MY PLAGUES, OR YOURS – Exodus 6-10 – by Rabbi Baruch Cohon
The famous 10 plagues of Egypt bring a story of disaster and suffering to the Torah readings of these two weeks. Just their names are frightful: Blood, frogs, lice, wild animals, murrain, boils, hail, locusts, darkness, and death of the firstborn. All that’s missing is terrorism. At our Passover Seder we will spill out a drop of wine for each of them, to witness that even now we diminish our celebration to remember the pain of our enemies.
Many scholars discussed the significance and reality of these plagues. Did things like this actually happen in Egypt? Or is this whole sequence told just to illustrate the haughty stubborn duplicitous personality of Pharaoh and why he brought such calamities on his people?
One aspect of the Plagues story sometimes eludes us. The first three plagues happen to all the residents of Egypt, including the Israelites. When the Nile water turns to blood, they all have to dig and scrounge for drinking water. Frogs invade Jewish houses in Goshen just as they do the Pharaoh’s palace. And everyone scratches the bites of the lice. No wonder Pharaoh doesn’t give up.
Then mixed groups of wild animals invade Egyptian farms and homes, and leave the Hebrews alone. Now something changes. Instead of challenging his sorcerers to duplicate the evil spell, Pharaoh tells Moses and Aaron to “take your people and go worship your G-d.” Of course, being Pharaoh, he changes his mind as soon as the plague stops. Three more scourges produce the same results.
By the time #8 is threatened – locusts to devour their crops – Pharaoh’s officers and sorcerers speak up: “Don’t you know by now that Egypt is perishing?” Since absolute power listens to no one, Pharaoh dismisses them. But in so doing he ignores a salient truth, just as true today as it was in ancient Egypt. When bad things happen to you and to me, it’s a disaster. Cope with it. But when they happen to me – and notto you – it’s a plague. A dire signal. Learn something. Don’t wait through seven warnings like the Egyptian courtiers. And don’t depend on a too-powerful government to solve your problems. If you have idols, break them. If you have an epidemic (say HIV for example), find a remedy — even if it means changing some of your habits. If you have an addiction, get into recovery; help is available.
And if you have slaves, physical or emotional, set them free.