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One of the most dramatic moments of the Passover seder comes with the recitation of the ten plagues that, the Bible says, God brought on the Egyptians to persuade Pharaoh to free the Israelites from slavery. As we recite each plague, we spill a drop of wine in recognition, according to many interpretations, that the process of our liberation caused suffering to the Egyptian people.
Though it’s one of the best known details of the exodus story, the plague narrative raises a number of complicated questions. Given the biblical assumption of God’s omnipotence, one might expect God to be able to whisk the Israelites out of Egypt without such dramatic measures. The biblical story also does not explain the significance of the specific set of plagues that God imposes on the Egyptians. And many contemporary Jews are bothered by what seems to be excessive and perhaps needless suffering on the part of the Egyptian population for the sins of its leader.
A number of rabbinic sources describe the plagues as retribution for Pharaoh’s rejection of God and for the Egyptians’ idol worshipping practices. In explaining the first plague, one midrash comments, “Why were the waters first smitten and with blood? Because Pharaoh and the Egyptians worshipped the Nile, and God said, ‘I will smite their god first and then his people.'” (Shemot Rabbah 9:9). Likewise, Ramban, a 12th century Jewish commentator, suggests that God punishes Pharaoh not primarily for enslaving the Israelite people, but rather for dismissing God and ignoring a divine command (see his comment to Exodus 7:16). The final plague, the killing of the firstborn, targets both the people and their most visible god–Pharaoh–who also loses his oldest son and thus the successor to the throne.
The primary goal of the plagues, according to most rabbinic sources, is the demonstration of God’s unparalleled power. Pharaoh’s magicians succeed in replicating the first two plagues–blood and frogs–but stumble in their attempts to produce lice. Several commentators explain this failure by noting the use of the word “l’hotzi,” “to bring out,” in the description of the plague of lice. Producing the plagues of blood or frogs requires only the transformation of an existing substance: God, through Moses and Aaron, changes the water to blood and draws (presumably pre-existing) frogs out of the water. In contrast, God creates the lice. Only the creator of the universe, according to the rabbis, can create something new. These unreplicable plagues persuade Pharaoh and his people of God’s power and build faith in God among the people of Israel.
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