In the past few months, we have experienced many extraordinary catastrophes. From raging fires up the Pacific Coast that have blocked out sunlight to waves of hurricanes that have flooded the Southeast – all of this in addition to the deadly pandemic – one might say these disasters are of biblical proportions.
This week’s Torah portion, Va’eira, begins with the first seven of the Ten Plagues: water turned to blood, frogs, lice, swarms of insects, pestilence, boils, and hail. In years past, I would have attributed the Ten Plagues to dramatic, albeit sacred, storytelling by our ancient ancestors, who were describing their experience of then-unexplainable and uncontrollable acts of nature. As a person with modern education, I tended to rush past the plagues’ narration in search of the text’s deeper messages.
However, given what we now understand about climate science, I see this text in a new light.
While the Torah uses the term “plagues” (Ex. 9:14), it also calls these divine acts “the strong hand” (Ex. 3:19), “signs” (Ex. 7:3), “wonders” (Ex. 3:20), and “marvels” (Ex. 4:21). Even as early as Genesis 15, God tells Abraham, then known as Abram, that his descendants will be enslaved in a foreign land “…and afflicted for 400 years. And I will bring judgment upon the nation they are serving….” (Genesis 15:13-14). While the plagues are not mentioned, the word “judgment” points to them as acts of retribution.
Many commentators have emphasized the retaliatory nature of the plagues. For example, the 13th-century commentator Nachmanides, commenting on Exodus 7:16, explains that God “will begin to strike with several plagues, God was telling him [Pharaoh] that it is his wickedness that is causing him to bring punishment upon himself….” This appears to be divine retaliation for the mistreatment of the Israelites. For example, the plague of death of the firstborn (Ex. 12:29) serves as retribution for the killing of the male Israelite babies (Ex. 1:16).
The Torah also shows that a broader reason for the plagues is to prove God’s power to both Pharaoh and the Egyptians. God says to Moses, “I have hardened [Pharaoh’s] heart and the hearts of his servants so that I may display My signs among them” (Ex. 10:1). As Rabbi Lucy Dinner reminds us, “Egyptian and corresponding biblical cultures held that their deities were linked directly to their rulers’ power….the Egyptians will come to realize the overarching power of the One God. The Israelites’ God transcends political boundaries, showing forth instead the Divine omnipotent will” (ed. Elyse Goldstein, The Women’s Torah Commentary, p. 133-134). In this reading, the narrative plays out like a cosmic battle between warring deities, with God exercising power and dominance through the plagues.
While these afflictions appear to frame this battle as a physical fight – judging who can control the forces of nature in bigger and better ways – it is also a theological lesson. Noted Israeli biblical scholar Nehama Leibowitz describes the plagues as a “relentless attempt to break Pharaoh’s arrogance and teach him to ‘know the Lord’” (New Studies in Shemot, p. 170). However, the Israelites also need to fully embrace God as all-knowing, powerful, and present. While Pharaoh asks, “Who is the Eternal that I should heed him and let Israel go?” (Ex. 5:2), Moses anticipates that the Israelites will ask, “What is God’s name? What shall I say to them?” (Ex. 3:13). As grand, dramatic acts, the plagues impress knowledge of God on the Israelites as much as they do the Egyptians. God explains the plagues’ purpose, commanding Moses to tell Pharaoh these words:
“I could have stretched forth My hand and stricken you and your people with pestilence, and you and your people would have been effaced from the Earth. Nevertheless, I have spared you for this purpose: In order to show you My power, and in order that My fame may resound throughout the world” (Ex. 9:15-16).
Despite this proclamation, as we will read in future parashiyot, the Israelites will continually struggle with their obedience to God.
It’s fair to ask: Why so many plagues? As we see throughout the Exodus narrative, the number 10 is used prevalently. God hardens Pharaoh’s heart 10 times and Pharaoh also resists God’s will 10 times. Looking beyond literary form, however, Professor Naomi Steinberg sees another reason for the number 10. She reasons, “Had there only been one or two, they might have been dismissed as a chance occurrence” (ed. Eskenazi and Weiss, The Torah: A Women’s Commentary, 349).
Given the showdown between Moses and Pharaoh’s magicians at the beginning of the Exodus narrative (Ex. 7:8-12), it is important that neither the Egyptians nor the Israelites mistake the manipulation of nature as anything less than a miracle wrought by the most powerful God. Yet, Leibowitz warns that “…the sign or wonder can only impress the one who is psychologically prepared to be convinced. Even Elijah, who in his zeal for the Lord resorted to this method of persuasion by miracle, realized how momentary was its impact.”
Leibowitz’ comment rings all too true. As human beings, we are often slow to change our thinking and habits. Whenever they experienced a plague, the Egyptians and Israelites appeared ready to learn and change, only to quickly revert to their previous ways. They needed many plagues to fully and completely hear God’s message. Today, many of us spring to attention during extreme weather, but quickly revert to our complacent ways after it wanes instead of fight to reverse climate change. We despair over a deadly pandemic, only to quickly forget to support ongoing scientific research and ensure healthcare for all.
This year, the biblical plagues can remind us to examine our own hardened hearts. Our actions cannot merely be reactive to the latest emergency. The needs of our world and society must be our collective daily work, informed by the dramatic moments, but tended to consistently.