Shemot, 9:13-14: “And God said to Moshe, get up in the morning and stand before Pharaoh, and say to him, ‘So says Hashem, God of the Hebrews: Send forth my people, that they may serve Me. For this time, I will send all My plagues into your heart…so that you shall know there is none like Me in all the world.”
Shemot, 10:1-2: “And Hashem said to Moshe; ‘Go to Pharaoh – for I have hardened his heart and the heart of his servants, that I might establish My signs in the midst of them. And so that you will be able to tell your children, and your children’s children, how I played with Egypt and My signs which I have done among them, so that you will know that I am Hashem’”

The Torah Portion begins with God’s instruction to Moshe after the seventh plague of hail, where God tells Moshe that the remaining Plagues will demonstrate to the Jewish people and their descendants that God has toyed with the Egyptians through the Signs of His limitless power, so that the Jewish people will recognize God in all His greatness. This instruction seems straightforward as we know that the Ten Plagues served to teach Emunah to the Jewish people. However, in last week’s Portion on a number of occasions, Moshe tells Pharaoh that the purpose of the plagues was so that Pharaoh himself (and by extension, the Egyptian people) would recognize God.1 What happened in between these two points to cause such a significant change in the purpose of the Plagues?

In order to answer this question, it is first necessary to ask an even more basic question – what was the purpose of the Exodus? The obvious answer is that the purpose was to bring about the freedom of the Jewish people from their slavery and to bring them to Mount Sinai to receive the Torah and ultimately to the land of Israel. However, it is abundantly evident that there was another goal – to teach the world about the existence of the One, All-Powerful God. Up to that time, with the exception of the Jewish people, all the nations of the world were essentially polytheistic – they believed that there were many gods, each with great power in a particular realm (such as the sun or rain) but who were otherwise limited. The world viewed these gods as not being in concert with each other, and in fact many of the histories of the ancient nations show the exact opposite – that the gods were at war with each other as one god’s realm of power clashed with another, such as the god of fire and the god of ice. In addition, these gods were not paragons of morality, rather they were beset by the same foibles as human beings, just they were far more powerful.

A final aspect of the polytheistic religions was that the relationship between man and the gods was not one of closeness or love, it was purely practical – for example an idol worshipper would offer a sacrifice to a god not as an expression of closeness, but as a way of ‘buying’ favors from the god or preventing him from unleashing his destructive powers on them.

When God sent Moshe to speak to Pharaoh, it wasn’t just with the goal of having Pharaoh release the Jewish people, and it also wasn’t about showing Pharaoh that the Jews had their own G-d who looked after them. Rather, it was to demonstrate to Pharaoh that his, and the world’s conception of many gods was fundamentally flawed, and that there was one, all-powerful G-d, who existed beyond the physical world and who desired a relationship with His people. This is demonstrated in Moshe’s initial words to Pharaoh on their first encounter – “So said God, God of Israel, send out My nation and they will rejoice with Me in the desert.”2

Rabbi Dovid Fohrman3 notes that Moshe referred to God in his name spelt yud, kei, vav, kei (known as the Shem Havaya), not His name of ‘Elokim’. He explains that Elokim refers to a power, whereas the Shem Havaya refers to God’s nature as being totally above the physical world. Moshe was teaching Pharaoh about the one, true God, in contrast to Pharaoh’s belief in numerous powers. Moreover, God expresses His desire that His people rejoice with Him in the desert. Rabbi Fohrman explains that the idol worshippers did not rejoice with their gods, rather they sacrificed to them, but there was no close relationship. Thus, Moshe was alluding to Pharaoh about the difference between the true God and Pharaoh’s conception of gods.

Rabbi Fohrman goes further and suggests that at this point, it was possible for Pharaoh to accept Moshe’s words and acknowledge the one true God, and let His nation go. Had this happened, the whole saga of the Ten Plagues would have been unnecessary, because the twin goals of bringing about the freedom of the Jewish people and teaching the world - as represented by the most powerful nation in the word, the Egyptians - about God would have been fulfilled. He adds that before any of the Plagues took place, Moshe further proved this point when Aaron’s staff swallowed all the staffs of the Egyptian sorcerers after they had turned them into snakes. In Rabbi Forhman’s words:

“’If one staff swallows many, what is that really saying’? Right there at that moment, Pharaoh could have seen an indication of the bankruptcy of his polytheistic line of thought. If the one staff swallows the many, what does that say? It says that one rules over the many. All the powers of nature are ultimately answerable to one higher power, qualitatively above them all. They all answer to the creator.”4

Unfortunately, Pharaoh did not accept the lesson being given in a gentle manner, and so od reverted to a Plan B. This involved convincing Pharaoh through the Plagues that God was the only true Power and how He was in control of all the powers that the Egyptians worshipped, such as the Nile. Each plague in turn demonstrated how God had control over the Nile, all living creatures and the weather. And yet after weakening after each plague, Pharaoh hardened his heart and refused to send out the Jewish people on their terms.

This carried on until the seventh plague where Pharaoh’s reaction suddenly changed – after seeing the opposite powers of fire and ice co-exist together in the hail, Pharaoh exclaims: “And Pharaoh sent and called to Moshe and Aaron and said to them: I have sinned this time. God is the righteous One, and my people and I are the wicked ones.”5

Pharaoh talks of sinning, righteousness and wickedness – he also refers to God with the higher name of ‘yud, kei, vav, kei’. All this indicates that after hail, Pharaoh finally recognized that the ‘God of the Jews’ wasn’t just another power along with the numerous Egyptians gods, but that He transcended all of them, and controlled every force in existence. It was at this time, when Plan B could have come to fruition and Pharaoh could have willingly let the people go. Had he done this, Rabbi Fohrman suggests, it is conceivable that there would have been no need for the remaining plagues.

However, soon after, the Torah tells us that again Pharaoh changed his mind, stubbornly ignoring what he knew to be true, because of his arrogance and what he stood to lose by giving in. It is at this point, where it becomes evident that Plan B has failed, and that it was now necessary to resort to Plan C – if the Plagues could not persuade Pharaoh and his nation to recognized God, then they have forfeited there rights as agents of free will, and are now reduced to being pawns of God, and their remaining punishments would serve to demonstrate, if not to them, but to the Jewish people alone, the truth about the One, all powerful, transcendent God. This is why, at the beginning of the Portion, the purpose of the Plagues abruptly switches from an attempt to persuade the Egyptians (as well as the Jews) to recognize God, to being solely a demonstration to the Jewish people and their descendants.

One lesson that can be derived from this approach is that sometimes God wants to communicate to a person in a gentle manner. If he does not pen his eyes and does not internalize the message, then it may be necessary to send him more ‘unpleasant’ messages that are more likely to convince him to open his eyes and perhaps see the error of his ways. Yet, one can often avoid the difficulties that come about through these lessons if he pays attention to the gentler lessons, thus avoiding the need for unnecessary suffering.

  1. See Shemot, 8:6. It seems that Pharaoh represents the Egyptian nation
  2. Shemos, 5:1.
  3. Rabbi Dovid Fohrman, “The Exodus You Almost Passed Over”, Chapter 4.
  4. Ibid. p.106.
  5. Shemos, 9:27.