What's With The Ten Plagues?
The Symbolic Meaning Of The Ten Plagues Explained
Rabbi David Fohrman
Founder and Lead Scholar
This week, Rabbi Fohrman and Imu tackle Parshat Va'era and ask: are the 10 plagues just arbitrary, or is there a deeper symbolic explanation? Do the 10 plagues mean something real, to the Israelites, the Egyptians, and to us, today?
Imu Shalev: Welcome to Parsha Lab, a new podcast from Aleph Beta. I'm Imu Shalev, your cohost.
Rabbi Fohrman: And I am Rabbi David Fohrman, your other cohost and I am delighted to be here with you, Imu.
Imu Shalev: Rabbi Fohrman, why did we decide to do a podcast?
Rabbi Fohrman: I feel like, Imu, you are the simple son who is asking the wise son a grand and wise question. Why indeed are we looking to do this podcast? Well there are many reasons, my son. One is that we think that by taking a look at the parsha more carefully in a kind of chavrusa almost study partner kind of way, we can uncover some interesting things by really just looking at the text itself and letting the text kind of speak to us.
Imu Shalev: Wait, I'm really confused. Are you the wise son or are you pretending to be my father. Because a couple of times you called me your son. I don't think the wise son is related to the simple son.
Rabbi Fohrman: Oh gosh. There's all sorts of crazy edible stuff going on here. I don't even know. I'm a simple father. Let's keep it at that.
Imu Shalev: I am so confused, but it sounds like a great way to start. Yeah, basically consider us p'shat hunters looking at the text, forgetting everything we thought we knew and really trying to get to the p'shat, understand what's happening in this text, see what excites us, what we can learn from it and without further ado, let's dive into Parshat Va'era.
Is There a Symbolic Meaning Behind the Ten Plagues?
Imu Shalev: Year after year, you get these 10 plagues and the 10 plagues are really, really powerful, really, really cool, seemingly to show God's majesty over the universe, but my question is are these plagues kind of arbitrary? Why exactly did God choose locust and hailstones or, from this week's parsha, why is there blood and frogs and lice?
Are these just any plagues and God could have chosen, flying razor blades or knife attack, and these were just what was on the menu that day? Or is there some sort of spiritual meaning behind the plagues or maybe not spiritual, but is there something more to God's specific choice of the plagues that He chose?
Rabbi Fohrman: Yes. That's a really great question and I think there's been a lot of thought thunk about that and ink spilled about that. I'll share with you some stuff that I've heard that perhaps may resonate with you as well as maybe some thoughts of my own. I talked in general terms about this subject, but not in quite the particular way you're thinking of it, in my book The Exodus You Almost Passed Over and in a series of videos we put out several years back on Aleph Beta.
The general theory, as you know, that I suggested there is that the plagues in total represent a kind of kaleidoscope of different natural forces and suggest that God is master over all of them. The whole point of the plagues is the diversity of them. But the diversity of them, why in particular is there a plague of blood? Why is that followed by the plague of frogs, by the plague of lice and how does that transition into other plagues like the death of the animals and the wild animals everywhere and barad, and hailstones and those things?
I think it sort of begs the reader to engage in a kind of connect the dots game, almost can you discern a pattern here and what might that pattern mean? One of the patterns which I think has been suggested, at least that I've heard of, is that there are three kinds of plagues here or three meta groupings or large groupings of plagues. You see that also in the datzach adash b'achav acronym which for many of us is familiar to us from the Haggadah where we actually break up the plagues using the acronym.
If you think about why that acronym is there, one possibility is it just makes it easy for people to remember. The other possibility is is that by breaking it up into three words – datzach adash and b'achav – that suggests that there are sort of three groupings or at least that Chazal, our rabbis saw three groupings. The question is what are those three groupings?
Finding Patterns Within the Ten Plagues
Rabbi Fohrman: One interesting possibility might be if you think about the plagues affecting height. I don't know quite how to say it, but the datzach plagues seem to affect the ground. The adash plagues seem to affect the area between ground and sky, or at least the height of a person. We relate to those plagues, if you imagine sort of a person staring out into space. A person could look down and see the datzach plagues, could look across and see the adash plagues and could look up and see the b'achav plagues. And thus there's a kind of sense in which if you think about God being the Master of what? We would say the Master of heavens and earth and everything in between. So the plagues kind of represent that.
- If you think about Plague Number 1, you have blood. The Nile is blood. You look down you'll see that.
- Plague Number 2, you'll see frogs. The frogs are coming out of the Nile and they are infesting the land but you look down at that.
- Then you have kinim, you have lice, also ground based.
Imu Shalev: We can call this the Uncle Moshe theory of plagues. This is "up, up, down, down, right, left and all around."
Rabbi Fohrman: Exactly. The Uncle Moshe theory of plagues. We can even sing it, Imu.
Imu Shalev: Just for our podcasters, Rabbi Fohrman every week is going to try to get me to sing something.
Rabbi Fohrman: I am and should I ever succeed, Imu, you know that that will immediately cause our ratings on iTunes to skyrocket.
Imu Shalev: Musical parsha. I can't wait for us to do musical parsha each week.
Rabbi Fohrman: Yup. We can go straight into musical parsha. Anyway, so yes, we can call this the Uncle Moshe theory of the plagues, but I think there's probably other lines that can be drawn as well. I'm curious as to whether you had any thoughts?
Redemption: Explaining the Themes Behind the Ten Plagues
Imu Shalev: Yes. So that general idea kind of again goes to the theory that the purpose of the plagues is to demonstrate God's mastery over the universe and to bring Pharaoh to cower before this God Who really runs everything "up, up, down, down, right, left and all around." But I wondered if you could start with me maybe in just the first plague of blood or perhaps even right before that with the staff turning into the snake. I wondered if you had any specific thoughts on just why is the staff turning into a snake or blood and see maybe we can keep going as we begin to explore those.
Rabbi Fohrman: Yeah, so I think this is something which actually you and I have touched base a little bit on in the past. But I'm not sure I can take you all the way through the plagues. I see a bit of a pattern in the beginning ones. But just to kind of recap, one of the themes that might exist in the plagues is that God is expressing a kind of empathy with the People of Israel.
There's a kind of redemption happening. Before a physical redemption that's going to express itself in actually leaving Egypt, there's a redemption of the pain and the suffering by God indicating that He is aware of what's going on and almost to use a modern term, validating the experience of the people. Because if you think about one of the greatest crimes of the Egyptians, one of the great crimes is that, the most heinous act of the Egyptians or their greatest crime, is probably the killing of the babies, the throwing the babies in the Nile. But the nature of that crime was not just that babies were killed and were exterminated, but that there was a kind of natural cover-up that was inherently a part of the crime. If you use the Nile –
Imu Shalev: Yeah. Rabbi Fohrman, when you first told me about this, I thought it was kind of breathtaking. When you sat across from me and Carlos, and Gaby had asked me what is the greatest crime the Egyptians perpetrated on the Nation of Israel, I said slavery. I almost kind of forgot that there was this terrible genocide, the killing of firstborn babies. Maybe that's kind of the way the Egyptians designed it for me to forget.
Rabbi Fohrman: Yes. That's an interesting thought. So if you take this creepy story one step further, it kind of meshes with something Nachmanides says. Nachmanides in the early chapters of Exodus suggests that there was a deceptive descent into slavery. It wasn't just Pharaoh came along all of the sudden and said hey you guys are slaves. There was this "havah nit'chakmah lo" let's deal wisely with them. Part of let's deal wisely with them is that you don't just come and turn night into day and take freestanding people who were landowners and nobility and throw them into jail and make them slaves. There is some sort of deceptive descent into slavery. It's the lobster being boiled in the pot and never realizing until the water gets too hot and it's too late.
Part of that deceptive descent into slavery, the descent that begins with taxation and goes to confiscation of land and other things, part of that deceit may well have been that the state sponsored aspect of the greatest crimes against humanity created by the Egyptians, may have itself been deceitful. May not have been above board.
In other words, it's kind of right hand, left hand; good cop, bad cop. There are these mobs that are going into homes and that are taking children. But ostensibly you can still report it to the police. You can still report it to the authorities. But when you report it to the authorities, it just gets hung up in the courts. It's like, so did you have any witnesses? Did anybody see this in the middle of the night? Your screaming baby taken away from you. Anybody prepared to testify? And it's no, no, I don't have any witnesses. Can you show me any evidence of the crime?
You walk outside in the morning and it's just again the birds are chirping and the Nile is placid and the Nile is sort of conspiratorial. It is part of the great conspiracy almost as if nature is conspiring together with the Egyptians to cover over the crime.
Imu Shalev: You're saying that the Nile was used basically as a major cover up. That they didn't just do a mass grave or anything like that. They threw the babies into the Nile. Why did they throw the babies into the Nile?
The Ten Plagues: A Symbolic Reflection of Egypt's Crime?
Rabbi Fohrman: Right. And if you think about it, it's almost biting off your nose to spite your face because what the Egyptians gain is a cover up. What they lose is potentially fouling the Nile. Except that maybe they don't lose fouling the Nile because the Nile is a big place if you think about the quadrillions of gallons of water that course through the Nile every day flowing and consistently replenishing itself. There's enough water there to sort of drown out any evidence of malfeasance on the part of the Egyptians.
Here the Egyptians are playing Schopenhauer on the stolen pianos and the Jews are left without their children and where did it all happen and where did it all come from? Sort of the first plague seems to be when the Nile turns into blood. It's God's sort of forcing the perpetrators of this to confront the evidence of their crimes and almost as if nature is not going to play along anymore.
The Nile is going to turn into blood and the blood of these children is going to be there both for the perpetrator and for the victim. For the perpetrator, they're forced to confront the heinous nature and the ghoulish cruelty of their crimes. And the validation for the victim that no, I wasn't crazy. The Nile has turned into blood. This is what they've done. That's not something you can hide. Plague Number 1 might be that kind of validation.
I think when you and I sort of talked about this, one of the really sort of brilliant things I think which you kind of brought to this notion is that if you look at the next plague, the plague of frogs, you sort of have two things happening in the plague of frogs.
One of the things which you mentioned before is this notion of the staff turning into a snake which is really the pre-plague or the plague that happens before blood. If you think about a snake, a snake is this sort of creepy crawly thing. Whether it's a snake or a tanin, a sea monster, it's the kind of the thing that you recoil from. And indeed when Moses sees this creature that the staff turns into when God gives him a dry run for this test, he actually does recoil. It's this creepy, crawly thing.
If you think about creepy crawlies, I think one way to see it is that the Egyptians are sort of viewing the Jews that way. The Israelites are these creepy crawlies. If you think about a snake, what do you do with a snake? What do you do with a snake if you try to kill it? You just throw it in the water. It's almost like Israel is this collective snake.
Again, the verbs of Exodus seem to reinforce this when the Egyptians are confronted with the population explosion of Israel, the language is "vayakutzu mipnei B'nei Yisrael" which literally again means that they recoiled or that they were – recoiled almost in disgust as if the Jews were these sort of creepy, crawly, non-human things and the way you get rid of them is you just ich, I can't even touch you. You throw it in the Nile and you get rid of it.
It's almost as if Pharaoh in response to that got these frogs that are crawling out of the swamp, their natural place, which is the Nile and coming into land. It's almost as if Israelites are really creepy crawlies and you want to get rid of the creepy crawlies by throwing them into the water, what happens when the real creepy crawlies come and threaten you on land – and enter the plague of frogs.
The really brilliant point that you had, I think, about that was the language of the text that describes what happens when the frogs finally ceased. When they ceased, they get piled up on these piles and the stench of the frogs just wafts through Egypt and just makes it unbearable to just walk around because of the stench of the decaying frogs. The language for that in Hebrew is– I forget the exact language. It's vayiv'ash, if I'm not mistaken. The language for that echoes the verb which the Egyptians really used to describe their interaction with the Jewish People. Or actually even better, that the Jews or that the Israelites themselves used to describe how the Egyptians would talk about them.
The oppressed slaves come to Moses and complain to him "asher hiv'ashtem et rucheinu" that you've made us stink in front of Pharaoh and the Egyptians are disgusted with us and they're treating us so horribly and why do you make us stink like that? That's really that sense of alienation that the Israelites feel that we're being treated like not just live creepy crawlies but dead creepy crawlies that are just decaying that are just so disgusting that they stink.
It's almost like God is forcing the perpetrators to come to grips with that sort of alienation and saying okay, so what happens when the Nile turns into blood, human blood, because these aren't creepy crawlies, because these are real human beings that you've destroyed. And what happens when the true creepy crawlies come out of the water and what happens when they stink? It's this visceral kind of forcing the perpetrator to come to grips with the crimes and concomitant sort of validation of the experience of the victim.
The Meaning of the Ten Plagues Explained
Imu Shalev: Yes. So just review here. What we're saying is the Egyptians tried cover their heinous crimes. They threw babies into the Nile. The Nile had no reaction. It was the same Nile, same crystal clear, beautiful Nile. God is sort of showing empathy with the victims, with the Israelites, who have this terrible injustice against them. Nobody knows about their injustice and then God says I'm going to make your crimes chase after you, so to speak. I'm going to make them so apparent that the Nile is going to turn into blood so the river is not going to cover your crimes anymore. Your crimes are going to be apparent. The river itself is going to bleed.
Then your crimes are not even going to stay in the water. Your crimes are going to come out of the water, so to speak. And that's, sort of, frogs which comes into the homes of everybody and you can't look away anymore. You can't look away anymore. You can't turn your back on this and pretend it's not happening. And everything is going to be disgusting. It's going to smell. It's going to be just as much as you treated the Israelites and you felt like they smelled, now your crimes are going to stink.
I want to challenge you, Rabbi Fohrman, to see if you can keep going into kinim (lice). Here let me read this to you. "Vayitz'b'ru otam chamarim chamarim vativ'ash ha'aretz." Vativ'ash ha'aretz, I actually think is an interesting language because in the plague of blood, the plague was localized to the river. But now you have the land. Vativ'ash ha'aretz, the land itself is now disgusting. It's stinking. The very next thing that happens is "Vayomer Hashem el Moshe emor el Aharon n'tei et matcha v'hach et afar ha'aretz." Now you're going to hit the dust of the land. "V'haya l'chinim b'chol eretz Mitzrayim."
I wonder if there's some sort of progression here which is they tried to hide their crimes, so the crimes in blood are revealed. The crimes in frogs are chasing after them and now the crimes in lice maybe – and I'm curious to hear what you think – maybe the crimes in lice are manifesting in the land itself. It's a plague on the land, afar ha'aretz.
Rabbi Fohrman: Yes. It is kind of interesting. You have that juxtaposition of "vayitz'b'ru otam chamarim chamarim vativ'ash ha'aretz" that the land begins to become affected by the stench of the decaying frogs. The next thing that happens is that Aaron takes his staff and strikes the dust of the land from which the lice comes.
What I thought where you were going with that is that if you think about what lice do – I'm not quite sure exactly how lice attack, but it seems to me that they swarm. Right? If they swarm, they swarm kind of in the air. If you think about the difference between aretz and afar ha'aretz, to me aretz suggests kind of the, it's grounded at least. You have the stench of the decaying frogs lying in heaps upon the ground. The next thing that you have is sort of swirling dust in the air. The lice are like swirling dust. It almost feels like you have sort of this contamination in Egypt that's spreading from the water, which is blood, to the land which are these frogs that are laying piled upon the land to the air.
There's a progression which is that water – the contamination of the water doesn't stay in the water. That these frogs that crawl out of the water and enter into the land and decay there, now the land is contaminated. But the contamination of the land doesn't sort of stay there. If you think about lice, lice are probably bred, one might think, in the dying corpses of frogs. And it's almost as if that gives rise to the whole other plague which is attacking not just the land, but there's something that's coming from the land, from the afar of the land and now swirling in the air and contaminating the air and all these lice that are the wind-driven lice, like wind-driven dust, that are now contaminating mankind's space in the air.
You have three realms being attacked here. The realm of the waters, the realm of the land and the realm of really the air or the atmosphere.
That's an interesting possibility. One might say the first three plagues are really about one thing, but one thing sort of migrating across three platforms. And the thing is sort of a kind of contamination that progresses from one form into another into another.
The Symbolic Meaning of the Ten Plagues
Imu Shalev: And sort of the imagery that I'm seeing is their sins are chasing them. So the sins become apparent. The sins come onto the land. Why are they gathering all the frogs into piles? They were everywhere. The Torah says the frogs were really in their homes, in their ovens so they gathered them all together. They placed them into piles. They tried to create the frog graveyard, so to speak, but it contaminates the land. The sins keep chasing.
Rabbi Fohrman: That's an interesting point where you could say in a way the attempt to kill the babies and to contain them in the Nile backfires when the Nile turns into blood. The Nile turning into blood backfires when a bloody Nile forces an exodus of frogs onto the land. The frog graveyard is an attempt to control the frogs everywhere, which backfires by creating a whole pile of polluted frogs out of which these lice emerge. And it's almost like nothing you can do can contain the crime or the chain reaction devastating aftereffects of it.
I'm not arguing that these are all naturalistic things and that there's no miracle here. But just in terms of seeing a connect-the-dots progression, it may be that there's a larger story to be told as you weave these together. Perhaps that story is that you can't contain the effects of a heinous crime.
Imu Shalev: Yeah. I think that's really powerful. I wonder if this theory continues into the other plagues, but this might be a good place to stop and something to contemplate about these first three plagues. When you first told me that theory about blood and even now it just feels like a much more adult story than the one that I first learned where there is not just a God Who is trying to bring Egypt to its knees and not even a God Who is trying to show His mastery over the world, but a God who sees the way in which His people, His own child, was so terribly tormented and Who is showing how He can redeem their suffering by first making sure that the abusers' crimes, which were previously hidden, are now brought to light.
It reminds me a lot of what's going on in pop culture now with a lot of women who were treated terribly whose crimes were hidden and the abusers walk around every day and are treated as heroes. It's one thing for a victim to get a really nice settlement payment or even to be rescued. It's another thing for the perpetrator to be brought to very public justice and to be made to face their crimes.
Rabbi Fohrman: Yeah, and the notion of the crime that can't be covered up. The crime that whatever you try to cover finds a way to escape from underneath that cover is – it's powerful and certainly has some resonance with the moment as well. Fantastic.
Well this has been fun, Imu, and I look forward to continuing the adventure as we forge onward with sword and shield into future parshiyot.
Imu Shalev: Thank you so much for joining me, Rabbi Fohrman. For all of you out there, please come back next week for another episode of Parsha Lab by Aleph Beta. This is a new project so we'd love to hear your feedback. Please send us an email at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Rabbi Fohrman: And keep in mind that once it's not a new project anymore, we get less and less interested in you, our listeners, where you just turn us off. Actually, we always love to hear you whether it's new or whether it's old.
Imu Shalev: You know something I love about podcast recordings is when, it's like they beg you for their call to action. It's, like, please come back. Please rate us in the iTunes store. Please, please subscribe. Look guys, if you liked us great. If you don't like us, no offense taken. You're probably not even here at the end.
Rabbi Fohrman: That's right. Talking to the diehard fans now.