Yoni Mozeson
FInding God's hiding places

God sends out both blatant and concealed messages simultaneously

The Torah clearly states that the ten plagues were designed for multiple audiences to recognize God’s power and primacy. However the Midrash uncovers some hidden messages. Moshe is told that the redemption from Egypt will send a powerful lesson to all of Egypt: 

וְיָדְע֤וּ מִצְרַ֙יִם֙ כִּֽי־אֲנִ֣י “And the Egyptians shall know that I am God’ (Parshat Shemot, 7:5). God stated that Pharaoh should know that כִּ֛י אֵ֥ין כָּמֹ֖נִי בְּכׇל־הָאָֽרֶץthere is no God like me in all the land” (Ibid, 9:14). Moshe is further instructed to tell Pharaoh that: וּלְמַ֛עַן סַפֵּ֥ר שְׁמִ֖י בְּכׇל־הָאָֽרֶץ  And my fame may resound throughout the world” (Ibid, 9:16). Right before the plague of בָּרָד֙ hail, Moshe Tells Pharaoh yet another reason for the plagues: לְמַ֣עַן תֵּדַ֔ע כִּ֥י לַיהֹוָ֖ה הָאָֽרֶץ “That you may know that the earth belongs to God” (Ibid 29). Of course, it is also critical that the Israelites have a message to pass down to their children and grandchildren:  וּלְמַ֡עַן תְּסַפֵּר֩ בְּאׇזְנֵ֨י בִנְךָ֜ וּבֶן־בִּנְךָ֗ אֵ֣ת אֲשֶׁ֤ר הִתְעַלַּ֙לְתִּי֙ בְּמִצְרַ֔יִם וְאֶת־אֹתֹתַ֖י אֲשֶׁר־שַׂ֣מְתִּי בָ֑ם וִֽידַעְתֶּ֖ם כִּי־אֲנִ֥י הֹ’׃ And that you may recount to the ears of your child and of your child’s child how I made a mockery of the Egyptians and how I displayed My signs among them—in order that you may know that I am God”(Ibid, 10:2).

Divine retribution. Divine inspiration

While the Torah gives no hint of it, the Midrash says that each of the plagues represented God’s divine attribute of punishing the Egyptians (מִדָּה כְּנֶגֶד מִדָּה) measure for measure. Therefore, each plague had to enable the Egyptians to experience the exact nature of the hardship they inflicted on the Israelites. This would give the Egyptians a chance to learn from their punishment and change their ways.

According to the Midrash, the first plague of blood was related to menstrual blood. The Egyptians prevented Jewish women from ritually immersing after they finished menstruating. This, in turn, prevented a husband and wife from having marital relations. Besides a cruel disruption of family life, the Egyptians intended it as a form of forced birth control (Midrash Tanchuma Vaera, 14:3). The Nile might have been a prime location for ritual immersion. (That’s where the daughter of Pharaoh performed her ritual immersion when she converted to Judaism, just as Moshe was floating up the river Talmud Sotah, 12B.)

The Nile was chosen for the first plague because it was an Egyptian deity (Midrash Tanchuma Vaera, 13:1). Many historians claim that the Nile was a god of fertility. If so,  then it is yet another aspect of God’s “measure for measure” punishment. Just as the Egyptians disrupted marital relations among the Jews, God disrupted the Egyptians entire way of life. According to the Midrash it wasn’t just the Nile that turned to blood but rather all water in Egypt. So no Egyptian could have a drink of water, wash their clothes or take a bath ((Midrash Tanchuma Vaera, 13:2).

Understanding the humiliation 

The next seven plagues were also meted out measure for measure. Each plague was a reflection of the abuse and degradation the Jews experienced. 

According to the Midrash, the Jews were forced to collect repulsive reptiles, so in the second plague, Egypt was overwhelmed with frogs and rotting piles of dead frogs. The Egyptians humiliated the Jews by forcing them to needlessly sweep dirt from the streets and markets. The third plague turned that dirt into lice. The Jews were put in mortal danger by being forced to fetch wild animals. (Some commentaries saw this as a public show where Jews were forced to fight wild animals). Therefore, in the fourth plague, Egypt was overrun by wild animals. The Jews were forced to graze the livestock of Egyptians on far away hills and deserts to keep them separated from their wives. In the fifth plague, pestilence killed off the Egyptian livestock. The Jews were forced to pamper the bodies of the Egyptians with special ointments. In the sixth plague, the skin of the Egyptians was plagued with boils from which nothing could soothe the pain. The Jews were forced to plant gardens, trees, and vineyards. All were destroyed by the seventh plague of hail (Ibid 14, 5-10).

Perhaps, on another level, it was healing for the Israelites to see that God was giving the Egyptians a taste of their own medicine. It was certainly a great source of faith in God for the Israelites to witness a major world power brought to their knees. On a deeper level, the Egyptians and the Jews were introduced to a God who is sensitive to emotional pain and punishes those who inflict pain, measure for measure. This was a chance for the Egyptians to see the flaws in their gods and the unique moral standard of the Jewish God. 

Turning a staff into a snake – Another miracle with layers of meaning

According to the Midrash, one of the reasons God turned Moshe’s staff into a snake was to alert Moshe to expect treachery in his dealing with Pharaoh. Sure enough Pharaoh double crosses Moshe. Not only did Pharaoh refuse to recognize God, he issued the harsh edict that the Jews had to now gather straw while maintaining their quota of bricks. Pharaoh’s intention was to drive a wedge between Moshe and the Jewish People, and it worked. The Jews accuse Moshe of making things worse for them. Perhaps it was also designed to sow discord between Moshe and God. That also worked. Moshe challenged God about why his rescue mission resulted in a worse situation for the Jews.

Lessons learned. Lessons ignored 

Pharaoh too was sent a strong message that seems to have been tailor made for him. After all the snakes turned back into staffs, Aaron’s staff swallowed all the other staffs. Unlike a snake which shows a bulging stomach after consuming a large meal, Aaron’s staff looked exactly the same after swallowing dozens of Egyptian staffs. According to the Midrash, Pharaoh seems to have gotten the message when he said :אִם יֹאמַר לַמַּטֶּה בְּלַע לְפַרְעֹה וּלְכִסְאוֹ, הוּא בּוֹלֵע “if you told that staff to swallow Pharaoh and his throne, it would” (Ibid, 3:2). What might have made this sight particularly unsettling for Pharaoh is that a stick swallowing multiple snakes hearkened back to the most disturbing part of Pharaoh’s own dreams.  

וַתֹּאכַ֣לְנָה הַפָּר֗וֹת רָע֤וֹת הַמַּרְאֶה֙ וְדַקֹּ֣ת הַבָּשָׂ֔ר אֵ֚ת שֶׁ֣בַע הַפָּר֔וֹת יְפֹ֥ת הַמַּרְאֶ֖ה וְהַבְּרִיאֹ֑ת וַיִּיקַ֖ץ פַּרְעֹֽה׃  “And the ugly, gaunt, cows ate up the seven handsome sturdy cows. And Pharaoh awoke” (Bereishis, 41:4).

Although Pharaoh seems to have gotten the message it did not seem to change his behavior in the least.

The staff had Pharaoh pegged

The Midrash provides two more reasons why the staff and snake were appropriate symbols for Pharaoh. It seems that Pharaoh bragged about his intention to kill Moshe, however, in Moshe’s presence he became as silent as a piece of wood (Ibid). Furthermore, the snake signified the way the brutal Egyptian regime murdered anyone they wanted to with impunity:: מַה הַנָּחָשׁ מְלַחֵשׁ וְהוֹרֵג, אַף הַמַּלְכוּת מְלַחֶשֶׁת וְהוֹרֶגֶת אֶת הָאָדָם. הוּא נָתוּן בְּבֵית הָאֲסוּרִין, מְלַחֵשׁ עָלָיו וְהוֹרְגוֹ.  Just as the serpent hisses and kills, so the kingdom of Egypt hisses and kills a man. He would imprison a man, accuse him in secret, and surreptitiously execute him” (Ibid, 4:1).

Plague therapy

For the Jews, seeing their suffering, being addressed with such moral precision deepened their appreciation and love for God. No wonder our suffering in Egypt became a springboard to the sensitivities we are commanded to display to the disenfranchised. Namely, the “stranger” (often referring to the convert), the orphan and the widow. In the 24th chapter of Devarim, for example, the Torah mentions twice וְזָכַרְתָּ֞֗ כִּ֣י־עֶ֤֥בֶד הָיִ֣֙יתָ֙ ׀ בְּאֶ֣רֶץ מִצְרַ֔֗יִם “and remember that you were once slaves in Egypt.”  The context is leaving over from the bounty of the fields and vineyards for the convert, orphan and widow. As well as being especially vigilant to uphold their rights in a court of law. 

Seeing how the ten plagues and Moshe’s staff were embedded with multiple meanings gives us a glimpse into the way God runs the world. Hopefully it will affect us as much as it affected one of the greatest idolaters in the Torah to convert to Judaism.

The Chatam Sofer (Rav of Pressburg, Germany and founder of the Pressburg Yeshiva -1762–1839),) said that this is precisely what Yitro meant when he declared
 עַתָּ֣ה יָדַ֔עְתִּי כִּֽי־גָד֥וֹל ה’ מִכָּל־הָאֱלֹקים כִּ֣י בַדָּבָ֔ר אֲשֶׁ֥ר זָד֖וּ עֲלֵיהֶֽם ׃  Now I know that God is greater than all gods.”(Exodus 18:11). Yitro was deeply moved by the ten plagues. It was not their power and grandeur, rather because the Egyptians were punished measure for measure in a way that made them aware that their punishments fit their crimes. (Chatam Sofer Parshat Yitro).

About the Author
(Almost 100 Midrash Video summaries can be found on my youtube playlist: After college and Semicha at Yeshiva University my first pulpit was Ogilvy where I wrote TV commercials for brands like American Express, Huggies and Duracell. My passion is Midrash Tanchuma. I am an Architect of Elegant Marketing Solutions at We are living in (where else) the Nachlaot neighborhood of Jerusalem.
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