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The 10th plague, what makes this plague different from all others? Well, all other plagues, once God and Moshe issue a warning for the plagues, well, you know, the plague happens. But, over here there is a warning and then there’s something else going on.
Let’s listen, vayomer Hashem el-Moshe, God says to Moses, od nega echad avi al-paroh, ‘I am going to bring one last plague on Pharaoh’, ve’al-Mitzraim, and on Egypt, acharei-chen yeshalach etchem mizeh, ‘After this, they are going to send you out’. Now, if you were God and you had just said this to Moses, there’s going to be one last plague, so what should happen next? You should hear about the plague, the smiting of the first born. So tell him I am going to go out and I am going to kill all the firstborn but that is not what God says.
Before God gets to that, there is a digression. Daber-na be’oznei ha’am, God says, ‘speak please in the ears of the people and ask them to do something’. Veyish’alu ish me’et re’ehu ve’ishah me’et re’utah, ‘I want everyone to go out and to ask their neighbors for gifts’. Klei-chesef uchelei-zahav, ‘implements of silver, implements of gold’. Vayiten Hashem et-chen ha’am be’einei Mitzrayim, God is going to give grace to the people in the eyes of Egypt and they are going to say, yes. They are going to give you these gifts. So what’s this digression doing here? Why are we talking about the gifts? Right after you said there’s this great and final plague I am going to bring down upon the people, what are the gifts have to do with that?
And now, let’s keep on reading. We get another really strange digression which sees to devour off into an entirely other subject. Gam ha’ish Moshe gadol me’od be’eretz Mitzrayim, ‘and Moses was very, very great in Egypt’, be’einei avdei-Paroh uve’einei ha’am, ‘in the eyes of the servants of Pharaoh and in the eyes of the people’. Why do I need to hear about Moses’s poll numbers? I mean, I care these polling, 75% in Alexandria, who cares how popular Moses is, how revered he is among the Egyptian populace and what that has to do with this final plague that’s coming down upon Egypt?
The next thing that happens is that Moses approaches Pharaoh and warns him about the impending plague. Vayomer Moshe koh amar Hashem, Moshe says, ‘thus says God’, kachatzot halaylah, ‘about midnight’, ani yotze betoch Mitzrayim, ‘I, God, I am going to go out in the midst of the Egypt’, umet kol-bechor be’eretz Mitzrayim, ‘there is going to be the death of all the firstborn’, vehayetzh tze’akah gedolah bechol-eretz Mitzrayim, ‘there would be a great screaming throughout the land of Egypt’, asher kamohu lo nihyatah vechamohu lo tosif, ‘that before there has never been anything like this’ and after there will never again be any screaming like this. Ulechol benei Yisrael lo yecheratz-kelev leshono, ‘but for all the Israelites, not even a dog will bark’, there will be utter silence. This is kind of an interesting way to characterize the effects of the plague here. We are talking about a plague that has gigantic ramifications for Egypt, it is literally the killing of a sizable amount of the population, all of the first born, it is a disastrous thing and yet it is phrased in this particular way in the sense of screaming and silence. Is there any particular reason for that?
And finally, the next verse, veyardu chol-avadeicha eleh elai vehishtachavu-li lemor tze atah vechol-ha’am asher-beragleicha, ‘all of your servants, Pharaoh’, Moses says, ‘are going to come down here to me and they are going to bow before me and they are going to say, go, get out of here, leave and then and only then will we finally leave’. Okay, so here, generally speaking, we have got echoes of element two, the sort of political power of Moshe here, everyone is going to bow to him but here again you know, you can sort of be skeptical. Is this some sort of ego trip on the part of Moshe that he has to get bowed down to by all of Pharaoh’s servants? I mean why does that has to happen? Why don’t just go already? So I would like to suggest to you that there is a single common explanation for all three of these apparently different issues. It all boils down to the nature of justice. There is no question that the 10th plague in some kind of way is a manifestation of divine justice against the Egyptians for 210 years of barbaric slavery imposed upon the people of Israel.
But here, on the 10th plague, what we are seeing is not any old justice but a very exquisite kind of measure for measure justice, at many different levels, simultaneously. First, the economic level. 210 years of labor. Before they leave, God instructs Israel, to go and ask their neighbors for silver and for gold and God will see to it that the neighbors will give it to them. You aren’t leaving until you take back some of the economic wealth that your backbreaking labor has helped to create in this nation. But that’s only part of the tit for tat here.
Another part of it had to do with non-economic injustice in the very idea of slavery, from God’s perspective. Do you remember what it was that Moses had come to Pharaoh, asking for? He asked him for three day holiday to go celebrate before God in the desert. And Pharaoh had denied him this. Koh amar Hashem Elokei Yisrael, ‘said the God of Israel’, shalach et ami, ‘send out my people’, v’yachogu li bamidbar, ‘let them celebrate before me in the desert’. God, the master says, I have these servants, these Israelites, let them come and celebrate with me and what was Pharaoh’s response? Pharaoh commanded that day, lo tosifun latet teven la’am lilbon halevenim, ‘don’t continue to give straws to the Hebrew’s, to continue to make their bricks’. Hem yelchu vekosheshu lahem teven, ‘they are going to have to go and gather their own straw but you are going to keep the same daily quota of bricks that they need to make’. Ki-nirpim hem, ‘because they are lazy’, al-ken tzoakim, ‘that’s why they are screaming, saying, let’s go, serve God’. Tichbad ha’avodah al-ha’anashim, ‘let the work grow a bit harder and then maybe they are going to drop the scream of lies’. And when this command went out, vayavo’u shotrei benei Yisrael vayitz’aku el-Paroh, ‘the task master of the Israelites themselves came back to Pharaoh and screamed to him and said, lamah ta’aseh choh la’avadeicha, ‘how come you are treating your servants so badly? You are sinning against them’ and pharaoh didn’t listen, pharaoh said, nirpim atem nirpim, ‘you are lazy, you are lazy. That’s why you are saying, let us go and serve our God’.
Look at it from God’s perspective for a moment. What had God asked for? The Israelites are my rightful servants. Let them celebrate before me in the desert. Pharaoh denied that request. The whole slavery for 210 years had been pharaoh making servants out of someone else’s servants. They were the rightful servants of God but now, they were illegitimately serving another master and that master wouldn’t even let them out for a three day holiday to serve their rightful master. That was at the very beginning before there were any plagues and now at the culmination of the plagues. Pharaoh, you too have servants, legitimate servants, your own servants in the palace. You didn’t let my servants serve me, you enslaved my servants, to an illegitimate master. I will take your rightful servants and make them the servants of a foreign master.
Moses is going to be their master. Gam ha’ish Moshe gadol me’od be’eretz Mitzrayim, Moses was very great in the land, look at his poll numbers, a lot better than your poll numbers pharaoh. Veyardu chol-avadeicha eleh elai vehishtachavu-li, ‘we are not leaving until all of your servants Pharaoh, come bowing before Moses, who they have no right to serve’.
And finally, the screams. Right before the plagues began what had been the essence of Pharaoh’s sin when he said no? Al-ken tzoakim, ‘yes they are screaming but I know why they are screaming. Because they are lazy’. ‘I am not going to listen to their screams’. Lo tosifun latet teven, ‘I am not going to continue to give them straws’. Lo tosifun, do you remember that word? ‘I am not going to anymore give straw?’ that word now comes back to bite Pharaoh. Yes, pharaoh was an expert at lo tosif. Pharaoh said, al tosif raot penai, ‘I don’t want to see you ever again, get out from here’ and that’s when Moses turned to him and said, fine, I will leave, I may not see you again, al tosif raot penai, ‘but boy will we hear you’. Vehayetah tze’akah gedolah, ‘there will be a great screaming in Egypt’, chamohu lo tosif, ‘there will never again be one like this’. You didn’t listen to the screams of Israelites, you dismissed them with a sadistic command about the straw which you phrased as lo tosif. Now, your screams will not be heard. The terror that you inflicted will be inflicted upon you. The loss of political control, the illegitimate subjugation of another masters servants, will be inflicted upon you and economic restitution, will come as well. The wealth that you stole, from our people through illegitimate slavery, will now be paid back too.
It all happens at once in a single moment in the 10th plague. The justice of the master of the universe is exquisitely precise. In an earlier series of videos on Passover, I made the argument that through the precision of the plagues in general, God indicated that he was the master and creator of the physical world but it is not just the physical world that he masters but it is the world of men and their affairs. That is administrated through justice to perpetrators of evil and compassion to the victims. Here in the 10th plague that justice for the perpetrators and compassion, freedom for the victims, comes together in a single fell swoop.
1. Bereishit: Thank You, God...For Not Making Me A Woman?
2. Noach: Why Aren't Dinosaurs In the Torah?
3. Lech Lecha: The Battle For Abraham's Legacy
4. Vayeira: Abram, Sarai, Hagar, Ishmael and...Exodus?
5. Vayeira: Epilogue
6. Chayei Sarah: Eliezer and Samuel's Surprising Connection
7. Toldot: What Is Isaac's Legacy?
8. Vayeitzei: Understanding Rachel's World
9. Vayishlach: From Jacob to Israel
10. Vayeishev: Does God Speak To Us Today?
11. Miketz: Reversing the Sale of Joseph
12. Vayigash: Understanding Pharaoh's Dream
13. Shmot: Does God Really "Love" Us?
14. Va'era: Seeing God in Science
15. Bo: God's Justice In Action
16. Beshalach: Fruit Trees In the Sea?
17. Beshalach: Epilogue
18. Yitro: Seeing Ten Commandments in the Burning Bush
19. Mishpatim: Does Our History Become Laws?
20. Mishpatim: Epilogue
21. Terumah: Angels In the Tabernacle? Part I/2
22. Tetzaveh: Angels In the Tabernacle?- Part 2/2
23. Ki Tisa: A Closer Look At Kiddush
24. Vayakhel-Pekudei: God In Space, God In Time
25. Vayikra: How Can We Relate To Sacrifices Today?
26. Tzav: A Deeper Look At The Priestly Role
27. Tzav: Epilogue
28. Shemini: What Does Aaron Teach Us About Loss?
29. Tazria-Metzora: Rejoining the Community
30. Acharei Mot-Kedoshim: Social Justice...and Sacrifices?
31. Emor: An Epic View of Jewish Holidays
32. Behar-Bechukotai: Walking With God
33. Bamidbar: Why We Count
34. Beha'alotecha: Where It All Went Wrong
35. Shelach: How Can We Relate To Such a Vengeful God?
36. Korach: Why Did Korach Rebel?
37. Chukat: Why Did Moses Hit The Rock?
38. Balak: What Is Israel's Purpose In The World?
39. Pinchas: What Is True Leadership?
40. Matot-Masei: The Art of Negotiation
41. Devarim: What Did Moses Do Wrong?- Part 1/2
42. Va'etchanan: What Did Moses Do Wrong?- Part 2/2
43. Eikev: Why Does The Nation Of Israel Merit The Land?
44. Re'eh: Why Do We Need Both Oral and Written Law?
45. Shoftim: The Significance of Saving Private Ryan
46. Ki Teitzei: How To Merit Long Life
47. Ki Tavo: The Pursuit of Happiness- Part 1
48. Nitzavim: The Pursuit of Happiness- Part 2/2
49. Vayeilech: Moses' Farewell To Israel, Part 1/3
50. Ha'azinu: Moses' Farewell To Israel, Part 2/3
51. V'Zot Habracha: Moses' Farewell To Israel, Part 3/3
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