What was the purpose of the plagues? At first glance, it seems it would be to punish Pharaoh for not listening to G-d. Each time Pharaoh refuses to let the people of Israel go, G-d brings down a new plague. It looks like a classic struggle of good and evil, a fight between two titans, although it is too obvious who is the greater titan, who will end up the winner. This idea, though, often leads to the same questions. How can the plagues just be about punishing Pharaoh each time he refuses to let the people go? How can this be a struggle between good and evil or a fight between two titans? We’re talking about G-d verses a mere mortal, here! Sure, it’s Pharaoh, the great king of Egypt. Probably the most powerful man in the world at the time. In his own culture, people revered him as the embodiment of one of their own gods. But, we know there is no G-d but Adonai. Pharaoh has no unearthly powers. Although I think we have some proof that G-d cannot be both omniscient and omnipotent, or the Jewish people wouldn’t have been enslaved for so long in the first place, it seems that once G-d “heard their moaning, and remembered the covenant with Abraham and Isaac and Jacob, and [finally] took notice of them,” it should have been pretty easy to swoop in and save them
But maybe, G-d didn’t want to save them right away. In last week’s parasha, the Torah speaks of Pharaoh being stubborn, or hardening his heart. In this week’s parasha, the text is more explicit, that G-d is hardening Pharaoh’s heart. Why would G-d do this? Why does G-d want to drag out the suffering of all the people in Egypt? The children of Israel continue to suffer as slaves, though they are safe from the plagues, and the children of Egypt suffer from the plagues, though they are safe from slavery. Perhaps this time was meant to prepare them for their journey.
In Parashat Shemot, there is a hint that the people were oppressed and enslaved for a long time before they thought to call out to G-d for help. When they cry out, their cries rise to heaven, and G-d takes notice of them, resolving to free them. Why didn’t they think to call out sooner? Maybe because they were busy being oppressed! It’s easy to forget about G-d’s protection when not actively benefitting from it. Sometimes, when at a low point, it’s hard to believe that someone out there really cares at all. Sometimes it’s hard to accept help or reassurance after getting quite used to despair. Maybe G-d was worried that these people weren’t emotionally ready to be freed, to have their whole lives uprooted and flipped upside down, even if for the better. First G-d needed to show the people that they were noticed, that they were still cared for, by an Awesome Being that truly had the power to free and protect them. While protected in Goshen, the people of Israel could see G-d’s wrath reign down on their oppressor through the plagues. They could see that G-d had great power to both destroy and protect at the same time, and build their trust in this G-d that put up a fence around them to keep them safe while swarms of wild beasts, locusts, and hail plagued the people of Egypt.
Additionally, I think the plagues served as something of an equalizer between the people of Israel and Egypt. The Egyptians, cruel slave masters and uninvolved citizens alike, suffered from the plagues. Even innocent children were forced to suffer the plagues. I’m sure this made the people angry toward their Pharaoh and the slave masters that brought this suffering down on them. Maybe not at first, but once it became evident that indeed Moses brought the wrath of Adonai, and Pharaoh was powerless to stop it, not an embodiment of their own god at all, they might wonder why Pharaoh didn’t just admit defeat and end it. What kind of leader allows the suffering of their own people to continue, because of his pride and his hatred of the “others”? (Well, most, but it’s still not right). Certainly by the tenth plague, the people of Egypt might have come around to see that G-d is powerful, and loves and protects the people of Israel, and Pharaoh is a stubborn meanie. Thus, by the time the Israelites were able to flee, the Egyptians were disposed favorably toward them, and gave the Hebrews all their gold and silver to escape with.
So, when you find yourself in a time when you feel plagued, try to think of it as a learning opportunity. You probably will never be plagued by slavery or by swarms of wild beasts and locusts. But you might find yourself otherwise oppressed, or feel like the world is coming down around you more figuratively. This happens to everyone, at several different points in life. It’s normal. It’s awful, but it’s normal. When it happens, try not to forget about G-d’s love and protection, as the Israelites might have. Try to look around at the situation and find where G-d’s might is playing a role, and what good the time of darkness (figuratively, or as in the 9th plague) may lead to. What lesson is it trying to teach you? Should you change your alliances or help out a neighbor or another community you never paid attention to before? After the plagues comes freedom, made all the more sweet by the contrast of the hardships endured to get there. May you all have the patience and wisdom to make it through the plagues, and reach a time of safety and freedom with peace. Amen. Shabbat Shalom.