By David Brook
3d Part of Triennial Cycle: Shemot Exodus 8:16 - 9:35
(Hertz p. 240; Plaut p. 438; Etz Hayim p. 362)
In this dvar, I am going out on a limb. I can find no other commentaries that pick up the point I am going to emphasize, yet I cannot believe that no one else has noticed. I have no explanation, so let me just climb out on my limb. My dvar is entitled: “What have You (capital “Y”) done for me lately?” – for reasons that will become clear shortly.
To set the stage, one has to remember that there is an important shift from Bereshit/ Genesis to Shemot/Exodus. In Bereshit, God is concerned at the start with just a few individuals, later with an extended family, and finally with a collection of tribes. In Shemot, God is concerned with a people, a nation. An enormous shift of focus! However, at the point at which we pick up the narrative in our parashah, that shift has not really taken place, at least not in a way that the Hebrew people would see it. All that has happened so far is that God has indicated that He will reward the two midwives (Shm -21), and God has, in one instance:
<![if !supportLists]>· <![endif]>“remembered” His covenant with the Patriarchs and taken notice of the Israelites (-25); this apparently said to Himself, as no audience is mentioned;<![if !supportFootnotes]><![endif]>
<![if !supportLists]>· <![endif]>And in another instance: “marked
well the plight of My people in
As you will recall, Moses is quite sensibly sceptical that anyone, least of all the Hebrew people, will believe him. So God responds that He will perform miracles on the Egyptians, and He demonstrates two of those miracles to Moses: turning his rod in to a serpent and back again; and making his hand leprous and clean again. Impressive, but seen only by Moses, not by anyone else.
Moses of course does return to
Actually, God does more than this. He gives Moses a real pep talk with what amounts to a new covenant. He tells Moses everything that he is going to do including freeing the people from the Egyptians, and taking them to be His people, and bringing them to their land, as He promised the patriarchs (Exodus 6:2ff). This speech may be more specific than anything God has said before, but, again, only Moses hears it. Nehama Leibowitz says these words reflect the fact that God is revealing Himself as promise-keeper, and that they were meant:
. . . to fortify Moses’ failing morale . . . . But most of all, they were designed to boost the people’s morale, fortify their faith and counter their despair and disillusion.<![if !supportFootnotes]><![endif]>
Far be it for me to challenge Leibowitz, but I can find no suggestion that anyone other than Moses heard God’s inspiring words. The Israelites still have nothing to go on but their faith and Moses’ repetition to them of God’s words plus a few signs performed for them with his rod – something that may well have appeared to be magic, not divinity.
Moses and Aaron dutifully return to Pharaoh, and begin to show off their series of signs. For a while, Pharaoh’s own magicians and wise men match them trick for trick (Exodus -12). Then they start with the plagues:
<![if !supportLists]>· <![endif]>First, blood, and the magicians match them.
<![if !supportLists]>· <![endif]>Second, frogs, and again the magicians match them.
<![if !supportLists]>· <![endif]>Third, gnats or lice – but this time the magicians cannot match them, and they warn Pharaoh that this plague is “the finger of God,” implicitly acknowledging the claims of Moses and Aaron and perhaps hinting to Pharaoh that the situation is getting out of hand.
Where are the Hebrew people in all this? I think it is fair to assume that they were not all invited to the palace to witness Moses duel with the magicians, so they did not witness that act, nor the fact that Aaron’s rod-turned-reptile swallowed the magicians’. What is more important, according to most commentaries, the Hebrew people suffered the first three plagues right along with the Egyptians.<![if !supportFootnotes]><![endif]> Hence, my subtitle! The Hebrews might well have challenged Moses (and implicitly God), saying, “Thank you very much for trying to lead us to freedom, but what have you done for us lately? Ever since you got back from Midian, things have gone from bad to worse!”
Then we come to the fourth plague, beetles (others say wild beasts), which is where our parashah begins, and something new is going to happen that will change the world forever. With the fourth plague, God gives Moses his instructions for talking to Pharaoh in Exodus 8:16-17, using words much the same as Moses has been told to use with the first three plagues. But this time God tells Moses to add the following description of the forthcoming plague (Exodus -19):
18) But on that day I will set apart the region of Goshen, where My people dwell, so that no swarms of insects shall be there, that you may know that I the Lord am in the midst of the land. 19) And I will make a distinction between My people and your people. . . .
And that is what happened. For the first time in history, the Hebrew tribes, the source of the Jewish people, received a collective benefit from God, some reward for their faithfulness, strained as it was. And this is the magnificent event that, so far as I can determine, goes almost unnoticed in the commentaries.
Just to complete the history, there are six more plagues to come. In four of those six, the text says clearly that the Hebrews were protected:
<![if !supportLists]>· <![endif]>5 - cattle disease
<![if !supportLists]>· <![endif]>7 - hail
<![if !supportLists]>· <![endif]>9 - darkness
<![if !supportLists]>· <![endif]>10 - slaying of the first born.
these plagues affected
summary, I am suggesting that at verse 18, our parashah
covers what is one of the truly momentous events in Jewish history (and, I
should add, it is quite irrelevant to me whether it is literal history or
mythical tale). For the first time,
God’s power has been made manifest in real, tangible terms to the Hebrew
people. For the first time, they have as
a people something to be thankful for.
And yet the fact that the plagues did not affect
<![endif]>Plaut says only that God’s might is demonstrated both by
the sign and by the special treatment accorded to
<![if !supportLists]>· <![endif]>Etz Hayim notes merely that the Israelites suffered the first three plagues but they will not suffer the rest. (As indicated above, the last part of the assertion may or may not be correct.)
says that it took providential care for the fourth plague to avoid
<![if !supportLists]>· <![endif]>Rashi says the text wants to emphasize that the Jewish people are set apart, and that God acts even on earth, not just in heaven.
<![if !supportLists]>· <![endif]>Nothing at all in Midrash Rabbah, nor in Tzenu Urena or many other commentaries.
<![if !supportLists]>· <![endif]>Nothing that I could find on the web.
Such commentary as I have been able to find fits along with other modern attempts to show how each of the plagues, apart from the final one, reflects periodic natural phenomena in the Nile valley.<![if !supportFootnotes]><![endif]> The same commentaries demonstrate how some areas can be bypassed by swarms of insects or be in daylight during an eclipse, and how the sequence of plagues could all occur within one year.
To conclude, the Hebrew people finally know what God has done for them lately. They can see for themselves. No interpretation necessary. But my problem remains. I do not know why so little is said in the commentaries on this momentous event when God at last chose to reveal Himself as (using Leibowitz’ term) promise-keeper. There must be more to say, but I do not know what it is.
<![if !supportFootnotes]><![endif]> All quotations are from Plaut.
<![if !supportFootnotes]><![endif]> Nehama Leibowitz, New Studies in Shemot: Part I (Jerusalem: Joint Authority for Jewish Zionist Education, 1995), p. 115.
Hertz equivocates on this point. “The preceding plagues were of a more
stationary character, and therefore it was possible for them to be confined to
those parts of the country where the Egyptians resided. This plague, on the other hand, was of a more
mobile nature, and it required special providential care for it not to spread
The text does say that these plagues afflicted
the Egyptians, from which one might infer that they did not afflict the
Israelites. However, almost the same
words were used in the first three plagues that did afflict the
Israelites. Sarna cites other studies to
the effect that bites inflicted in the 4th plague were the source of
the boils in 6th plague, from which it is evident that, being
protected from the former,
<![if !supportFootnotes]><![endif]> See Nahum M. Sarna, Exploring Exodus (New York: Schocken Books, 1986), pp. 86 ff.