The Ten Plagues form a significant part of the story of the Exodus of the Jewish people from Egypt as related in the Torah. Over the centuries, volumes of commentary have been written on this topic, addressing the following questions:
- Why ten plagues?
- Why these plagues and not others?
- Why this particular sequence of plagues?
- What was the purpose and function of the plagues?
The material on this topic is quite extensive and cannot all be considered in the format of a single essay. Here, I have confined myself to answering the question: What is the lesson that readers of the Torah in the twenty-first century can learn from what we know about the Ten Plagues?
First, we shall consider the various systems for classifying the Ten Plagues in classical Jewish sources:
1) Midrash Tanhuma compares the plagues to a military strategy:“G-d attacked them in the same way that earthly kings conduct war.” The sequence of plagues reflected the warfare tactics of the earthly kingdoms. When they besieged an enemy city, they first cut off the water supply (i.e., the plague of blood); then they frightened them with loud noisemakers (frogs); then they shoot arrows (lice); and so on with all the plagues. The plague of darkness is compared with locking prisoners in a dungeon.
2) Rabbi Abraham Ibn Ezra classifies plagues according to hierarchy defined by the initiator of each plague and the elements involved in its execution. He writes: “We can see the first three plagues were by the hand of Aaron, and were of the lower elements, as I previously explained, as two were by water, and the third was by the dust of the earth. The plagues brought on by Moses with his staff were in the higher elements, as his status was higher than Aaron’s status. For example, the plague of hail and locusts were brought by the wind, and the darkness was in the air.”
3) Maharal (Rabbi Yehudah Levai ben Bezalel of Prague) provides a number of systems for classifying the plagues.
In his book, Gevurot Ha-Shem, Maharal cites the opinion of the Mishnaic sage Rabbi Yehudah, who classified the plagues by a 3-3-4 grouping: the first three plagues (blood, frogs, and lice); the second three (wild animals, death of livestock, and boils); and the final four (hail, locusts, darkness, death of the firstborn).
Maharal provides a classification similar to the system of Ibn Ezra, emphasising that the first three plagues occurred in the lower elements, the second three in the middle elements, the final three in the higher elements.
Maharal also divides the plagues into groups according to a 3-3-3-1 sequence, as in each group the first two plagues were preceded with a warning to Pharaoh, and the third came without a warning. He also points out that in each group, the first plague was announced near the river, and the second, in Pharaoh’s palace.
Maharal also states that the Ten Plagues corresponded to the “Ten Utterances” with which God created the world.
- Rabbi Yitzhak Luria, the great Kabbalist of the 16th century, believed that each of the ten plagues came from one of the ten holy Sefirot (divine attributes) and struck the corresponding unholy kelipah (“husk” or aspect of evil).
Let us recall that sefirot are informational entities, allegorically represented by Kabbalists in the form of vessels with light, expressing the attributes of God’s relationship with His (Keter = desire, will, Chochmah = wisdom, Binah = understanding, and so on).
- Hasidism also adopted a classification of plagues according to the 3-3-3-1 sequence. The first group is associated with G-d’s declaration, “They shall know that I am the Lord” (Shemot 7:17). The second group is associated with the aim, “That you may know that I am the Lord in the midst of the earth” (Shemot 8:18).And the third group is defined by the words, “In order that you may know that there is none like Me in the entire earth.” (Shemot 9:14).
- There are also other classifications. For example, the Hasidic master Rabbi Shmuel Bornstien, author of Shem Mishmuel, classifies the plagues according to a ”seven and three” division. He explains that the first seven plagues correspond to the seven lower Sefirot, which in the Kabalistic system are referred to a the midot or the “emotional” attributes (i.e., Chesed = love and kindness; Gevurah = severity and judgement; and so on). The last three plagues, according to Shem Mishmuel correspond to to “intellectual” Sefirot of Keter, Chochmah, and Binah. The Shem Mishmuel’s classification of is, by and large, the same as the classification by Yitzhak Luria. Shem Mishmuel also notes that the Plague of Darkness came from a very high level, and explains that “darkness” represents the effusion of blinding super-intensive light.
By the Rules of War
While agreeing with all of the above classifications of the plagues, I also offer my own version.
Expanding on the Midrash Tanhuma’s classification, in my view, a divine lesson is contained in the information on the plagues, as a guide for protracted battle.
We support our theory with the following observations:
- Prior to the plagues, Moses and Aaron came to Pharaoh, and on behalf of the Almighty, demanded the release of the Jewish people. No threats to Pharaoh or the Egyptians were expressed.
Therefore, we can draw the following conclusion: before the start of any conflict, we are obliged to make a peace proposal to a potential enemy that allows to resolve the conflict without losing face.
- As the conflict escalates, the enemy suffers economic damage: these are plagues of blood, death of livestock, hail, and locusts.
- The enemy also suffers physical damage: plagues of frogs, lice, wild animals, and boils.
- Finally, the war is decided by fully demoralising the enemy (the Plague of Darkness) and weakening his will to resist (the death of the firstborn).
This needs further explanation.
The Plague of Darkness
Regarding the Plague of Darkness, we read:
“The Lord said to Moses, ‘Stretch forth your hand toward the heavens, and there will be darkness over the land of Egypt. Ve-yamesh darkness.’ So Moses stretched forth his hand toward the heavens, and there was thick darkness over the entire land of Egypt for three days. They could not see each other, and no one rose from his place for three days; but for all the children of Israel there was light in their dwellings.” (Shemot 10:21-23)
The reader will notice that there is one word in the above citation—ve-yamesh—that was not translated. The meaning of this Hebrew term is ambiguous, and we will discuss this word below.
What was the purpose of the Plague of Darkness? According to one midrashic account, a large percentage of Children of Israel did not want to leave Egypt, and God decreed that they would die in Egypt before the Exodus. The plague of darkness was necessary so the Egyptians would not witness the death of these Jews. Another reason given in the Midrash is that God wanted the Jewish people to ask the Egyptian for “gold and silver and garments” to take with them as they left Egypt (see Shemot 11:2), and the Plague of Darkness served as an opportunity for the Jews to discover where the Egyptians had hidden their wealth.
Ibn Ezra questions the first reason. He writes:“During the plagues in which Egyptians died, the Jews did not die. So during a plague (darkness) in which no Egyptian died, how could nearly all of the Jews have died, with only a few surviving? That would mean the Jews did not have light in their homes, but the darkness of disease and the pitch-black of death. Since only a small part remained from a huge nation, this would not have been redemption for the Jews, but a sick evil”.
It is also not clear why the Jews had to look for the gold and silver of the Egyptians. The Torah writes (Shemot 12:35–36), that the Lord gave favour to the Jews in the eyes of the Egyptians, and they gave gold and silver voluntarily.
In my view, the fundamental difference between the Plague of Darkness and the previous plagues is its “internal” nature. The previous eight plagues were of a more external nature, so that one might somehow, at least partially, protect oneself from them. But it was impossible to protect oneself from the Plague of Darkness. We can only imagine the feelings of a person who suddenly lost their sight and does not know whether it is temporary or permanent. This would bring about depression and a feeling of complete demoralisation. In this case, a blow is struck to the human soul’s sefirah of Chochmah, which is the highest intellectual “attribute,” as will be explained in more detail below.
How was the Plague of Darkness carried out? Here we find an interesting debate amongst the sages and commentaries.According to the midrash, there were two miracles: the darkness itself, and the supernatural light shining for the Jews. Maharal shares a similar opinion that the Plague of Darkness affected the heavenly bodies—the sun, moon, and stars. According to Rashi, there was one miracle—the darkness, which was a supranatural imposition on the natural state of things for the Egyptians, whereas the Children of Israel were only seeing natural light.
Here, in my view, it is natural to wonder, as the combination of darkness and light at one point in space is a fundamental violation of the laws of our world established by G-d Himself.
Of course, nothing is impossible for the Almighty. Yet, according to the Jewish philosophers (Saadia Gaon, Maimonides, and others)—with whom OI fully agree—G-d does not take absurd actions, unless it is absolutely necessary (for example, He would not turn a triangle into a square). Rather, even when acting in a “miraculous” manner, G-d always achieves His aims with the minimum possible violation of the laws of our world which He established.
Let’s look at the citation from the Torah again: “They could not see each other, and no one rose from his place for three days.” Ibn Ezra suggests that “no one rose” means that the Egyptians could not leave their homes because of the darkness. But this interpretation does not really fit the literal meaning of the Torah’s statement, “no one rose”
There are three possible explanations why the Egyptians would have been unable to rise during the Plague of Darkness:
- The very substance of the darkness was holding them back physically (in this case, the darkness must have been as dense as a stone).
- In addition to being blinded, their physical bodies (spinal cord, muscles, etc.) were paralysed.
- Their minds were paralysed, so that the brain is unable to give commands, abrogating both their ability to see and their ability to move.
Let’s consider these reasons one by one.
The occurrence of stone-heavy darkness and light at the same time is an absurdity and a serious violation of the laws of our world, for which there was no need.
The second reason is more likely, but in this case, the paralysed people would still have had active upper bodies and could still move their upper limbs.
In my understanding, the most likely cause of the immobility that engulfed the Egyptians was the third—a paralysis of the intellectual sefirot of the soul and, as a result, the loss of brain functions. In other words, they were in fact in a state of mind similar to comatose. These thoughts need further explanation, so let us turn to Kabbalah.
At the beginning of the previous section, in our quotation from the Torah describing the Plague of Darkness, the translation of the word ve-yamesh. This core of this word consists of Hebrew letters yud, mem, and shin. Commentators have varying opinions on the translation of this word.
Rashi believes that the letter Aleph is missing, and the root of the term used by the Torah is emesh (aleph-mem-shin), which in Hebrew means “last evening” or “last night.” From this it follows that the translation of the above quotation from the Torah is “and it will become darker than night.”
According to Midrash and Ibn Ezra, the word ve-yamesh comes from the word root mashesh (mem-mem-shin), which means “to touch.”. Hence, the translation is “and there was tangible darkness.”
Onkelos, the author of the famous translation of the Torah into Aramaic, believed that vaemesh was similar to the word yamish, “move away.” According to this, the meaning of the verse is that the darkness would linger on, and not move away (This follows Rashi’s understanding of Onkelos.)
To understand this situation, I suggest the reader take a short trip into the world of Kabbalah.
According to one of the basic books of Kabbalah, Sefer Yetzirah, creation was carried out by “thirty-two paths of Wisdom,” which consists of the 22 letters of the Hebrew alphabet and the ten sefirot corresponding to digits from 1 to 10. Both the letters and numbers are an information code. Thus, information was created (this idea was analysed in detail in my book From Infinity to Man).
No creation that possesses a self of its own can exist in the presence of the Divine Infinite (Ein Sof in the terminology of Kabbalah). Therefore, in order to allow the existence of the world as we know it, a sequence of “worlds” (i..e., realms of reality) was created with the gradual concealment of information about the Almighty—a concealment that reaches its maximum in our material world.
This process of concealment was initiated by what the Kabbalists refer to as “the tsimtsum” (literally, “contraction”). The tsimtsum is allegorically described as the creation of an “empty space,” and in fact is the Creator’s concealment of information about Himself. A finite ray of light (or ha-kav), which carried information about the entire creation, was radiated into this “empty space.” Then followed the creation of a chain of worlds.
The first was the world of Adam Kadmon, an unstructured informational world. The second was the world of Akudim, which already contained the Sefirot (divine attributes by which G-d relates to creation, and which form the very characteristics of every created thing), but at this stage, all the Sefirot were contained within the same vessel. At this point there was partial structuring. The third stage is the World of Tohu, where the structuring was enhanced and the ten Sefirot elongated in one line (see Figure 1).
Fig. 1 World of Tohu
Let us examine this in more detail. The system of ten Sefirot elongated into one line is a system with only one possible state. Such systems are extremely unstable. The entropy (or degree of disorder) of such a system tends toward zero. The instability of the World of Tohu gave rise to key cosmic-spiritual event, known in Kabbalah as the Breaking of the Vessels (Shevirat ha-Kelim). The Sefirot—which as stated earlier, as in the form of vessels containing light—shattered into many fragments, each vessel-fragment containing a spark of light (information). Since a “vessel” (concealment factors) is information about its own self, these fragments serve as an embryo for all creations with an awareness of their own self, including the evil side, as an entity’s awareness of its own self without the Almighty is evil.
Following the World of Tohu and its shattered vessels, the worlds of Correction (tikkun) were created: the world of Atziluth (emanation), the world of Beriah (creation), the world of Yetzirah (formation), and our own world of Asiyah (action). What differentiates the Tikkun worlds is that the Sefirot of which they are comprised are in the form of three lines (see Figure 2), and that each of the ten Sefirot incorporates elements of all ten. (This is in contrast to the Sefirot of the World of Tohu, which are one-dimensional, and are aligned as a single row). Thus, the number of states in these Tikkun systems tends toward infinity, and they are absolutely stable as long as there is a constant flow of light (information) from the Divine Infinity to support them. (For a more detailed treatment of these concepts, see my book From Infinity to Man.)
The attitude of the Almighty towards creation is characterised by His names. In particular, the divine name Havayah (YHWH, or yud-hey-vav-hey) refers to the entire system of the Sefirot of Atziluˆth. The letter yud denotes the sefirah of Chochmah; the first hey, the sefirah of Binah; the letter vav, the six lower sefirot; and the final hey, the sefirah of Malchuth. The name Havayah is traditionally considered to be an expression of G-d’s compassion. The divine name Elokim indicates the sefirot of Binah and Gevurah, and represents severity, judgement, and nature.
The Supernal Root of Darkness
Now to return to the Plague of Darkness.
According to Sefer Yetzirah, the Hebrew letters aleph, mem, and shin are known as mothers (imahot) and are the main letters of creation. The letter aleph corresponds to the center row of the Sefirot, and the letter mem (symbolising mayim, water) corresponds to the right row beginning with the sefirah of Chochmah. And the letter shin (symbolising aish, fire) corresponds to the left row of the sefirot, starting from the sefirah of Binah.
Accordingly, the letters aleph, mem, and shin—together forming the Hebrew word emesh—are the roots of the letters for the Name YHWH (see Sefer Yetzirah with commentary by Aryeh Kaplan). From this, we can conclude that the letters aleph, mem, and shin represent the G-d’s Name in the world of Tohu, preceding the worlds of Correction,. The meaning of the word emesh in Hebrew—previous evening” or “previous night” confirms this. “Previous” implies the preceding world—the World of Tohu, which precedes the worlds of Correction; and “evening” or “night” implies darkness, as it was in the World of Tohu, where darkness descended after the breaking of the vessels.
Thus, we may conclude that the Plague of Darkness was the influence of the Almighty on the souls of Pharaoh and the Egyptians through the letters emesh by means of darkness from the World of Tohu.
The Midrash cites the opinion of Rabbi Yehudah, who answered the question “where did the darkness come from?” as follows: “It came from above.” Maharal, in his book Gevurot Ha-Shem, offers the following explanation. He points out that the Midrash uses the word “darkness” to mean non-existence, and the word “light” to mean existence. That is, since non-existence precedes existence, darkness precedes light. This is what is called “the darkness from above.”
In Kabbalistic terminology, this can be attributed to the darkness of the World of Tohu, which preceded the light of the worlds of Correction.
To further confirm this hypothesis, let us turn to the theory of the soul developed by Rabbi Shneur Zalman of Liadi (the Alter Rebbe), the founder of the Chabad movement. He believes that a person has an animal soul that possesses ten sefirot or“garments”(three intellectual faculties and seven emotions) that derive from kelipah (unholy sources), and a divine soul, which also possesses garments deriving from the ten divine, holy Sefirot. The animal soul is focused on satisfying its own needs, its own self, and the divine soul is oriented toward the Almighty (it can be called the conscience). The root of the animal soul is in the World of Tohu (as it was there the embryos of the self were formed). The root of the divine soul is in the world of Atziluth.
According to the Kabbalah, the lower the animal soul is in our world, the higher its root is in the World of Tohu. In this case, the concept of ”lower” corresponds to a person’s negative qualities. The concept of “higher” needs explanation, as there is no concepts of space and time in the spiritual worlds as we understand them in our world. “Higher” in the spiritual worlds denotes the root location at a stronger revelation level of light (information about the Almighty). The higher the root, the greater the disclosure.
However, the greater the disclosure of light (information), the more stable the informational formation (soul) must be, so as not to fade. Paradoxically, the souls of the most notorious villains have their root at a very high level.
The impact on the souls of such people can only be made at the level of the root of their soul, in the World of Tohu, from the level of emesh (aleph-mem-shin). As the Talmud says: “Evil can be destroyed at its source.”
Let’s look at the stories of three such villains we see in the Torah.
The first is Esau, the brother of Jacob. In his book Torah Ohr, the Alter Rebbe writes: “Isaac wanted to bless Esau lifnei Havayah (‘before the Lord’)—that is, at the level preceding the name Havayah —which is the level of the World of Tohu. Isaac understood that the root of Esau’s soul was very high, and that a blessing from the worlds of Correction would not help.”
The second personality is Laban. Alter Rebbe also writes in his work that the root of the soul of Laban (in Hebrew his name means “white”) was very high in the region of higher whiteness.
In his commentary to Sefer Yetzirah, Aryeh Kaplan draws attention to the following passage from the Torah. When Laban pursued Jacob and overtook him, he said to him: “I have the power to inflict harm upon you. But the G-d of your father spoke to me last night (emesh), saying, “Beware of speaking to Jacob either good or bad!’” The Hebrew word for “last night” in this verse is emesh (aleph-mem-shin). The words appears once again in Jacob’s reply to Laban: “G-d has seen my affliction and the toil of my hands, and He reproved [you] last night (emesh)” (Bereishith 31:42). Again, we see the Almighty influencing Laban from the level represented by emesh.
The third villain is the Pharaoh. As stated in Torah Ohr: “The evil Pharaoh of kelipah corresponds to the “Pharaoh” in the world of Holiness.”This confirms the high root of the Pharaoh’s soul. It also confirms Rashi’s opinion that in the passage from the Torah about the darkness, the word ve-yamesh should be understood in the sense of emesh (“previous night”), spelled aleph-mem-shin.
- Through the information about the Ten Plagues, the Almighty has taught us a lesson about waging a protracted war: namely, first a peaceful proposal, then economic and physical damage, then demoralisation (the Plague of Darkness, impacting the sefirah of Chochmah), then suppression of the enemy’s will, and in the case of resistance, death of the firstborn (an impact on the first sefirah of Keter).
- In my view, the Plague of Darkness was carried out by influencing the intellectual sefirot of the souls of the Pharaoh and the Egyptians from the level of emesh (aleph-mem-shin), which is the name of the Almighty in the World of Tohu.
- As a result of this impact, the Egyptian consciousness was disturbed and put into a depressive state, accompanied by the loss of vision and motor functions.
- I do not claim that this version is the ultimate truth, but it does eliminate all previous contradictions and explains why the Egyptians were “in darkness” (they did not see anything, and were made immobile), while the Jews saw natural light. It is also confirmed by examples from the Torah regarding the impacts on Esau and Laban.
- The Plague of Darkness prepared the Egyptians for the final plague (the death of the firstborn).
- The final plague—the death of the firstborn—broke the will of the Pharaoh to resist by influencing the first sefirah of Keter (will, desire). This was carried out from an even higher level than the Plague of Darkness. With the help of G-d, I will write about this in my next article, The Great Night.