The story is well-known: The Jews want to leave Egypt, so God sends 10 fierce plagues ... and Pharaoh's opposition is adamant.

How is it possible that Pharaoh could fail to recognize the obvious deeds of God Almighty Himself?!

Pharaoh epitomizes denial of God. This is evident from Exodus 5:1, the first meeting between Moses and Pharaoh, where Moses utters the immortal words: "Let My People Go!" Pharaoh responds with bewilderment: "Who is God that I should listen to him? I don't know this God!"

The purpose of the plagues, therefore, is to announce that God is running the show. Once and for all, loud and clear.

The 10 plagues are actually a progression, a process bringing Pharaoh to a recognition of God. Consider:

The first plague turns the Nile River into blood. Why? Because Pharaoh had been promoting himself as a deity who created the Nile, as he says, "I am the river and I created it" (Ezekiel 29:3). Pharaoh goes to such extents to preserve his godly image that he sneaks down to the river alone to relieve himself; hence God tells Moses to "pay a call on Pharaoh in the morning, when he goes out to the water..." (Exodus 7:15)

Moses turns the Nile into blood but Pharaoh is not impressed. His magicians are called in and they do the same. God might be a good magician, thinks Pharaoh, but He's not out of my league!

God of Nature

As the plagues continue, Pharaoh is moved along a process of increasing recognition of who God is. When Moses brings the plague of lice, Pharaoh calls upon his magicians to reproduce the phenomenon, but they can't. "'It is the finger of God,' say the magicians to Pharaoh." (Exodus 8:14)

Why were they unable to make lice? The Talmud (Sanhedrin 67) says because magic has no power over something tiny.

Like modern science today, Pharaoh's magicians can gather and manipulate existing energy, but they can't create the building-blocks of life itself. No matter how small a particle is discovered, there is always a foundation of smaller particles below that.

When Pharaoh's magicians say "It is the finger of God," they refer to God by the name of Elokim, which represents the power of God acting through nature. (Elokim has the numerical value of 86, which is the same as "HaTeva" - nature.) Pharaoh and his men had advanced one huge step along the continuum. They recognized God as the force controlling nature. But this was not sufficient. Pharaoh still refuses to let the Jews go. He wants to play hardball with God.

One Step Closer

The climax of our Parsha is the plague of hail, where Egyptian resources are totally wiped out. Every tree is smashed, and every man and animal caught outdoors is killed (Exodus 9:25). As Pharaoh stands amidst the rubble of a country in ruins, he now declares, "I am wrong and God is right." This time Pharaoh refers to God by the ineffable YKVK - the transcendent aspect of God that we cannot comprehend.

It took a lot of pounding over the head, but Pharaoh has finally matured in his recognition of God.

Yet somehow, miraculously, he still refuses to let the Jews go. How great is the human ego and the power of rationalization!

God's Awesome World

In many respects, Pharaoh's process is our process, too. When we are children, we think we are the center of the universe. Then, through experience and trials, we become increasingly aware of things beyond our control. Whether earthquakes, cancer, the rise and fall of fortunes, even life and death itself... these can only be ascribed to a Higher Power.

In short, life is a series of such recognitions. But sometimes we get confused, we forget, and slip back in the continuum.

Why? Because with each technological advancement, we sense the unlimited potential of man. The 4-minute mile. A robot to Mars. Cell phones and the internet. We are in awe of what is humanly possible.

But where is our awe of that which only God is possible?! Gravity... eyesight... ant farms...

Lessons Today

The commentators say that the 10 plagues were not only for the sake of Pharaoh. They were for the Jews as well. To watch and to absorb the lessons of who God is. That training is a prerequisite to the coming revelation at Sinai.

We've all got to reach that recognition. One way or the other, Pharaoh is going to acknowledge God and let the Jews go. The only question is whether Pharaoh's route to that end will be in cooperation with God, or in opposition.

The Talmud says that "each person must see himself as if he personally came out of Egypt." Our lives are filled with messages from the Almighty, designed to teach us His ways and draw us near. He has a plan, and we have the choice: To fit in, or to be cut out. The choice is clear if we only open our eyes.

Shabbat Shalom,
Rabbi Shraga Simmons