Plagued by the Plagues

Va-eira, Exodus 6:2−9:35

Parashat Va-eira has always troubled me. The plagues, with their collective punishment caused by the sins of Pharaoh, always seemed unnecessarily cruel to the Egyptian people. Perhaps some of the Egyptians were complicit in Pharaoh's enslavement scheme, but we can assume that the ordinary people were not. It is they who suffered the most from the plagues that upset the natural order and ruined their water, their crops, their skin, their general comfort and well-being.

These days, when we retell the story of the Exodus at our Passover seder, our treatment of the plagues often ignores their seriousness. We sing silly songs about frogs in Pharaoh's bed to entertain the children, and many use props and toys to imitate the strange use of natural phenomena for supernatural punishment. We are not the first to make light of the plagues, especially the plague of frogs. They are strange looking creatures and seem to invite levity. Exodus 8:2 reads: "Aaron held out his arm over the waters of Egypt, and the frogs came up and covered the land of Egypt." There is a problem, however, with this translation. In the Hebrew text, the word for frog is in the singular: hatz'fardei-a, not the plural, hatz'fard'im, as is used for the rest of the narrative. It literally says, ". . . the frog came up and covered the land of Egypt."

Our Sages found meaning in every variation in the text and did not ignore this one. Rabbi Akiva commented, "There was one frog, and it filled all the land of Egypt" (Babylonian Talmud, Sanhedrin 67b). Imagine one giant, Godzilla-like frog, coming up out of the water and filling the entire land! Even though he lived at a time when people believed in dragons and sea monsters and mythological creatures, Akiva clearly saw the humor in his literal interpretation of the singular noun. Perhaps at the same time he was suggesting that while the Egyptian magicians could also create frogs, only God could create this enormous monster, the Frog that Covered Egypt!

Kidding aside, the plagues are still problematic. As we examine the story of the plagues, we come to my other major difficulty with this parashah: the repeated assertion that God hardened Pharaoh's heart. God announces this intention before Moses even goes to Pharaoh, saying to Moses:

"You shall repeat all that I command you, and your brother Aaron shall speak to Pharaoh to let the Israelites depart from his land. But I will harden Pharaoh's heart, that I may multiply My signs and marvels in the land of Egypt. When Pharaoh does not heed you, I will lay My hand upon Egypt and deliver My ranks, My people the Israelites, from the land of Egypt with extraordinary chastisements. And the Egyptians shall know that I am the Eternal, when I stretch out My hand over Egypt and bring out the Israelites from their midst." (Exodus 7:2-5)

Each plague brings more suffering, and every time we see Pharaoh about to give in and let the Israelites go, he changes his mind, ostensibly as God "hardens Pharaoh's heart" and prevents him from exercising whatever kernel of mercy he may have had inside of him. One cannot help but ask why: Why more plagues? Why not let Pharaoh relent early and avoid more suffering for the people? The reason stated in the text is so that God's power may be known to the Egyptians.

The Rabbis taught that Pharaoh was so wicked that he needed greater demonstrations of God's power before he understood the consequences. After the plague of frogs, Pharaoh indicated to Moses and Aaron that if the plague was lifted he would let the people go. "But when Pharaoh saw that there was relief, he became stubborn (literally, 'he hardened his heart') and would not heed them, as the Eternal had spoken" (Exodus 8:11). The Midrash tells us: "This is the way of the wicked: when they are in trouble, they affect humility; but as soon as they have respite, they return to their perversity" (Sh'mot Rabbah 10:6).

This interpretation assumes that Pharaoh acted with free will; that he made his own decisions to continue the enslavement. But God told Moses from the beginning that divine power would harden Pharaoh's heart. Can we hold Pharaoh responsible for refusing to let the people go if God caused him to act that way? Far be it from me to defend Pharaoh, but he is in an impossible situation. He is destined to play out this drama and pay an enormous price for his stubbornness.

We read this epic story of our liberation and we are left with gnawing questions. It would be much easier to tell the story in black and white, with clear good guys and bad guys, and no ambivalence. If God was going to liberate the Israelites with "signs and marvels," did it have to be at the expense of others? The "extraordinary chastisements" fell upon the innocent Egyptians as well as the guilty. We can rationalize that they were all paying the price for benefitting from centuries of slavery or we can simply accept that our present-day ideas of fairness may not work in hindsight. There are no easy answers. Every good story has layers of meaning. The questions and the struggle are all part of the process of wrestling with our sacred text.

Rabbi Ellen Weinberg Dreyfus is rabbi emerita of B'nai Yehuda Beth Sholom in Homewood, Illinois. She is past-president of the Central Conference of American Rabbis.

Softened Hearts

Daver Acher By: Charles Briskin

I recently visited the National Center for Civil and Human Rights in Atlanta. This extraordinary museum chronicles some of our world's current human rights crises and powerfully traces the history of the American Civil Rights movement.1 Old footage provides some of the most gripping images. Scratchy sound amplifies, in their own voices, the abhorrent words of racist governors, mayors, and police chiefs.

That visit is on my mind as we mark the legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. this weekend and read Parashat Va-eria this Shabbat. While we've come far since King's time, the senseless deaths of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri and Eric Garner in Staten Island remind us how far we still have to go. One response is to take our hardened hearts and soften them.

Rabbi Dreyfus, like many of us, is troubled that "God hardened Pharaoh's heart." Why was Pharaoh so stubborn and obstinate? Why did innocent Egyptians have to suffer? Did Pharaoh have any control?

Robert Alter notes that "three different verbs are used in the story . . . Hiqshah, 'to harden', hizeq, 'to toughen,' . . . and ' kaved' literally 'to be heavy.". . . The force of all three idioms is to be "stubborn, unfeeling, arrogantly inflexible."2 Aviva Zornberg suggests that after time "a kind of spiritual rigor mortis sets in. Till the ninth plague (darkness) [Pharaoh] neither hears nor speaks as he denies the Israelites freedom at the end of each plague."3 Maimonides suggests that Pharaoh "sinned of his own free will . . . until he forfeited the opportunity to repent."4

Pharaoh's heart-hardening, even his inability to talk, led to death and destruction on an unimaginable scale. Yet it teaches us lessons for our time. A generation after the Civil Rights Act of 1964, some of the most hardened white Southern leaders began to soften. Former segregationist Alabama Governor George Wallace's transformation is well known; he apologized to Rep. John Lewis, he apologized to the people of Alabama, and he was determined to make a better future for himself and the people he represented.

Our responsibility is to prevent our own inflexibility from becoming an impediment to repentance. Unlike Pharaoh, we have the opportunity to change and to soften our hardened hearts.

1. In an exhibit of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.'s papers, you can look at a reproduction of his library and find the Union Prayer Book and Al Vorspan's Justice and Judaism.

2. Robert Alter, The Five Books of Moses (NY: W.W. Norton and Company), 2004; p. 345

3. Avivah Gottlieb Zornberg, The Particulars of Rapture: Reflections on Exodus (NY: Image/Doubleday 2001), p. 106

4. See Nehama Leibowitz; New Studies in Shemot, translated and adapted from the Hebrew by Aryeh Newman (Jerusalem: Haomanim Press, nd), p.153

Rabbi Charles Briskin is rabbi of Temple Beth El in San Pedro California.

Reference Materials

Va-eira, Exodus 6:2-9:35 
The Torah: A Modern Commentary, pp. 420-448; Revised Edition, pp. 379-400; 
The Torah: A Women's Commentary, pp. 331-354

Originally published: