Wednesday, 3 April 2013

Plagues, 10/50/200/250

Guest Blogger:
Douglas Aronin, Esq.

Nestled between the Ten Plagues and Dayeinu is a three-paragraph passage that's easy to overlook and even easier to underestimate.  At first glance it seems to be essentially a game of numbers, with three tanaim (rabbis who lived at or before the time of the Mishna) vying to see who could justify the largest increase in the number of plagues (more accurately, perhaps plague-equivalents)  that the Egyptians suffered at the Red Sea.  As is so often the case with our liturgical  texts, however, there's more here than first meets the eye.  Let's look at the first paragraph of this passage, which sets forth the opinion of Rabbi Yosi of the Galilee, and which is the foundation on which the entire passage rests.  That paragraph reads as follows:

Rabbi Yosi of the Galilee said:  "We can show that if the Egyptians were struck with ten plagues in Egypt, then they were struck with fifty plagues at the Red Sea. In Egypt we find the statement: 'The magicians said to Pharaoh, "It is God's finger."' (Exodus 8:15). At the Red Sea it is written: "Israel saw the great hand that God had directed against Egypt.  The people feared God and believed in God and in His  servant Moses." (Exodus 14:31) Now, if one finger brought ten plagues [an entire
hand would bring fifty].  From this we see that if there were ten plagues in Egypt, there were fifty at the Red Sea..
(Translation from the 2010 Haggadah edited by Rabbi Jonathan Sacks)
Some modern commentators (including Rabbi Sacks and Rabbi Shlomo Riskin) point out that the verse at the end of the passage is the only time that the Haggadah mentions Moses's name.  The reluctance of the text to mention Moses reflects a concern lest we attribute our redemption to Moses rather than to God.  None of the commentaries that I've read, however, ask what seems to me the obvious follow-up question: if there's a good reason that we otherwise avoid mentioning Moses' name at the Seder, then why do we make an exception here? The Haggadah's purpose in quoting the verse is simply to associate God's "strong hand" (Heb. yad chazaka) with the miracles at the Red Sea.   We could  quote the first half of the verse, in which the phrase yad chazaka appears and omit the second half, which mentions Moses by name.  Some might be wary of quoting only part of a verse which contains God's Name, but even a cursory inspection of the Haggadah text recited earlier in the Seder (before the Ten Plagues) would show other quotations of fragments of verses,  some of which do contain God's Name.  It thus appears that the inclusion of Moses's name, in this passage, although it appears nowhere else in the Haggadah,  must have some purpose.

Another anomaly in the same paragraph involves the phrase that, according to the Torah, was used by Pharaoh's magicians in explaining their inability to imitate the third plague: "It is God's finger." (Heb. etzba Elokim hee).  The context of that phrase as it appears in the Torah would seem inconsistent with its use in the Haggadah.  In the Torah's account, the chartumim (magicians) succeed in imitating the first two plagues, those of blood and frogs.  When it came to the third plague, the plague of lice (Heb. kinim), they were unable to duplicate it and justified their failure by telling Pharaoh that the plague is God's finger, and thus, presumably, beyond the power of human beings to imitate. 

On first reading, the opinion of Rabbi Yosi of the Galilee quoted above -- as well as the  subsequent opinions of Rabbi Eliezer and Rabbi Akiva, which are built on it, seems inconsistent Torah's account of the response of the chartumim  to the third plague.  The chartumim, it would seem from the Torah's account, were not comparing God's finger to all ten plagues, but rather to just the third one.  But for the arithmetic of Rabbi Yosi of the Galilee's opinion to work, we must understand the term "God's finger" as referring to all ten plagues, not merely one one them.  If a single plague represented God's finger, then the Egyptians at the Red Sea would have suffered only five plagues, not fifty.

In the second volume of his book Between the Lines of the Bible, Rabbi Yitzchak Etshalom suggests an intriguing way  of reading the involvement of the chartumim.  His reading is designed to address other issues,  but it might also help with ours.  He points out that there is a difficulty with the conventional understanding of the chartumim's  action during the first two plagues, the plague of blood (Ex. 7:19-21) and the plague of frogs (8:1-7).  In both cases, the  chartumim  are traditionally depicted as successfully imitating the first two plagues.  Had they succeeded in doing so, Rabbi Etshalom points out, they would only have caused the Egyptian people further suffering.  In both cases, furthermore, Pharaoh appears to ignore the chartumim entirely; his ultimate refusal to let the Israelites go  seems unconnected to their activities.  With respect to the plague of blood in particular, moreover, it is difficult to see how the chartumim could have imitated the plague had they tried to do so.  Where would they have obtained clear water for the demonstration?

To address these problems, Rabbi Etshalom suggests that, contrary to the conventional understanding of the text, the chartumim  did not attempt to imitate the first two plagues. Rather, the verses in question record the fact that the chartumim,   at an earlier time,  had demostrated their ability to bring about more or less the same results, thus making the first two plagues, when they came, significantly less impressive.  Only with the plague of lice did they try to intervene.  Rabbi Etshalom understands   the word lehotzi  in verse 13 as "to bring forth" as indicating an attempt to reverse the the plague.  When that attempt failed, they were compelled to admit, that the plagues as a whole, were "God's finger. 

Although Etshalom's interpretation  is not directed at our passage of the Haggadah, it makes the arithmetic problem presented by the "finger of God" statement easier to resolve.  If the statement followed the failure of the first and only attempt by the chartumim  to reverse the plagues rather than a failure to imitate them after two successes, then it stands to reason that the phrase refers to the plague process as a whole rather than the most recent manifestation of it.  That would allow for the interpretation offered by Rabbi Yosi of the Gallilee.
 It is also worth noting that the phrase "finger of God" appears in only two other places in the Torah, and in both it refers to the writing on the first lukhot habrit (tablets of the Covenant), the ones that Moses broke in response to the sin of the golden calf.  The phrase is not used in reference to the replacement  lukhot,  presumably because they were not of equivalent sanctity. The use of the same phrase here to describe the plagues suggests that, in both cases, the phrase refers to a manifestation of God's will that is beyond the power of human beings to affect.   It also highlights the contrrast between the exalted state of the Israelites. at the Red Sea and their spirital decline with the sin of the Golden Calf -- so much so that, in the well-known Midrash, they panicked when, according to their erroneous count, Moses was a day late coming down from Sinai.

That spiritual descent, it seems to me, also explains the use of the one verse in the Haggadah that, as noted earlier, does contain Moses's name.  The miracle at the Red Sea in a sense marked the spiritual zenith of that generation of the Jewish people, one which made them fit to receive the Torah.  During the plagues in Egypt, they experienced God's miracles differently, depending on where they were at each particular point of the process.  For an overview they depended on Moses and thus understandably came to attribute to him an indsependence of activity that he in fact did not have.  At the Red Sea, by contrast, they experienced the miracle together, which is why the verse relied on by Rabbi Yosi of the Gallilee begins with "Israel saw" in the singular.  With that clarity of vision, they finally trusted fully in God and understood that Moses, great as he was, was, in the last analysis, only doing God's bidding, i.e., they " believed in God and in His servant Moses."

Even that generation, alas, could not sustain that clarity of vision experienced at the Red Sea , so it is hardly surprising that later generations have fallen short.  That explains why the Haggadah, as a precaution, omits Moses's name, lest we confuse his role with God's.  But his name was left in the one verse attesting to the occasion on which the entire people did attain that clarity of vision, to keep alive in us the hope for the final redemption, when that clarity will once again be attained.

Douglas Aronin

Best Regards,

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