Strangely, the 10 devastating plagues that paved the way for the Israelites’ exodus from Egypt — the ones that crushed the might of Egypt, quelled the stubbornness of Pharaoh, and overcame his divinely hardened heart — have become the delight of Jewish children the world over.
I know. You’re surely recalling the mathematical feats wrangled by the sages in the haggadah to demonstrate how powerful those plagues were — the finger of God leading to the hand of God, and the 10 plagues becoming 50, 200, 250, by the time the account brings the Israelites to the bank of the Red Sea.
If the biblical text left you unsure, the haggadah makes it clear that the plagues were no joke.
And yet. The plagues have become fun and games and distractions for children (and bored adults) on Passover night.
There is something about the plagues that captures the imagination. There is something about them, at least before you think too long and hard about what they were, that pulls kids in. My 8-year-old son (he’ll tell you he’s going on 9) has been able to recite all 10 plagues for five or six years — he was that taken with them (the fact that his haggadah has a full double-page spread on each of the plagues doesn’t hurt). Another young ‘un (now grown) used to do math via the plagues. That is, instead of 9 – 2 = 7, he’d say: חושך (darkness) minus צפרדע (frogs) = ברד (hail). Really, are adults as adept?
Of course, the seder of Passover night is designed to engage children. So much of the ritual is explained as something that will engender children’s curiosity, to get them to ask questions about the seder itself, and the story of the exodus from Egypt that rallies Jewish attention to God’s forging of the Jewish people, and makes those same children links in the chain of Jewish heritage. Surely, the frog song (you know it), as an example, is just another way of attracting the children’s attention.
I might have thought, however, that the Jewish community would have a culture of not talking about the plagues when children are around. Indeed, when my plague-listing son was a tot, everyone (myself included) avoided spelling out “the slaying of the first born” for him and his peers. I remember my worry that he would parse the last of the list and realize that he himself is a first-born. Instead of making toys and puppets and masks, maybe we should rate the plagues “not safe for kids.”
That is, for all that the plagues can be made to be picturesque, this week’s parsha makes it clear that they were anything but.
Looking only at the Torah’s description of what happened, and not at God’s presentation of the plague to Moses, or Moses’ version to Pharaoh, lest either be dismissed as scare tactics, consider the first plague, blood:
…all the water in the Nile was turned into blood and the fish in the Nile died. The Nile stank so that the Egyptians could not drink water from the Nile; and there was blood throughout the land of Egypt…. And all the Egyptians had to dig around near the Nile for drinking water, because they could not drink the water of the Nile” (Exodus 7:20-21, 24).
The Torah doesn’t mince words. Replacing fresh water with blood not only destroys the important potable beverage, but also kills the fish, and makes it impossible to get clean. The very idea of the stench is stomach-turning.
The Egyptians had seven days of that experience (so says R. Avraham ibn Ezra on verse 25), according to the plain sense of the biblical text. And then came the frogs — as ubiquitous during the plague as the kids’ song recalls.
The Nile shall swarm with frogs, and they shall come up and enter your palace, your bedchamber and your bed, the houses of your courtiers and your people, and your ovens and your kneading bowls. The frogs shall come up on you and on your people and on all your courtiers’” (Exodus 7:28-29).
Hadn’t the Egyptian people suffered enough?! A week of blood and its grime and odor — impossible to feel clean, is my guess — and just when they thought it was safe to go back in the water… The water is swarming with frogs.
The frogs of the kids’ songs and the seder activities and the memes are usually pretty cute. But “cute” would not have convinced Pharaoh (even given the need for another eight plagues) to free his slaves. So imagine the slime and smells and noise of hordes upon hordes of ribbiting frogs.
Each one of the plagues carried with it real suffering for the people who were subject to it. The “ick” factor was high. Getting out from under the plague was not an option. The dread that comes with not knowing what is happening must have been paramount (few were actually in Pharaoh’s throne room to hear Moses’ messages, after all). The open questions of how long each would last and whether the changes they wrought would be lasting, eventually followed (I presume) by the even scarier question of what would be next, surely increased the level of tension among the people towards their breaking point, even as Pharaoh held fast (he did have God’s help to keep his heart hard).
And then they got worse.
There are a lot of commentaries and thinkers who address the whys and wherefores of the plagues — why did God bring them at all, why these specific plagues, and why in this order. The “midah k’neged midah” factor is welcome (to wit, Pharaoh decreed that the boy babies would perish in the Nile, so the Nile literally ran with blood, as noted by Dr. Yael Ziegler (with Dr. Yosefa Wruble, on Matan’s One-on-One parsha podcast)). The very tangible statement to a pagan culture that God is the only God by making a mockery of the Egyptian gods is theologically powerful (for example, the goddess of fertility was represented by a frog, and mocked with the mass multiplicity of frogs, as wrought by God). Many such assessments of the plagues make it clear that God began with the relatively “light” blights, and that they increased in power and harm. The shift from personal inconvenience and even disgust to fear for one’s bodily safety, and finally the terror of the death that came to every house is a vivid demonstration of escalation. If you don’t believe Me now, indicates God, I’ll keep going until you do. And He did.
The last plague (in next week’s parsha), the slaying of the first born, made it clear to all that God, and God alone, was running the show. It is the final offensive against a pantheon of gods that included the kings of ancient Egypt — only God controls life and death. The entire land, and the neighboring ones too, had ringside seats to God’s wrath and greatness, to the fact that God was God. Perhaps it was Pharaoh’s recognition of that Authority that stopped God from hardening his heart again (or maybe 10 had always been the plan). And finally, the Egyptian king let his slave labor force depart the country.
The general populace surely had some clean-up to do. Some hidey-holes to emerge from. Some trauma to recover from. The experience of the 10 plagues could not have been incidental for them. (Consider the challenges of a global pandemic in the modern era — when, at least for most, water was readily accessible, food was largely unharmed, and technology kept people informed, connected, and entertained. And still it was a hard time even for those who didn’t suffer more).
Perhaps the awfulness of the plagues, which this parsha makes clear (and which Jews honor in diminishing their cups of wine at the seder when reciting the plagues) prompts the childish excitement in listing them off, the finger puppets and masks for drama at a seder. Maybe it’s easier to remember the plagues when we are lighthearted in our recall of them. Could the famous contemporary Israeli black humor be at work in our grappling with the experience that set the Israelites free?
Israelis have another fun song for seder night — about Pharaoh in his pajamas in the middle of the night, drawing a direct link from Pharaoh to the redemption that came in the middle of the night. It was the middle of the night when Pharaoh called for Moses and Aaron to take their Israelites and get out; he had just lost his son in the final plague. There’s nothing lighthearted about that experience, but the song is upbeat, and the words are playful. It reframes the tense time in Egypt and gives its singers (or listeners) the leeway to think of the plagues not for the suffering they caused Egypt, but for the delight of the Israelites in the exodus, in God’s use of power to heed their own cry of suffering, and His care for them. For the Jews who read and retell the story, rendering the plagues as entertainment, whether cute or funny or comical, goes far in removing the oppressive nature of the account of the plagues. Looking past the pain of the oppressor may be just what is needed to appreciate the fullness of the joy of redemption.