“I shall take out My legions-My people, the Children of Israel-from the land of Egypt”
In order to make His name known, Hashem afflicted Egypt with ten plagues. Pharaoh had several different reactions to the plagues. At times he would harden his heart because his “magicians” could perform the plague as well, or he would just simply be stubborn. Other times, he would ask Moshe to pray to Hashem to stop the plague and in return Pharaoh would allow Bnei Yisrael to leave. However, he would change his mind as soon as the plague ended.
His reaction to the plague of hail was the most peculiar. He said, “this time I have sinned; Hashem is the Righteous One, and I and my people are the wicked one” (ibid. 9:27). He seemed to finally recognize Hashem but what spurred this reaction? Why was this plague different than all the other plagues? The next pasuk explains that it was because “there has been an overabundance of Godly thunder and hail” (ibid. 9:28). Rabbeinu Bachya explains that the word ‘thunder’comes before ‘hail’ to teach that it was the thunder that scared Pharaoh and the Egyptians more than anything else. It was the thunder that caused Pharaoh to recognize God, but what about thunder had that effect? A Gemara in Berachot explains that “thunder was created only to straighten out the crookedness within the heart” (59a). In other words, thunder is so intense that it causes the wicked to repent. Thunder instills so much fear that it causes even the wicked to recognize God. Without this supernatural phenomenon, they have trouble believing in God but when something as powerful as thunder causes so much dread, the people have no choice but to realize that it must come from God.
When I was younger, my father told me a story about an amazing miracle. During the Six Day War, the Israeli army was approaching the Arab town of Tzfat. As they were approaching, God brought a huge thunderstorm. The Arabs thought that the thunder and lightning were a nuclear attack by the Jews so they fled. Thunder was able to instill so much fear that the Arabs gave up and ran. I think it is deeper than that. The thunder caused them to realize that someone else is in control.
After the plague ended, the pasuk states, “Pharaoh saw that the rain, and the hail, and the thunder ceased, and he continued to sin; and he made his heart stubborn” (ibid. 9:33). Rabbeinu Bachya points out that this time ‘hail’ comes before ‘thunder’. Pharaoh only “made his heart stubborn” after the thunder ceased. Without the thunder, Pharaoh had no reason to believe. Rav Daniel Harstein taught me a great lesson through this. The Jews, on one hand, do not need miracles to recognize God. Emunah, belief, is something that is embedded within each and everyone of us and it is very difficult to lose that. On the other hand, the other nations sometimes require a supernatural act in order to recognize God. But without a phenomenon, they can be very disconnected from the Almighty.
It took Pharaoh until the seventh plague to realize this. Pharaoh was able to explain the first six plagues to a certain extent without attributing them to God. But once thunder came, once Pharaoh and all the Egyptians were fearful, he was then able to realize there is a God. But after the thunder was gone, for him, there was no proof of God anymore. He needed a miracle to see God but once it ceased, his belief ceased as well.
We should understand that we, as Jews, are able to see God through everything that happens in our daily lives. We have the ability to maintain our Emunah forever as we do not rely on externals to prove He is One.
Just as Avraham and our forefathers spread Torah and Emunah throughout the world, may we take this unique ability to always believe and influence the rest of the world.