26 Tevet – 3 Shevat 5781
The Fourteenth Sedra
FROM THE TORAH
In last week’s Sedra Shemot, Pharaoh increased the Israelites’ burdens in retaliation for demands by Moses and Aaron. The Officers of the Children of Israel then blamed Moses and Aaron for provoking Pharaoh. Thereupon Moses confronted the Eternal: Nothing but evil has befallen the Children of Israel, and You have done nothing to rescue them! The Eternal promises Moses that He will apply a “strong hand” to Pharaoh so that he will actually drive them out from his land. In this week’s Sedra Va-eyra, God expands upon His promised redemption and begins to impose the “strong hand” that He promised, the first seven of ten plagues upon Egypt.
Promise and Plague
MOSES DELIVERS GOD’S ASSURANCES TO ISRAEL
God speaks to Moses and says to him, “I am the Eternal,” identifying Himself to Moses as the same One who “appeared” (Va-eyra) to Abraham, to Isaac and to Jacob, but as “God Almighty.” “I was not known to them as ‘the Eternal.’” (Exodus 6:2-3) I established My covenant with them to give them the Land of Canaan, where they were sojourning. Now, as I have heard the groaning of the Children of Israel from Egyptian bondage, I remember My covenant. Therefore say to the Children of Israel: I am the Eternal, I shall bring you out from under the burdens of Egypt, I shall rescue you from their bondage, I shall redeem you with an outstretched arm and with great judgments, I shall take you as My people and I shall be your God whom you shall know as the One who brings you out from under the burdens of Egypt, and I shall bring you to the Land which I promised to your fathers and give it to you as an inheritance. Moses delivers this message to the Children of Israel, but their impatience and their oppression prevent them from listening.
MOSES, “UNCIRCUMCIZED OF LIPS”
The Eternal instructs Moses to tell Pharaoh, king of Egypt, to let the Children of Israel go from his land. Moses responds before the Eternal: Since the Children of Israel do not listen to me, how shall Pharaoh heed me, considering that “I am uncircumcised of lips!” (Exodus 6:12) So the Eternal then charges both Moses and Aaron regarding Pharaoh and the release of the Children of Israel from Egypt.
SELECTIVE GENEALOGY OF ISRAEL’S DESCENDANTS
These are the heads of their respective father’s houses:
Chanoch, Pallu, Chetzron, Carmi
Yemuel, Yamin, Ohad, Yachin, Tsochar, Saul son of a Canaanite woman
Gershon, Kehath, Merari
in the order of their birth
Levi lived for 137 years
These descendants of Levi
in the order of their birth
are the heads of the Levite families:
Amram, Yitzhar, Chevron, Uzziel
Kehath lived 133 years
who married his Aunt Yocheved:
Amram lived 137 years
Korach, Nepheg, Zichri
Mishael, Eltzaphan, Sithri
who married Elisheva,
daughter of Amminadav
and sister of Nachshon:
Nadav, Avihu, Elazar, Ithamar
Assir, Elkanah, Aviassaph
who married a daughter of Putiel:
These are the Aaron and Moses whom the Eternal appointed to speak to Pharaoh in order to take the Children of Israel out of Egypt. This is the Moses whom the Eternal instructed to impart to Pharaoh, king of Egypt, “exactly the words that I speak to you” (Exodus 6:29). Yet Moses demurs, saying, “I am of uncircumcised lips, so how should Pharaoh listen to me?” (Exodus 6:30)
THE ETERNAL EXPLAINS HIS PLAN
The Eternal answers Moses’s objection by explaining that he and Aaron would play the respective roles of God and prophet before Pharaoh. “You speak all that I command you, and Aaron your brother will speak to Pharaoh” (Exodus 7:2) about letting the Children of Israel go out of his land. “Nonetheless,” the Eternal explains to him, “I shall harden Pharaoh’s resolve in order to multiply My signs and My wonders in the land of Egypt” (Exodus 7:3). When Pharaoh does not listen to you, I will then have cause to lay My hand against Egypt and ultimately bring out the hosts of My people with great judgments. The Egyptians will then know Me as the Eternal when I extend My hand over Egypt and bring out the Children of Israel. So Moses and Aaron do what the Eternal commands them. Moses is 80 years old and Aaron is 83 years old when they speak to Pharaoh.
AARON’S STAFF TURNS INTO A SNAKE
The Eternal prepares Moses and Aaron to show Pharaoh miraculous evidence of their authority. When Pharaoh asks for a sign, Moses is to instruct Aaron to cast his staff before Pharaoh so that it turns into a snake (cf. Exodus 4:2-5). Accordingly, when they do come before Pharaoh, they follow the plan and Aaron throws his staff in front of Pharaoh and his servants, and it turns into a snake. Thereupon Pharaoh summons his sages and sorcerers, who do the same thing with their magical powers: each one casts his staff and they all turn into snakes. But Aaron’s staff swallows all of their staffs! Nonetheless Pharaoh’s resolve is strengthened, and he does not listen to them, as the Eternal had spoken.
THE FIRST PLAGUE: BLOOD
The Eternal observes to Moses that Pharaoh remains stubborn in his refusal to let the people go. So He orders Moses to intercept Pharaoh in the morning on the shore as he goes out to the Nile, and say to him: The Eternal, God of the Hebrews, has sent me to you to demand, “Let My people go so that they may worship Me in the wilderness!” (Exodus 7:16) and you ignored His words. So now the Eternal says that He will cause you to know that He is the Eternal when I use this rod that is in my hand, the staff that turned into a snake before, to strike the water that is in the Nile, so that it is turned into blood! The fish in the Nile will die, the river will reek, and the Egyptians will be unable to drink its water.
When the Eternal gives Moses the word, he passes the divine order to Aaron: “Take your rod and stretch out your hand over the waters of Egypt, over their rivers, over their canals, over their lakes, over every gathering of their waters, so that they turn into blood and there is blood in all the land of Egypt, even in the trees and in the stones!” (Exodus 7:19) Aaron lifts up the rod and strikes the Nile’s water in the sight of Pharaoh and his servants, and all of the water in the Nile turns to blood. The fish die, the Nile reeks, and the Egyptians cannot drink the water; there is blood in all the land of Egypt!
But when the Egyptian magicians do the same, Pharaoh’s will is reinforced and he disregards their demand, as the Eternal had predicted. Indifferently, he returns to his palace, while all the Egyptians have to dig around the Nile for water to drink.
THE SECOND PLAGUE: FROGS
Seven days later, the Eternal bids Moses deliver the following message to Pharaoh: “Let My people go, that they may worship Me; and if you refuse, I shall strike your entire country with the plague of frogs!” (Exodus 7:27) The Nile will swarm with frogs. They shall enter your palace, your bedroom, even your bed, the homes of your servants and your people, your ovens and your utensils; frogs will be all over all of you. The Eternal tells Moses to give the word to Aaron to stretch out his hand with his staff over all the bodies of water and bring the frogs up over the land of Egypt. Aaron does so, and the plague of frogs covers the land of Egypt. But the magicians of Egypt also do so with their sorcery and bring up the frogs over the land of Egypt.
Pharaoh summons Moses and Aaron: “Entreat the Eternal to remove the frogs from me and from my people, and I shall let the people go to sacrifice to the Eternal!” (Exodus 8:4) Moses grants Pharaoh the honor of designating when he should entreat the Eternal to cut off the plague of frogs, leaving them only in the Nile. Pharaoh designates the morrow, and Moses agrees, adding, “in order that you may know that there is none like the Eternal our God!” (Exodus 8:6) Moses complies, and the Eternal acts in accordance with his request. The frogs that were in the houses, that were in the towns and in the countryside, all die and are piled in heaps, causing the land to reek. Then, when Pharaoh observes that there is some relief, he remains adamant and does not heed their request, as the Eternal had spoken.
THE THIRD PLAGUE: LICE
The Eternal instructs Moses to tell Aaron: “Hold out your rod and strike the dust of the earth so that it turns into lice in all the land of Egypt!” (Exodus 8:12) Moses and Aaron comply, so that there is a plague of lice against both man and beast. The magicians of Egypt also, employing their sorcery, try to produce lice, but this time without success. As the plague of lice persists, the magicians declare to Pharaoh, “It is the hand of God!” (Exodus 8:15) Yet Pharaoh’s will remains unchanged. He does not honor their request, as the Eternal had spoken.
THE FOURTH PLAGUE: SWARM OF WILD BEASTS
Once again the Eternal has Moses arise early in the morning and stand before Pharaoh as he goes out to the water, and declare: “Thus says the Eternal, ‘Let My people go, that they may worship Me, for if you do not let My people go, then I will release a swarm of wild beasts against you, your servants, your people, your homes…and your land’” (Exodus 8:16). But on that day, He continues, I will distinguish the land of Goshen, dwelling-place of My people, to be without the wild beasts, so that you will know that I, the Eternal, have a presence even within your land. Thus I redeem My people as against your people, a sign which will be apparent tomorrow. So the Eternal brings a swarm of wild beasts against the houses of Pharaoh and his servants. Throughout the land of Egypt there is ruination because of the rampage of beasts.
Pharaoh then offers Moses and Aaron an apparent compromise: “Go, sacrifice to your God in the land!” (Exodus 8:21) rather than outside of it in the wilderness. “It would not be right to do that,” replies Moses, because Israelite sacrifices are offensive to the Egyptians. If we performed them openly within Egypt, the Egyptians would stone us! (Exodus 8:22) No, we need to go three days’ journey into the wilderness and sacrifice to the Eternal our God as He instructs us. Pharaoh concedes: “I shall let you go, and you may sacrifice to the Eternal your God in the wilderness; but do not go too far, and pray for me!” (Exodus 8:24) Moses cautiously accepts Pharaoh’s offer and agrees to petition the Eternal that the wild beasts depart from Pharaoh, his servants and his people, on the morrow. “But let Pharaoh,” he says to Pharaoh, “not continue to deceive by not letting the people go to sacrifice to the Eternal!” (Exodus 8:25)
When Moses takes leave of Pharaoh, he entreats the Eternal as promised, and the Eternal acts accordingly. The plague of wild beasts is removed from Pharaoh, his servants and his people, entirely. But Pharaoh maintains his opposing will again this time. He does not let the people go.
THE FIFTH PLAGUE: PESTILENCE
The Eternal again instructs Moses to visit Pharaoh and declare: “Thus says the Eternal, God of the Hebrews: Let My people go, that they may worship Me!” (Exodus 9:1) Otherwise, the hand of the Eternal will attack your livestock, your horses, your asses, your camels, your herds and your flocks, with a very severe pestilence. But, miraculously, the livestock of the Children of Israel will not die, only that of the Egyptians.
The Eternal establishes in advance a time for doing this, the morrow, and so on the morrow all of the livestock of Egypt perishes, but not one of Israel. Pharaoh inquires and finds it to be true that not one of Israel’s livestock has died, but he remains obstinate. He does not let the people go.
THE SIXTH PLAGUE: BOILS
The Eternal directs Moses and Aaron to take from the kiln handfuls of soot, which Moses should then throw up towards the sky before Pharaoh. It will spread over the land as a fine dust causing boils to erupt on the skin of man and beast in all of the land of Egypt.
Thus they do, and the inflammation afflicts man and beast, preventing even the magicians from standing up before Moses. Now the Eternal empowers the will of Pharaoh so that he does not listen to them, as the Eternal had spoken to Moses.
THE SEVENTH PLAGUE: HAIL
The Eternal orders Moses to rise early the next morning, take his stand before Pharaoh, and say, as before: “Thus says the Eternal, God of the Hebrews: Let My people go, that they may worship Me!” (Exodus 9:13) Moses is to explain to Pharaoh: At this point, says the Eternal, I have been sending “all of My plagues” to you, Pharaoh, in particular (literally, “to your heart”) and against your servants and your people “in order that you may know that there is none like Me in all the earth.” (Exodus 9:14) By now I could have stretched forth My hand with pestilence and completely destroyed you and your people. But I have kept you standing in order to show you My power and to let My Name be known in all the earth. Yet you continue to stand above My people, refusing to let them go.
Tomorrow I shall bring upon you an exceedingly severe rain of hail, the like of which Egypt has never known. Shelter your livestock, shelter every man and beast, for if they remain outside under the hail, they shall die. Those of Pharaoh’s servants who fear the word of the Eternal shall shelter their own servants and livestock indoors. Those who care not about the word of the Eternal will leave them outside.
The Eternal then orders Moses, “Stretch out your hand over the heavens that there be hail in all the land of Egypt, over man and over beast and over every blade of grass in the field…” (Exodus 9:22). As Moses extends his staff towards the heavens, the Eternal sends thunder and hail containing a stream of fiery lightning down to earth, over the land of Egypt, which had seen nothing like it since the days in which it became a nation. The hail strikes down all who are in the open, man and beast, the grass of the field, and it shatters every tree. Only in the land of Goshen, the place of the Children of Israel, is there no hail.
Then Pharaoh sends for Moses and Aaron and says to them, “I declare my guilt at this time; the Eternal is right, and I and my people are wrong.” (Exodus 9:27) He asks them to entreat the Eternal to put an end to the thunder and hail. “I will surely let you go; you will wait no longer!” (Exodus 9:28) Moses responds that on his way out of the city he will spread his hands to the Eternal, and the thunder and the hail will cease “in order that you may know that the earth is the Eternal’s, even though I know that you and your servants do not yet fear the Eternal God.” (Exodus 9:29-30)
A survey of the hail’s damage shows that early-ripening produce, such as flax and barley, were ruined, while late-ripening crops, such as wheat and spelt, were not.
Upon leaving the city, Moses duly spreads his hands to the Eternal: thunder, hail and rain then cease. When Pharaoh enjoys their cessation, he sins again: he and his servants remain stubborn. Pharaoh does not let the Children of Israel go, as the Eternal had foretold “by the hand of Moses.” (Exodus 9:35)
FROM THE PROPHETS
Haftarah for Shabbat Va-eyra
If the date put forward in 29:1 refers to the tenth year of the reign of Zedekiah, the last of the kings of Judah, then the prophecy came only a few months before the Babylonian conquest of Jerusalem in 586 B.C.E.
OPENING ASSURANCE OF ISRAEL’S REDEMPTION
The Lord God looks forward
to His gathering the House of Israel
from their dispersion among other peoples.
”Then I shall be sanctified through them
in the eyes of the other nations;
and they shall dwell upon their Land,
which I have given to My servant Jacob.”
Their dwelling shall be secure.
They shall build homes and plant vineyards,
as I, the Eternal, their God,
execute judgments against their adversaries.
PROPHECY AGAINST PHARAOH
The word of the Eternal came to me
on the twelfth day of the tenth month of the tenth year:
O son of man,
focus your attention on Pharaoh, king of Egypt,
and prophesy against him and Egypt.
Pharaoh is a bloated dragon
who lies astride his canals,
which he considers his own
and such that he claims
“I have created the Nile for myself!”
Well, I will extract you from those rivers
by placing hooks in your jaws!
As I lift you up,
fish will get caught in your scales.
Then I will put you and them down
onto the ground,
into the wilderness,
with no redemption,
prey for beasts and birds.
The reason for this treatment
is that they were a staff of reed
to the House of Israel.
“When Israel thought
that they could depend upon you,
you would break like a reed
and pierce their shoulder.”
EXILE OF EGYPT
So I am bringing the sword upon you,
cutting off man and beast,
desolation to the land of Egypt
from Migdol to Syene
as far as the border of Nubia.
I am against your rivers
because Pharaoh said:
The river is mine!
I made the river!
The foot of
neither man nor beast
shall inhabit it
or pass through it
for forty years.
I shall make the land of Egypt desolate
and scatter the Egyptians
among the nations,
then at the end of forty years
I shall gather them back,
but in low estate,
to Pathros, their origin,
no more to rule over others,
no more the confidence of Israel,
but rather a reminder
of Israel’s mistake in turning to them,
and they shall know
that I am the Lord God.
BABYLONIAN CONQUEST OF EGYPT
The word of the Eternal came to me
on the first day of the first month
in the twenty-seventh year:
O son of man,
Nebuchadrezzar, king of Babylonia,
achieved a great service
in the siege of Tyre.
But what shall be his compensation
for his great effort?
I shall give him the land of Egypt,
all of its wealth,
as his compensation
as wages for his army.
FINAL ASSURANCE OF ISRAEL’S REDEMPTION
On that day
I shall bring prosperity
to the House of Israel
and vindication of your prophecy
in their midst,
and they shall know
that I am the Eternal.
FROM TALMUD AND MIDRASH
Exodus Rabbah 6:1
Divine Words vs. Human Reason
“God speaks to Moses
and says to him:
‘I am the Eternal…’”
What is the import of the double utterance,
“speaks” and “says?”
This can be understood through the following
words of Solomon:
“I turned to apply wisdom—
accompanied by madness and folly—
for what can man do,
coming after the King,
who has already commanded it!”
These words were said about both Solomon and Moses.
When God gave the Torah to Israel, He spoke, on the one hand, positive and negative commandments for everyone, and said, on the other, special commandments for the king, such as, “He shall not have many (yarbeh) horses…and he shall not have many (yarbeh) wives, lest his heart go astray, and he shall not possess an overabundance of silver or gold.” (Deuteronomy 17:16-17) But then Solomon the king evaluated the divine King’s edict in the light of reason. “Why did the Holy One, blessed be He, say, ‘he shall not have many wives?’ Was it not, ‘lest his heart go astray?’ Well, I can hold many wives, yet my heart will not go astray!”
Our Rabbis taught: At that moment, the yod [smallest letter of the Hebrew alphabet] of yarbeh, which distinguished the verses as commandments, viz., “He shall not have many,” appealed, “O Master of the universe, did You not say, ‘Not a single letter of the Torah shall be voided ever?’ Yet Solomon is voiding me. Today he voids one, the next day another, until eventually all of the Torah is voided!” The Holy One, blessed be He, responded, “Solomon and a thousand like him may be voided themselves, but I will not allow even the smallest mark of the Torah to be removed!”
“I am weary O God [l’iti El],
and I am consumed [v’uchal]!”
Solomon’s use of reason to exclude “he shall not have many wives lest his heart go astray” from applying to him, reflects his thinking when he wrote, “God is with me [l’iti El], so I can overcome [v’uchal] (the temptations)!” (Proverbs 30:1) But then, “In Solomon’s old age, his wives turned his heart after other gods.” (I Kings 11:4) Said Rabbi Shimon ben Yochai: Solomon would have preferred cleaning sewers over having that verse written about him! This is why Solomon ultimately wrote: I turned to apply my own wisdom to words of Torah, and I failed, my own reasoning being madness and folly, for what can man do to understand and explain what the King has already commanded” (cf. Ecclesiastes 2:12)? Moreover, God’s words are vetted by His heavenly counsel, and thus said Solomon: “Every word of God is tested” (Proverbs 30:5), that is, “The matter is determined by the decree of angels” (Daniel 4:14).
Early on, at the burning bush, the Holy One, blessed be He, announced to Moses that Pharaoh would not initially let the people go: “I know that the king of Egypt will not allow you to go except by a strong hand, so I will send forth My hand and strike Egypt with all of My wonders…and only then shall they let you go!” (Exodus 3:19-20) But Moses did not hold on to this announcement and instead he began to apply his own wisdom to the divine edict when he was met with the Israelite Officers’ complaint about Pharaoh’s harshness: “O Lord, why have You done evil to this people? Why have You sent me?” (Exodus 5:22) As in the case of Solomon, his resort to reason was “madness and folly, for what can man do to understand and explain what the King has already determined?” (cf. Ecclesiastes 2:12), namely, that He already had disclosed to Moses that He would strengthen Pharaoh’s resolve not to let the people go in order to bring judgment against him for enslaving them (cf. 4:21)!
Because of this presumption by Moses, divine justice (denoted by the divine appellation of “God”) sought to condemn him, as expressed in the opening words, “God speaks to Moses…” (Exodus 6:2). But because the Holy One, blessed be He, recognized that Moses was speaking up for the suffering of Israel, divine compassion (denoted by the divine appellation of “Eternal”) supersedes justice in the very next phrase, “…and says to him, ‘I am the Eternal” (ibid.)!
I established My covenant with them to give them the Land of Canaan, where they were sojourning. Now, as I have heard the groaning of the Children of Israel from Egyptian bondage, I remember My covenant. Therefore you should say to the Children of Israel: I am the Eternal, I shall bring you out from under the burdens of Egypt, I shall rescue you from their bondage, I shall redeem you with an outstretched arm and with great judgments, I shall take you as My people and I shall be your God whom you shall know as the One who brings you out from under the burdens of Egypt, and I shall bring you to the Land which I promised to your fathers and give it to you as an inheritance. (Exodus 6:4-8)
- I remember My covenant
- Therefore you should say to Children of Israel
- I shall bring you out
- I shall rescue you
- I shall redeem you
- I shall take you
- I shall bring you
Said Rabbi Samuel bar Nachman:
If the Holy One, blessed be He,
had not bound Himself with an oath,
besides the covenant,
Israel would never
have been redeemed from Egypt.
Where is the oath?
God’s word “Therefore” before “you should say”
indicates an oath,
as can be inferred by analogy
from I Samuel 3:14,
where God says:
“Therefore I swear…”
Pesikta d’Rav Kahana 5:11
Whence do we derive Four Cups of Wine
for the Seder of Pesach?
Rabbi Yochanan taught:
They correspond to the four verbs of redemption to Israel:
”I shall…bring out…rescue…redeem…take…”.
These are four cups of thanksgiving,
and each of the four verbs
refers to a unique reason for thanksgiving, as follows:
“I shall bring you out from under the burdens of Egypt”:
The Holy One, blessed be He, will lighten their oppression,
but it does not mean
that they will be freed entirely from their oppression.
“I shall rescue you from their bondage”:
They will no longer labor at all,
but they are still servants of Pharaoh
and their redemption is not yet complete.
“I shall redeem you with an outstretched arm and with great judgments”:
Although their redemption is now complete
and they are no longer servants of Pharaoh,
they are not yet a unique people,
belonging to the Holy One, blessed be He.
“I shall take you to Me as My people and I shall be your God”
whom you shall know
as the One who brings you out from under the burdens of Egypt.”
Jerusalem Talmud Pesachim 10:1
Torah Temimah Exodus 6:6
What of the fifth verb of redemption:
”And I shall bring you to the Land”
which I promised to your fathers
and give it to you as an inheritance?
Why did the Rabbis not ordain
a fifth cup of thanksgiving for it?
One cannot argue that the reason
for not having a fifth cup is because
”I shall bring you to the Land”
is not, strictly speaking, redemption,
for neither is,
“I shall take you to Me as My people…,”
yet there is a cup for that!
This might be the answer:
With our being in exile today,
with the Land of Israel under the control of foreigners,
it is impossible to raise a cup of thanksgiving
for the current situation.
Perhaps that is why they ordained
a special cup in the name of Eliahu:
to reflect our hope in his coming
and for the reconstitution of the Nation and the Land,
may he come speedily in our days.
Torah Temimah Exodus 6:6
The author, Baruch Halevi Epstein, died in Pinsk, Belarus, in 1941.
Jerusalem Talmud Rosh Hashanah 3:5
Israel, release your own slaves!
When Moses resists the divine command to speak to Pharaoh
because “I am uncircumcised of lips,”
the Eternal then charges both Moses and Aaron:
“The Eternal speaks to Moses and to Aaron and commands them
regarding the Children of Israel and regarding Pharaoh, king of Egypt,
to bring out the Children of Israel from the land of Egypt.”
The purpose of speaking with Pharaoh—
to bring out the Children of Israel from his land—
had already been said (cf. 3:10),
so what new mitzvah did the Eternal command them here?
Said Rabbi Samuel son of Rav Yitzchak:
He commanded them here
the mitzvah of releasing their own slaves.
And this is in accordance with the teaching of Rabbi Hila:
Israel was punished with the Babylonian Exile
expressly because they neglected the mitzvah
of releasing their own slaves.
This is also explained by the prophet Jeremiah:
”I made a covenant with your fathers
on the day that I brought them out
of the land of Egypt,
from the house of bondage,
At the end of seven years
each of you must release
your fellow Hebrew that was sold to you
and served you for six years;
you must let him go free from you!
But your fathers did not pay attention
to what I commanded.”
So the mitzvah of releasing our own slaves
was taught to us even before Sinai
as a condition of our own redemption
(Korban Ha-eydah Commentary)
Exodus Rabbah 8:3
“Moses” and “Aaron” in the Beit Midrash
“I am of uncircumcised lips,” argues Moses,
“so how should Pharaoh listen to me?”
The Eternal answers his objection
by explaining that Moses and Aaron
would play the respective roles
of God and prophet before Pharaoh:
Moses, “you speak all that I command you,
and Aaron your brother will speak to Pharaoh…”
But God does not say: You, Moses, like God, speak to Aaron, your prophet, and Aaron, your prophet, will speak to Pharaoh. Such a purely vertical hierarchy is what we might expect if Moses and Aaron are to play the respective roles of God and prophet before Pharaoh!
The Rabbis took the exact, more open wording of the verse to model the manner of teaching in the Rabbinic Beit Midrash: The teacher (here Moses) sits and teaches in a normal voice, while the interpreter (here Aaron) repeats in a louder voice what the teacher said, and the interpreter may add explanation. In this way, Moses can disregard his own perception of his impediment, Pharaoh can be impressed with the authority of the words, coming from Moses, and, with Aaron’s amplification and elucidation, Pharaoh cannot object that the words are incomprehensible to him.
Exodus Rabbah 9:9
Why the Nile?
“Aaron lifts up the rod and strikes the Nile’s water
in the sight of Pharaoh and his servants,
and all of the water in the Nile turns to blood.”
Why was the Nile’s water struck first,
before any of the other plagues?
Pharaoh and the Egyptians worshipped the Nile. Said the Holy One, blessed be He: Let Me strike their god first, and after that its people!
So one might infer that the best strategy against the faithful of another religion is to undermine their deity in their sight. But did not Isaiah prophesy: ”It shall be on that day that the Eternal will attend to the host of heaven in heaven” and after that “to the kings of the earth on the earth!” (Isaiah 24:21)
In this regard we might add to the Midrash
consideration of the following verse:
”The heavens belong only to the Eternal,
but the earth He gave to the children of man.”
Exodus Rabbah 9:10
When the Eternal gives Moses the word,
Moses passes the divine order to Aaron:
“Take your rod and stretch out your hand
over the waters of Egypt…
so that they turn into blood…
Aaron lifts up the rod and strikes the Nile’s water
in the sight of Pharaoh and his servants.”
Rabbi Tanchum asked: Why was the water struck by Aaron and not by Moses? Said the Holy One, blessed be He: The waters which protected you, Moses, when you were cast into the Nile—it is not right that they should be struck by your hand; indeed let them not be struck by any except Aaron!
“One who responds to a good deed with evil—
evil will not depart from his house.”
Exodus Rabbah 11:6
The Sixth Plague
Shame of the Magicians
“The inflammation of boils afflicts man and beast,
preventing even the magicians from standing up before Moses.”
Why did the Sixth Plague
prevent the magicians in particular
from standing up before Moses?
Because it was the magicians who advised Pharaoh to throw every Hebrew male that was born into the Nile, in order that Moses should die. It was the magicians also who would later condemn Moses to death when, as a child, he playfully removed Pharaoh’s crown and placed it on his own head. Therefore the magicians “were unable to stand before Moses.”
Commentary of Mirkin: Although the inflammation afflicted man and beast in general, the magicians felt themselves its special guilty target because of the leshon hara they had spoken against Moses. They recognized that the skin eruption of tsara’at is the unique punishment for slander, as it would be for Miriam (cf. Numbers 12:10). Hence, they felt the justice of the Sixth Plague as their own particular punishment and were therefore ashamed before Moses.
When the Holy One, blessed be He, sees that Pharaoh does not
change his mind on his own accord following the first five plagues,
the Eternal empowers the will of Pharaoh
so that he does not listen to Moses and Aaron:
“The Eternal strengthens the heart of Pharaoh,
and he does not listen to them,
as the Eternal had spoken to Moses” (Exodus 9:12):
“I shall harden Pharaoh’s resolve in order to multiply
My signs and My wonders in the land of Egypt” (Exodus 7:3).
Now, even if he wants to repent,
I shall harden his will!
So that I can punish him to the maximum!
Exodus Rabbah 12:7
“The Eternal then orders Moses,
‘Stretch out your hand over the heavens
that there be hail in all the land of Egypt…’”
This, the Eternal’s order to Moses reflects, “Whatever the Eternal wants to do He does…” (Psalms 135:6) even though David said, “The heavens belong to the Eternal; it is the earth that He gave over to man” (ibid. 115:16)!
This may be compared to an emperor who decreed: The citizens of Rome may not go down to Syria, and the citizens of Syria may not go up to Rome! In the same way did the Holy One, blessed be He, create the world and decree: The heavens shall belong to the Eternal, and the earth shall belong to man (cf. Psalms 115:16)! Then, when He wished to give the Torah, He suspended the first edict and said: Elements of the lower realm may go up to the higher realm, and elements of the higher realm may go down to the lower realm, and I will be the First, as was said, “The Eternal came down upon Mount Sinai…” (Exodus 19:20), “and to Moses He said, ‘Go up to the Eternal…’” (ibid. 24:1)!
“Whatever the Eternal wants to do
He does in the heavens and in the earth,
in the seas and all the depths.”
Similarly, at Creation, He separated water from land, as was said, “Let the waters be gathered together…and let dry land appear…” (Genesis 1:9). Then, when He wanted, He brought the Flood, as was said, “All of the fountains of the great depth were opened…” (ibid. 7:11)!
Also, when He desired, He turned the Red Sea into dry land, as was said, “The Children of Israel walked upon dry land in the midst of the sea” (Exodus 14:29), and as David said, “He blasted the Red Sea so that it became dry, and He led them through the depth as through a desert” (Psalms 106:9), and then, when He wanted, He made the dry land sea, as the prophet said, “He summons the waters of the sea and pours them upon the surface of the earth” (Amos 5:8).
Just so In Egypt, with Moses, who was upon the earth: Moses on earth was authorized to exercise control over the work of heaven: “The Eternal then orders Moses, ‘Stretch out your hand over the heavens that there be hail in all the land of Egypt…’” (Exodus 9:22)!
Exodus Rabbah 12:7
“When Pharaoh observes
that the rain, hail and thunder cease,
he resumes his sinning,
his will is strengthened…
and he does not release
the Children of Israel…”
Thus is the way of the wicked: When they are in distress, they humble themselves, but when their punishment is intermitted, they return to their misfeasance.
Such was the behavior of Nebuchadnezzar: As long as he felt secure in his own greatness, he would aggrandize himself with the words, “Behold great Babylon, which I have built in my great power as the royal residence for my glorious majesty” (Daniel 4:27)! But only when he was in distress did He offer praise to the Holy One, blessed be He, as he said with admitted qualification, “Now I, Nebuchadnezzar, praise, exalt and glorify the King of heaven, all of whose ways are true…” (Daniel 4:34), “now,” meaning only now!
Just so with Pharaoh: He “sends for Moses and Aaron and says to them, ‘I declare my guilt at this time; the Eternal is right, and I and my people are wrong’” (Exodus 9:27), only “at this time,” when he is in distress under the plague of hail. But then, “when Pharaoh observes that the rain, hail and thunder cease, he resumes his sinning…” (Exodus 9:34)!
Genesis Rabbah 89:9
Years of Famine
“I shall make the land of Egypt desolate…
and I shall scatter the Egyptians
among the nations,
then at the end of forty years
I shall gather them back,
but in low estate…
no more to rule over others,
no more the confidence of Israel…”
“Pharaoh has a dream…out of the Nile come seven fat cows…
then seven gaunt cows come up and…eat the fat cows.
Seven healthy ears of grain are growing on a single stalk…
then seven thin ears of grain…sprout up…and swallow the healthy ears.”
While Joseph interprets Pharaoh’s dream to foresee
seven years of great plenty followed by seven years of famine (cf. Exodus 41:29-30),
the following opinions are found in the Midrash,
based upon the three iterations of Pharaoh’s dream,
as cited below:
Rabbi Judah interpreted: Fourteen years of famine were foreseen, as Pharaoh saw in his dream, “Seven gaunt cows…and seven withered ears of grain…” (Exodus 41:1-7).
Rabbi Nechemia interpreted: Twenty-eight years of famine were foreseen, as Pharaoh saw in his dream, “Seven gaunt cows…and seven withered ears of grain…” (Exodus 41:1-7), and then repeated to Joseph, “Seven gaunt cows…and seven withered ears of grain…” (Exodus 41:17-24).
The Rabbis interpreted: Forty-two years of famine were foreseen, as Pharaoh saw in his dream, “Seven gaunt cows…and seven withered ears of grain…” (Exodus 41:1-7), then repeated to Joseph, “Seven gaunt cows…and seven withered ears of grain…” (Exodus 41:17-24), and then Joseph repeated to Pharaoh, “Seven gaunt cows are seven years, and the seven withered ears are seven years of famine” (Exodus 41:27).
“As this is two years of famine in the midst of the land…”
Rabbi Yosi son of Rabbi Chanina taught: The famine in Egypt actually lasted only two years, for when Jacob our father went down there, the famine was suspended. Rashi (s.v. Genesis 47:10): “Jacob blessed Pharaoh”—What was his blessing? That He should restore the Nile for his sake! This leaves forty unfulfilled foreseen years of famine in Egypt (42-2=40). When would they return? In the days of the prophet who foresaw, “I shall make the land of Egypt desolate…, then at the end of forty years…”(Ezekiel 29:12-14).
Copyright © 2021 Eric H. Hoffman