Bo: Did God Really Need Ten Plagues?

Ten colorful and unique plagues...is that really so necessary? In this week's video, Rabbi Fohrman explores the 7th plague, the transitional plague, and argues that God played off of Pharaoh's ego to show the Pharaoh, the people of Egypt and the people of Israel, that only God is all-powerful.

 

Parshat Bo

This is Rabbi David Fohrman and welcome to Parshat Bo.

In this week’s Parsha everything changes. In last week’s Parsha, the purpose of the plagues had a distinct quality to it. It was a harsh education for Egypt. But the plagues weren’t just there to have devastating physical effects upon Egypt, they were also there to teach them something; that there was a one God, a Creator, Master of all these various different forces in nature. It all came down to one God. The plagues, in short, were for the phrase, “v’yad’u Mitzraim ki-ani HaShem,” ‘and Egypt shall know that I am God’ and, vicariously, through Egypt, the World. All of that changes in this week’s Parsha.

Look at the phrase that opens this Parsha, God says, ‘I will hardened Pharaoh’s heart’ “l’ma’an shiti ototai aleh b’kirbo,” in order to establish my signs and wonders in his midst, “u’l’ma’an t’saper b’aznei bincha u’ben-bincha et-asher hital’lti b’Mitzraim,” and so you should be able to tell your children and your grandchildren how I played with Egypt, “v’et ototai asher-ssamti bam,” and my signs that I put in their midst, “v’ydatem ki-ani HaShem,” and you shall know that I am God.

Gone is the idea that Egypt shall know this. It’s that you should know. You should be able to tell your kids how I played with them. There is nothing educational about this anymore, at least not for Egypt, maybe for the Jews. ‘You should know that I am God.’

Why did the agenda shift? Why is the Almighty giving up, as it were, upon plan A—educating Egypt? And the answer seems to be Pharaoh himself has given up on that. At the end of the seventh plague in last week’s Parsha, Pharaoh had finally recognized the truth. For the first time, he had understood “HaShem ha-tzadik v’ani v’ammi ha-reshaim.” For the first time, the Almighty was actually the righteous one and me and my people were wicked. He’d understood that his defiance of God was a sin. “Chatati ha-pa’am,” he says. “I have sinned this time.”

When Pharaoh changes his mind after that, he is turning his back on the truth. He is turning his back on now what he knows to be true about God and he just doesn’t care. Education is no longer a possibility. So what then will happen now?  What is plan B?

The very first verse of this week’s Parsha, God says “ani hichbadti et-libo,” I have hardened his heart. We go back to last week’s video, that phrase, the phrase “kaved” that doesn’t refer to encouraging anybody anymore. That refers to making them stubborn. For the very first time, God is actually making Pharaoh stubborn. Why would he do that? Why would God interfere with his free will in that kind of way? I want to suggest that the only thing God ever did, in last week’s Parsha, is encourage Pharaoh, “vayechazak HaShem et-lev Par’oh.” When it says here “ani hichbadti et-libo,”—I shall make him stubborn—I want to argue it is not referring to something supernatural. God is not using his omniscience as a kind of underhanded weapon against Pharaoh’s psyche, getting into his mind and changing it. No, what’s happening is actually very easy to explain without recourse to the supernatural.

Let’s listen carefully what happens next and you will see. Verse 3, Moshe and Aaron come to Pharaoh. This is the beginning of the eighth plague. And they say “koh amar Hashem Elohei ha-Ivrim,” thus says God, the God of the Hebrews, “ad-matai me’anta la’anot mi-panai.” How long will you withhold yourself from being subjugated before me? Moshe and Aaron have never spoken to Pharaoh like this. This kind of language—“how long will you withhold yourself?”—talk like that to the King of Egypt? The most powerful sovereign of the world? You think Pharaoh is going to give in when you talk like that? That’s the whole point. “Ani hichbadti et-libo,” I am going to make him stubborn, and this is how. Plan B is: God is going to play off of Pharaoh’s ego, because it was Pharaoh’s ego that’s the problem.

Why didn’t Pharaoh give in after the seventh plague? He realized he was the creature and God was the Creator and a creature needs to follow the dictates of his Creator. Pharaoh couldn’t handle that. In the Egyptian view, Pharaoh himself was a deity within the Pantheon of gods. For a deity within the Pantheon of gods to realize that he is just a creature in service of his Creator, that’s a real step down. Pharaoh realized it and what doesn’t allow him to continue to hold to it, is his sense of self. His sense of self is leading him to deny me? Then his sense of self will be his downfall! He is not going to have a chance to give in anymore, because his sense of self is not going to let him. I could use his sense of self, his ego, against him.

What if in front of his servants I say things like “how long are you going to withhold yourself from being crushed before me?” He can’t give in then. And now listen to the next thing Moshe and Aaron say. “Im-ma’en atah l’shalach et-ammi,” if you continue to withhold yourself like this, “hineini mevi machar arbe b’gvulcha,” tomorrow I am going to bring locust. Locusts will eat up every single shred, every last crop. What’s the GNP of Egypt based upon? What do they live off of? It’s an agrarian society. ‘Arbe’—locusts—is the economic atom bomb. But Pharaoh doesn’t back down. “Vayifen vayetze me’im Par’oh.” And immediately after delivering the news, Moshe and Aaron turn around and leave. What happens next?

“Vayomru avdei Par’oh elav,” Pharaoh’s servants get into the act. “Ad-matai yihyeh zeh lanu l’mokesh,” they say to Pharaoh, echoing Moshe’s words, “ad-matai me’anta,”  until how long are you going to withhold yourself from being subjugated? A little bit more politely they say, how long is this guy Moshe going to be a thorn in our side? Can’t we just let these people go?  “V’ya’avdu et-HaShem Eloheihem,” and they will serve God. “Ha-terem teda ki avdah Mitzraim,” don’t you know that we’re lost? We can never compete against this power that is up against us. Political control over Pharaoh’s servants is beginning to slip out of Pharaoh’s grasp. His own servants are up against him.

Look at the next words, “vayushav et-Moshe v’et-Aharon el-Par’oh,” and Moses and Aaron were returned to Pharaoh. “Vayushav” is a strange conjugation of the verb. It means they were brought back, but it didn’t say who did the bringing. Who are these anonymous people who brought Moshe and Aaron back? It was the servants. It’s the servants trying to broker a deal. Now, Moshe and Aaron are back and Pharaoh has a message for them—he’s got to say something in front of his servants. “L’chu, ivdu et-HaShem Eloheichem,” okay, you can go and serve God, “mi v’mi ha-holchim,” just let me know who exactly do you want to go. What is Pharaoh doing now? He is looking for an olive branch.

At this point, if you’re Moshe, what do you do?  I mean four hundred years of slavery can come to an end right now. All you have to go is say I don’t know, maybe we can just leave some cattle behind or something. Done! We’ve got a deal! Pharaoh can save face, that’s what he is looking to do. Who is going to go?  Oh, Moshe says “b’na’areinu u’v’ziknenu nelech,” we’re going to go with our young, with our old, with our children, with all of our cattle, “b’tzoneinu u’v’bkareinu nelech,” we’re going to take everybody. Pharaoh says “that’s ridiculous!” And he leaves. The plague comes, Pharaoh calls them back, “chata’ti la-HaShem Eloheichem v’lachem,” I have sinned before you. Please accept my sin.

And now verse twenty-four. Pharaoh has a new idea, go, “l’chu ivdu et-HaShem, rak tzonchem u’vkarchem yutzag,” but how about if you leave behind your cattle? I am not just implying “mi v’mi ha-holchim,” who should go. I’m saying, can you give me something here? Pharaoh is more desperate. What’s Moshe’s response? “Gam-atah titen b’yadenu zvachim v’olot,” I am so glad you mentioned cattle. Actually, you guys need to give us cattle, Moshe says, the cattle has to go with us, so we are not leaving a hoof behind. We have to sacrifice for God in the desert. We don’t know how to serve God until God tells us when we get there. Moshe is tone deaf on purpose.  If you are going to let us go, you are going to have to confront your own ego. “Ani hichbadti et-libo,” God is hardening Pharaoh’s heart.

In Pharaoh’s eyes, ego looked like a point of strength for him. It was the last point of strength that he could hold on to. What in the end will keep Pharaoh for recognizing God? He takes refuge in his own ego. It’s his last fortified castle when everything else has fallen in his theological framework. But refuge in your own ego is never a strength. When your ego keeps you from recognizing a truth that you would otherwise see, that’s not a strength at all. It’s a weakness and it will be turned against you. It will become your Achilles heel and that’s what it becomes for Pharaoh. Ultimately, he is destroyed, but he is destroyed through something as simple as his own inability to give in.


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