“Big Data” Parashat Vaera 5778

One of the biggest buzz-words of modern computing is “Big Data”. Today’s computers have processing power that was unimaginable even a decade ago. “Big Data” is the science of using these powerful computers to crunch huge chunks of data in order to reveal all sorts of interesting patterns in the data.

The Torah was written long before “Big Data”, when ten was still considered a big number. And so it is interesting to look at how the commentators break down the Ten Plagues to find “interesting patterns”. Most of us are familiar with Detz”achAd”ashBeAch”av, in which the plagues are broken down into three subsets: the first triad, the second triad, and the last four plagues. Rav Samson Rafael Hirsch divides the plagues depth-wise[1] and uncovers some truly stunning patterns. This week we’re going to look at a way of dividing the Ten Plagues into two subsets. One subset we label “active plagues” and the other we label “passive plagues”. In our terminology active plagues are brought on by a physical action performed by Moshe or Aharon while passive plagues occur without any human intervention. An example of an “active plague” is the plague of blood in which Aharon is told [Shemot 7:19] “Take your staff and stretch forth your hand over the waters of Egypt, over their rivers, over their canals, over their ponds, and over all their bodies of water, and they will become blood…” Other active plagues include frogs, lice, boils, hail, locusts, and darkness[2]. The remaining plagues are passive plagues.

We can decompose the active plagues even further. All of the active plagues but one are performed by Moshe or Aharon waving Moshe’s staff. The plague of boils is the only plague in which an article other than a staff is used to bring a plague [Shemot 9:8-9]: “Take yourselves handfuls of furnace soot and Moshe shall cast it heavenward before Pharaoh’s eyes. It will become dust upon the entire land of Egypt and it will become boils, breaking out into blisters upon man and upon beast throughout the entire land of Egypt”. Why is this plague different from all other plagues? Further, it is no small feat to throw soot skywards. Soot has a very low “ballistic coefficient”. An object’s ballistic coefficient (BC) determines how well that object will travel in a straight line after it has been thrown. Without getting into the math[3], an object’s BC is proportional to its weight and inversely proportional to its air resistance. The more an object weighs, the more inertia it has and the more it tends to keep moving forward. Conversely, the more air resistance an object has the more it wants to diverge from a straight line. A tractor-trailer has a high BC while a feather has a low BC. Getting back to the plague of boils, soot has an extremely low BC. You can’t “throw” soot – as soon as it leaves your hand it begins to disperse. It seems that Moshe was being given an impossible task. Indeed, Rashi, quoting from the Midrash, comments that “there are many miracles [in the onset of plague of boils]… [one of these miracles was] that the dust went over the entire land of Egypt”. What was the point of the exercise?

When Rashi quotes from the Midrash, it’s always a good idea to go to the source[4]. Here is a direct quote from Rashi’s source in the Midrash Raba: “Hashem performed a great miracle. A person shoots an arrow and it will not travel more than one hundred cubits (fifty metres) and yet Moshe threw a handful of soot skywards and it reached the Throne of Glory”. Excuse me? What does the Throne of Glory have to do with anything? If we look at the Mechilta[5], things get even wackier: “If the soot that Moshe threw, which does not naturally disperse, covered a distance of a forty-day trek, how much more so [can] sound [travel]”. What sound? There is a recurring motif here of sound or prayers reaching the Divine Throne. What does this have to do with the plague of boils?

To answer the above questions, we ask another, seemingly unrelated, question: Who suffered from the Ten Plagues? Was it only the Egyptians who felt the shock and awe or were Am Yisrael also affected? The Torah explicitly states that the Jews were exempt from some of the plagues. For instance, in the plague of arov Hashem says [Shemot 8:18] “I will separate on that day the land of Goshen, upon which My people stand, that there will be no arov there”. Similarly, in the plague of pestilence Moshe warns Pharaoh [Shemot 9:4] “Hashem will make a separation between the livestock of Israel and the livestock of Egypt, and nothing of the children of Israel will die.” Similar distinctions are explicitly mentioned in the plagues of hail, darkness, and the killing of the first-born. What about the other plagues? There are three major schools of thought: one posits that the Jews were affected only by the first three plagues, one posits that they were not affected by any of the plagues, and the Ibn Ezra[6] posits that Am Yisrael suffered along with the Egyptians unless the Torah explicitly mentions that they did not. He teaches that Am Yisrael were hit by the first three plagues along with the Egyptians and only then did Hashem begin differentiating between the two nations. After the third plague, Am Yisrael are exempt from all the rest of the plagues but two: boils and locusts. As Am Yisrael did not own any crops, they were not adversely effected by the locusts. That leaves boils. And so we ask again: Why is this plague different from all other plagues?

The answer lies in understanding that the plagues served a two-fold purpose. One of the purposes was to punish the Egyptians for the brutality with which they treated Am Yisrael. The other purpose was to prepare Am Yisrael for the exodus. They had been enslaved for so long that they had long since forgotten Hashem. Before they could leave Egypt they had to be moulded into a nation that could receive the Torah on Sinai and to this end they had to take a crash-course in understanding the ways of Hashem. The plague of boils accomplished this in two ways:

  1. The trajectory leading to the exodus begins when Hashem first “pays attention” to the cries of Am Yisrael [Shemot 2:23-25] “The Children of Israel cried out from their bondage… Hashem heard their groaning and He remembered His covenant… Hashem saw the Children of Israel and He took cognizance of them”. Only then does Hashem call Moshe into action. Am Yisrael, however, have no idea that they have merited Hashem’s attention because of their cries. The plague of boils teaches Am Yisrael that their path to redemption was and would always be blazed with the power of prayer. Hashem will respond to our prayers but only if we cry out. If a handful of soot can cover an entire country, then the sound of our prayers can surely reach Hashem.
  2. From the moment that Hashem begins to dismantle Egypt piece by piece, Am Yisrael’s situation steadily improves: After suffering with the Egyptians through three plagues, they are given a respite. And then suddenly, after two plagues from which they were immune, Am Yisrael receive a setback and they once again suffer from the effects of a plague. What is happening? Have we done something wrong? The plague of boils teaches them that the way back to Hashem is never monotonic – it is replete with ups and downs. King Solomon writes in the Book of Parables [24:16] “A righteous man will fall seven times and rise”. A person can be redeemed only if he knows how to fall seven times and yet still retain the courage and the strength to get back into the saddle.

One more thing the plague of boils can teach us: “Big Data” algorithms can be successfully implemented on sets of only ten members, but only if the set is part of the infinite Torah.

ere’s

Shabbat Shalom,

Ari Sacher, Moreshet, 5778

Please daven for a Refu’a Shelema for Yechiel ben Shprintza and Tzvi ben Freida.

[1] Plagues 1-4-7, Plagues 2-5-8, and Plagues 3-6-9. Plague 10 is stand-alone.

[2] Plagues 1-3 and 6-9 are active while plagues 4,5,10 are passive.

[3] BC = , where M is the object’s mass, CD is its coefficient of drag, and A is its cross-section.

[4] As we saw in a recent shiur (Vayechi 5778), sometimes Rashi will slightly alter the words of the Midrash in order to teach a valuable lesson.

[5] The Mechilta is a much earlier Midrash than the Midrash Raba.

[6] In his commentary on Shemot [7:24].

About the Author
Ari Sacher is a Rocket Scientist, and has worked in the design and development of missiles for over twenty-five years. He has briefed hundreds of US Congressmen on Israeli Missile Defense, including three briefings on Capitol Hill at the invitation of House Majority Leader. Ari is a highly requested speaker, enabling even the layman to understand the "rocket science", and his speaking events are regularly sold-out. Ari has also been a scholar in residence in numerous synagogues in the USA and Canada. He is a riveting speaker, using his experience in the defense industry to explain the Torah in a way that is simultaneously enlightening and entertaining. Ari came on aliya from the USA in 1982. He studied at Yeshivat Kerem B’Yavneh, and then spent seven years studying at the Technion. Since 2001 he has published a weekly parasha shiur that is read around the world. Ari lives in Moreshet in the Western Galil along with his wife and eight children.
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