really have to be with you (that’ll be the day) when I send you out with your children. See the RA’AH the BAD that will come to you, the evil, bad events, bad luck.” But now think of it in other terms: “Look, he is saying, RAA is against you. In other words, you’re threatening ME? I’m threatening YOU with the power of my god.”
So, after the locusts come and do their worst, plague nine follows: darkness. Darkness, even pitch black suffocating paralyzing darkness, may not be worse than finding blood where water should be, but as a blow to the sun god – this is the ultimate knock-out. Raa is demolished. And to top it off, the first-born are then killed at midnight, when Raa is asleep and unable to defend them.
This explanation fulfills the justice to the gods that God has promised, and also provides another clarification for what these plagues are about. When God introduced himself to Moshe in the parsha two weeks ago, he kept saying אני ה’. I am God. Four times in two sentences. This is first an introduction, then a statement, then a purpose. I will bring these plagues onto Egypt so that they know who is God. (Disproportional force).
But it’s not a power struggle to see which will be the last god standing. With each plague, with each manifestation of the power of their Lord over the gods of Egypt, the ties that have bound the Israelites loosen. They see that if they leave Egypt they will not be left on their own, that the gods of Egypt have no sway over their God, that they will be saved and safe.
This war of the gods is still going on. Its latest incarnation is ISIS. A thousand years ago it was the Crusades. In Israel we have our own mini-war going on, not between gods, but between ideologies, where those who purportedly speak in the name of God sometimes don pretty vicious vestments.
We, the whole world, are going through a rough patch now which doesn’t seem inclined to settle down in the near future. What with political upheavals, acts of terror, natural disasters and either naïveté or stupidity on the part of many leaders of the world, we have to hope and pray that our supreme leader is still looking out for us from wherever she is hiding.