Ari Sacher

“The Two Plagues” Parashat Vaera 5782

My favourite part of the Pesach Seder is the reciting of the ten plagues. For each plague, a drop of wine is spilt out of the goblet and after the tenth plague everyone around the Seder table noisily sucks the last drop of wine off of their fingers. The Haggadah then proceeds to subdivide the plagues into three classes and for each class another drop of wine is spilt from the cup and, again, the last drop is sucked from the finger. Imagine what this ceremony would have looked like had there been only two plagues, leaving only two drops of wine to lick off of our fingers. And to think that this nearly happened.

Let me explain. When we read the story of the Egyptian exodus, we have an advantage over the people that actually participated in the exodus: We know what is going to happen. We know that there will be ten plagues and that after the tenth plague, the killing of the first born, the Jewish People will leave Egypt. But the Jews who were enslaved in Egypt, including their leader, Moshe, had absolutely no idea what was going to happen next. G-d tells Moshe [Shemot 3:20] “I will stretch out My hand and smite Egypt with various wonders which I will work upon them; after that [Pharaoh] shall let you go”. No indication is given regarding the substance of the “various wonders”, whether there would be a series of discrete plagues or, perhaps, one continuous plague like an extended drought that would gradually break Pharaoh’s will. And even if G-d had planned on smiting the Egyptians with a series of plagues, He does not tell Moshe how many plagues there will be. Only before the tenth plague does G-d tell him [Shemot 11:1] “I will bring but one more plague upon Pharaoh and upon Egypt; after that he shall let you go from here”. Until then, Moshe was in the dark.

This intrinsic uncertainty makes Moshe’s behaviour during the second plague, the plague of frogs, seem highly questionable. This plague was devastating. As opposed to the plague of blood, in which Pharaoh shrugs and goes home, this time he calls Moshe to the Royal Palace and begs [Shemot 8:4] “Plead with G-d to remove the frogs from me and my people, and I will let the people go”. Moshe teases Pharaoh, challenging him to choose the time of his liking for the plague to end. Moshe then [Shemot 8:8] “cries out” to G-d, Who causes the frogs to drop dead, creating an ecological disaster. Why does Moshe surrender to Pharaoh’s plea to stop the plague? For all we know, had Moshe denied his request, Pharaoh might have caved in and set the Jews free after only two plagues. Even better, the plague of frogs would have been a fitting send-off from Egypt: The verb “to raise (la’alot)” appears no less than five times during the course of the plague. This would have been the perfect lead-in to an Exodus that returned the Jewish People to their national home in Israel. The Talmud in Tractate Kiddushin [69b] teaches that “The Land of Israel is higher than all the other lands” such that when a person travels to Israel, he “rises”. Today, a person who immigrates to Israel has gone on “aliya” – “elevation”. And yet, Moshe squanders this poetic opportunity and cries out to G-d to stop the plague. The frogs die and Pharaoh changes his mind, leading to more plagues. Nevertheless, it is clear that Moshe’s decision to pray for Pharaoh was the correct one. The Talmud in Tractate Shabbat [87a] enumerates three things that Moshe did based on his own perception and G-d agreed with him[1]. Praying to stop the plague of frogs does not appear on this list, meaning that G-d had always wanted Moshe to pray. He had no intention of smiting the Egyptians with only two plagues.

The plague of frogs is not the only plague in which Pharaoh asks Moshe to intercede. During the fourth plague of the swarm (arov), Pharaoh asks Moshe to plead for him, a request that Moshe immediately fulfils. After G-d sends a massive ice-and-fire hailstorm in the seventh plague, Pharaoh once again begs Moshe to intercede, which he does, and the plague abates. Why does Moshe intercede time and time again? Surely he must have known that Pharaoh had no intention of releasing his Jewish slaves. What was the point?

My son, Rav Amichai Sacher, has an interesting way of looking at the ten plagues. According to him, the original plan was to skip directly to the tenth plague, the killing of the first born, and then to leave Egypt. Indeed, as Moshe prepares to meet Pharaoh for the first time, G-d instructs him to tell Pharaoh [Shemot 4:22-23] “Thus says G-d: Israel is My first-born son. I have said to you, ‘Let My son go, that he may worship Me,’ yet you refuse to let him go. Now I will slay your first-born son.” Moshe goes to Pharaoh and tells him [Shemot 5:1] “Thus says G-d, the God of Israel: Let My people go that they may celebrate a festival for Me in the wilderness.” Pharaoh replies [Shemot 5:2] “Who is ‘G-d’ that I should heed Him and let Israel go? I do not know of this ‘G-d’, nor will I let Israel go.” Pharaoh’s response changes everything. It was not enough for Pharaoh to free his Jewish slaves. Pharaoh needed to become fully acquainted with “G-d”. Proof for Amichai’s hypothesis can be found in a verse in which G-d prepares to smite Egypt with the first plague [Shemot 7:5]: “The Egyptians shall know that I am G-d, when I stretch out My hand over Egypt and bring out the Israelites from their midst”. Why was it so important that Pharaoh know that “I am G-d”?

To address this question, we must first understand what “G-d” is. G-d has a number of names, with each name denoting a different Divine Attribute[2]. For instance, the name “E-lokim” denotes G-d’s mastery over nature, the Supreme Being that created the universe and the laws of nature that guide it. The Tetragrammaton, spelled Y-K-V-K, refers to G-d’s infinite existence outside of nature and unbound by its laws. This is the “G-d” with which Pharaoh was not acquainted. While Pharaoh could comprehend a G-d that stood behind nature, he could not internalize a G-d that stood above nature. The plagues would continue unabated until he could.

Why was it so important to teach this lesson to Pharaoh? After all, Pharaoh was destined to die along with the rest of his army at the Reed Sea[3]. The reason is that Pharaoh, as King of Egypt, had absolute control over his Jewish slaves. He held their very lives in his hand. As far as they were concerned, he was an omnipotent god. They would never be able to accept G-d as their god if He defeated Pharaoh by points and not by a knockout. G-d’s victory had to be qualitative and not quantitative. Otherwise, the Jewish People would live in fear that eventually someone else would come along and defeat Him. G-d needed to Pharaoh to overtly admit that G-d was not bound by the same physical laws that bounded him, that mortal man could never take on the Divine.

When Pharaoh asks Moshe to pray for the plague of frogs to end, Moshe understands that this is clearly a delaying tactic. Pharaoh is unswayed and so there is no reason to continue this plague. Why not pray? But as the plagues continue, Pharaoh begins to realize what he is up against. After the plague of the swarm, he calls Moshe and tells him [Shemot 8:21] “Go and sacrifice to your god within the land”, referring to G-d as “E-lokim”. Four plagues later, when Moshe predicts an imminent swarm of locusts, Pharaoh takes another step, telling him [Shemot 10:8] “Go, worship the L-rd (Y-K-V-K) your G-d (E-lokeichem)!” This time Pharaoh uses the Tetragrammaton but tempers it with E-lokim. He knows that there is something big out there but he is not certain how big. He attains certainty after the tenth plague, when he commands Moshe [Shemot 12:31] “Up, depart from among my people, you and the Israelites with you! Go, worship G-d (Y-K-V-K) as you said”. The message having been clearly made, it was time now time to leave. The Jewish People head towards their Homeland armed with the knowledge that with G-d on their side, nature doesn’t stand a chance.

Shabbat Shalom,

Ari Sacher, Moreshet, 5782

Please daven for a Refu’a Shelema for Yechiel ben Shprintza, Eli bat Ilana, and Geisha bat Sara.

[1] He made the Jewish People wait one extra day before receiving the Torah at Sinai, he separated from his wife, Zipporah, and he broke the two tablets (luchot),

[2] We will be using the explanation of Rabbi Yehuda Léon Ashkénazi, better known as “Manitou”, who rebuilt the French Jewish community after World War II.

[3] An opinion in the Midrash posits that Pharaoh survived the ordeal but this is not the simple interpretation.

About the Author
Ari Sacher is a Rocket Scientist, and has worked in the design and development of missiles for over thirty 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". Ari has also been a scholar in residence in numerous synagogues in the USA, Canada, UK, South Africa, and Australia. 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 2000 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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