God's Justice In Action
The Meaning Behind The Tenth Plague Of Egypt
Rabbi David Fohrman
Founder and Lead Scholar
After God tells Moses about the last plague before the Exodus, He makes a series of odd statements before actually performing the plague of death on all the firstborns in Egypt. Why? What was different about the tenth plague?
In this video, Rabbi Fohrman argues that before unleashing the final plague on Egypt, God was making a fundamental argument about the ultimate nature of justice.
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Hi everybody, this is Rabbi David Fohrman and welcome to Parshat Bo, you are watching Aleph Beta.
The tenth plague, what makes this plague different from all others?
What Was Different About the Last Plague of Egypt?
Well, all other plagues, once God and Moshe issue a warning for the plagues, so, you know, the plague happens. 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 firstborn. 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 do the gifts have to do with that?
And now, let's keep on reading. We get another really strange digression which seems to veer 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.'
Who cares how popular Moses is, how revered he is among the Egyptian populace – and what does that have to do with this final plague that's coming down upon Egypt?
Understanding the Final, Tenth Plague: Death of the Firstborn Egyptians
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, 'at 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,' vehayetah 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’ve 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 in front of all of Pharaoh's servants? I mean why does that have to happen? Let's just go already!
The Meaning Behind the Last Plague in Exodus
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 ten plagues 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, in the tenth 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 create in this nation. But that's only part of the tit for tat here.
Another part of it had to do with 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 a three-day holiday to go celebrate before God in the desert.
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 straw to the Hebrews, 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’re 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’re screaming, saying, let's go, serve God.' Tichbad ha'avodah al-ha'anashim, 'let the work grow a bit harder and then maybe they’ll drop this scream of lies.'
And when this command went out, vayavo'u shotrei benei Yisrael vayitz'aku el-Paroh, 'the taskmasters of the Israelites themselves came back to Pharaoh and screamed to him and said, lamah ta'aseh choh la'avadeicha, 'how come you’re 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’ll 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 hem 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 straw.'
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, 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 master’s 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.
God's Justice Behind Sending the Tenth Plague to Egypt
It all happens at once in a single moment in the tenth 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 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 administered through justice to perpetrators of evil and compassion to the victims.
Here in the tenth plague that justice for the perpetrators – and compassion, freedom for the victims – comes together in a single fell swoop.
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