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A Question…

By: Rav Avigdor Meyerowitz

In the spirit of the verse in this week's Parsha : "And it will come to pass if your son asks you in the future" and unlike the usual Divrei Torah presented in these e-mail shiurim, I would like to present a hypothesis and ask a question.

It seems to be agreed upon by all that the Ten Plagues were a lesson in faith for all that observed and experienced them. When Moshe confronts Pharaoh the for the first time and requests his consent  to let Bnei Yisrael sojourn for three days to serve G-d, Pharaoh's response is: 

"Who is Hashem that I should heed His voice to let Yisrael out? I do not know Hashem; neither will I let Yisrael out."[1]

What transpires after that statement of Pharaoh is an ongoing forceful lesson to him and his people so that they will indeed know Hashem. In parshat Va'era Hashem says to Moshe:

"And the Egyptians shall know that I am the Lord when I stretch forth My hand over Egypt, and I will take the children of Israel out of their midst."[2]

Thereafter, in all the Ten Plagues, except for lice, boils and darkness, appears a variation of the word "know", such that through these plagues Hashem will be known.

The Ramban on this week's Parsha explains the medium of education through miracles:

"I will now state a general principle which lies at the foundation of many mitzvot.

Since the introduction of idolatry into the world ... the attitudes of people, as regards matters of faith, have become confused and have diverged from the true beliefs.  Some people believe that the world has been in existence eternally with no creation ...  others feel that G-d exists but that He does not know the deeds of man.... and that there is no reward nor punishment.  They say (Ezekiel 8:20) "God has departed from the earth."

When G-d performs a miracle in the sight of a desirable collective or individual - a miracle which will affect a change in the laws of nature - these (false) attitudes of faith will be disproved in the clearest way.  For the miracle demonstrates God's mastery over the world: His creation of it, and His knowledge of, and involvement in its affairs.  Additionally, when a particular miracle is preceded by a prophetic announcement, the existence of prophecy - that G-d speaks with man and tells him his secrets - will be proven and this in turn will prove the truth of the entire Torah."[3]

It is similarly agreed upon, that the target of these lessons in faith was not only the Egyptians, but Bnei Yisrael as well. They also expressed a lack of faith in Hashem when they turned a deaf ear to the words of Hashem and Moshe before the plagues started, and Hashem also says that will also come to "know" Hashem.[4]

Moreover, the opening verse in this week's Parsha states it clearly:

And Hashem said to Moshe: "Come to Pharaoh, for I have hardened his heart and the heart of his servants, in order that I may place these signs of Mine in his midst,

and in order that you tell into the ears of your son and your son's son how I made a mockery of the Egyptians, and [that you tell of] My signs that I placed in them, and you will know that I am Hashem."[5]

Though, at a closer look, I would like to ask: How many and how much of the Plagues did Bnei Yisrael actually see or experience? This question becomes clear especially when the Torah states regarding the plague of darkness:

"They (the Egyptians) did not see each other, and no one rose from his place for three days, but for all of Bnei Yisrael there was light in their dwellings."

In other words, though the Egyptians were in the thick of the darkness, as far as Bnei Yisrael were concerned, life continued as usual.

What about all the other Plagues? The first time the Torah relates that there was a distinction between the Egyptians and Bnei Yisrael is in the plague of "arov" (wild and dangerous creatures). The Ramban however says[6], that this is not to imply that Bnei Yisrael suffered from the first plagues at all, for since they were not plagues of a spreading nature, it goes without saying that those plagues were not in the land of Goshen. Only at the onset of "arov" does the Torah have to state clearly the distinction between the nations. That covers therefore the first four plagues.

Regarding the plagues of pestilence, hail, locusts and darkness the Torah states clearly the distinction. The only plague that remains unaddressed is the plague of boils, though based on the above-mentioned Ramban, the plague of boils, being non-spreading in nature would not have affected Bnei Yisrael. [7]

Lastly we get to the plague of the first-born. As we know, the blood of the Korban Pesach was wiped on the doorposts of the houses of Bnei Yisrael in order to avoid the plague harming the first-born of Bnei Yisrael. As well, Moshe openly and clearly warns Bnei Yisrael not to leave their homes at all that night until the morning and in addition it says:

"And there will be a great cry throughout the entire land of Egypt, such as there never has been and such as there shall never be again.

But to all of Bnei Yisrael, not one dog will whet its tongue against either man or beast, in order that you shall know that Hashem will separate between the Egyptians and between Yisrael."

Just like in the plague of darkness, the impression one gets is that while in Egypt total havoc was raging, in the Land of Goshen everything was so quite that not even a dog, that is so sensitive to sound, blinked so much as an eyelid.

In summary, it seems that Bnei Yisrael were unaware of the plagues and even though they might have had knowledge of their occurrence, they were not first-hand observers of them.

The last verses in the Torah which describe the greatness of Moshe Rabeinu state:

"And there was no other prophet who arose in Israel like Moshe, whom Hashem knew face to face,

as manifested by all the signs and wonders, which the Hashem had sent him to perform in the land of Egypt, to Pharaoh and all his servants, and to all his land,

and all the strong hand, and all the great awe, which Moses performed before the eyes of all Israel."

The second verse tells of the wonders which Moshe did to Pharaoh and all his servants, and the last verse is describing more great deeds done by Moshe "before the eyes of all Israel". These words apparently could also be referring to the plagues performed by Moshe, had Bnei Yisrael seen them, yet Rashi explains that it is a reference to the breaking of the tablets after the sin of the golden calf, which is not simply alluded to at all in the verse[8]. Again it would seem that the plagues were not "before the eyes of all Yisrael".

The opening verse of this week's Parsha quoted above, though apparently suggesting that the plagues were for Bnei Yisrael as well, upon further analysis, might not be so clear. For though it clearly says that the plagues were "in order that I may place these signs of Mine in his (Pharaoh's) midst"; regarding Bnei Yisrael it says: "and in order that you tell into the ears of your son and your son's son how I made a mockery of the Egyptians, and [that you tell of] My signs that I placed in them, and you will know that I am Hashem." The lesson for Bnei Yisrael is not an immediate lesson, but rather a lesson for the future generations. If the plagues were witnessed by them, then the lesson is immediate for that generation as well. Indeed Rashi on the words "and in order that you tell" comments: "in the Torah, to inform the future generations", ie: not now. The Torah could have said "in order for you to know" yet it doesn't.

The first time the Torah clearly describes the faith of Bnei Yisrael in the exodus from Egypt is after the splitting of the sea. There, and only at that stage does it say:

"On that day the Lord saved Israel from the hand[s] of the Egyptians, and Israel saw the Egyptians dying on the seashore.

And Israel saw the great hand, which the Lord had used upon the Egyptians, and the people feared the Lord, and they believed in the Lord and in Moses, His servant."

Is it possible that Bnei Yisrael were unaware of the Ten Plagues, and if so, why did Hashem not use these wonders as a way of instilling faith in them as well?

Looking forward to your remarks and answers.


[1] Shmot 5:2.

[2] Ibid 7:5.

[3] Ramban on Shmot 13:17.

[4] Shmot 6:7.

[5] Shmot 10:1-2.

[6] Ramban, Ibid, 8:18.

[7] See Radak on Tehilim 106:7.

אבותינו במצרים, בצאתם ממצרים, לא השכילו נפלאותיך, שעשית במצרים. לא זכרו את רוב חסדיך, כי חסדים ונפלאות שעשית עמהם בהוציאך אותם מבית עבדים ביד חזקה ובמכות שהבאת על המצרים הפלית בינם ובין מצרים, שהיתה המכה משולחת בכל הארץ והם היו נבדלים ממנה.7 כי הנה הברד היה בכל הארץ ובארץ גושן אשר שם בני ישראל לא היה ברד (שמות ט, כו). ובדֶבֶר שהיה משולח בבהמות אמר (שם פסוק ו): וממקנה בני ישראל לא מת אחד. ובחושך שהיה האויר עב וחשוך בכל הארץ, ולכל בני ישראל היה אור (שם י, כג), וכן בערוב אמר (שם ח, יט): ושמתי פדות בין עמי ובין עמך, וכן בשאר המכות, אף על פי שלא נכתב.

[8] See Mizrahi and Maharal, Gur Aryeh Devarim 34:12.


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