Parashat Va'eira is a story about miracles. It's the story of the first seven plagues that HaShem sent to Egypt. We begin with HaShem telling Moshe and Aaron what's going to happen. It's clear that HaShem plans for all these plagues to happen. He even hardens Paroh's heart, as He said He would, in order for it all to occur. The question, then, is why was it necessary for HaShem to complete this?
Let's look at the first seven plagues to see what happened. It's possible to divide the plagues up into three groups of three plus the last by itself. Each group has A. Moshe warning Paroh by the Nile; B. Moshe warning Paroh in Paroh's palace; C. No warning at all.
The first three plagues were Blood, Frogs and Lice.
The Nile River can fairly be called the life-blood of Egypt. The whole country is basically the banks of that river. It's the basis for all of its vast wealth, and the only way they'd get enough water for crops. Every year, the Nile flooded and receded, leaving behind rich, fertile soil that enabled Egypt to be the bread basket of the Roman Empire 2,000 years ago. Without the Nile, there would be no Egypt. It's not surprising that it's the center of their universe. As I said, the life-blood.
And HaShem through Moshe Rabbeinu turns the Nile into literal blood. Blood inside a body is life; blood outside a body is death, and death flowed along that river. The fish, a major part of the Egyptian diet, died. The people were forced to dig wells or buy water from B'nai Yisrael, who were not affected by this plague, or any other. The land stank. HaShem showed he was more powerful than the most powerful force in Mitzrayim - its River.
The fact that the necromancers, court magicians who used death as their source of power, could duplicate this is meaningless. The river was already blood, so they had to use small vessels of water. More: a week later, the River was clean again. Could they clean their vessels? The Torah is silent.
The next plague is Frogs. The Torah implies that this plague was created by the river itself. After Paroh ignored Moshe's warning, it swarmed with frogs. HaShem can make the River death, but He could also make it life giving - could, indeed, make it overproduce. The Necromancers could also create frogs, but not in such numbers, and what good did it do? They couldn't make them go away. Indeed, even HaShem chose not to make them disappear. Instead, all the land, except Goshen, were filled was dead and rotting frog bodies. HaShem created life with a balance. The frogs showed that He could upset that balance, and what the result of that is.
The third in the first group was lice. Moshe gave no warning. They just appeared, swarming over the land, created out of the dust itself, making the Egyptians and their animals miserable. Again, HaShem was showing His control over the universe, as He made the pests appear. Even the magicians were stumped, and they declared it was all HaShem's doing. Lice live on blood. If they'd appeared when the river was blood, they'd have feasted on that. As it was, they had only humans and animals to feast upon...and they still left B'nai Yisrael alone.
Notice, too, that this group was river, river, air. The Egyptians revered their river, but it was subject to HaShem, and even the air wasn't safe from a plague.
The second group of plagues were wild animals, animal epidemic and hail. HaShem was showing Paroh and B'nai Yisrael that just as He was creator of the universe and thus able to make Rivers and dust do his wishes and bring forth life and death, He was also in control of the Land of Egypt itself.
The fourth plague was wild animals. This was not something that a land like Egypt, surrounded by desert, was used to. Maybe there were individual problems, but not on such a level. And they did great damage, ruining the rich fields that the Nile gave them.
The fifth was the epidemic. Of course, the Egyptians didn't know about germs and such. All they knew was that suddenly, all their livestock were sick and dying, no matter what the species. This is unheard of...there are few, if any, diseases that affect all species of animals - horses and donkeys and cows and goats and poultry. HaShem has total control over all the lives of the animals.
The sixth was blisters and boils. This was created in front of Paroh's very eyes, as Moshe and Aaron followed HaShem's orders and tossed burning ashes into the air. This was purely miraculous, as it spread immediately, and it was so bad that Paroh's necromancers couldn't even stand.
Notice here that the plagues involve large animals. One shows that wild animals are also under HaShem's will, the other that HaShem holds the life of even domestic animals in His hands. Plus, the Egyptians worshipped animals. These were their gods harming them and dying. And the blisters show that even soot obeys his wishes.
However, the most important feature of all these plagues is that none of them happened to B'nai Yisrael. It happened all around them, but not to them. Neither did the first three, but these made it plain. Animals swarmed all over Egypt, but not in Goshen. Livestock sickened and died all over Egypt, but not in Goshen. People erupted in blisters and boils, but not in Goshen, and not B'nai Yisrael. All of these things are, or should be, random. A wild beast doesn't choose whom to attack; a disease doesn't choose to leave a group of animals alone; an airborne illness like the blisters doesn't ignore all but one nation. Not only did HaShem show what degree of power He possessed, He also demonstrated his protection over B'nai Yisrael and their possessions. Where HaShem exerts His will, there is no randomness.
The last plague mentioned in this parashah is hail. Hail just doesn't happen all that often in Mitzrayim. It rarely even rains. And this wasn't ordinary hail. This was nonstop until Moshe prayed for it to end. Whatever crops survived the animals were completely destroyed by the hail, beaten into the ground. Except, of course, in Goshen, again.
The next three plagues are in Parashat Bo, next week, but, briefly - there is the plague of locusts that destroy whatever crops survived the hail, the plague of darkness that literally held and the slaying of the firstborn. The pattern was crops, crops...crops, sort of. The most precious of crops...their children.
Think about this. Everything else that happened, except the Nile turning to blood, was something that happened normally in Egypt on a much smaller level. Frogs can get annoying, people get lice, animals attack, animals get sick, people get rashes. It was the sheer size and the all but general nature of the plagues that made them unusual. But this...this was out of their experience entirely. Balls of frozen water fell from the skies...they couldn't walk outside for fear of being hurt. And with all of that, one little piece was still free from this plague. The crops of Goshen grew tall and straight under normal sunny skies. There is nothing not in HaShem's purview.
Meanwhile, during all of this, Paroh seems to relent and then his heart is hardened by HaShem or he does it himself. He gives half measures - you can make your sacrifice but in Egypt. You can make your sacrifice outside of Egypt but don't go far, and leave things behind. And even then he goes back on his word. His necromancers, the evil men who used death as a power, acknowledged HaShem's primacy. Why does he do this? Paroh hardened his own heart for the first six plagues. It was only after the boils in this parashah that HaShem had to step in. And why does HaShem do this to him? Ramba"m, Maimonides, said that Paroh was being punished. He chose to do evil to B'nai Yisrael, and therefore he had to suffer the consequences of this choice. As one of my favorite writers, Lois McMaster Bujold, says, "If you choose an action, you choose the consequences of that action."
And what does this parashah come to teach us? That's a little more difficult, since the immediate lessons are that HaShem is omnipotent and that HaShem protects His people, and, well, we know that. You'd think that Paroh would know that, too, because of all the signs and wonders going on around him - going on for ten months, because each plague took place a month apart. But he doesn't know this. Meanwhile, the miracles keep escalating, from minor annoyances to finally the loss of their crops and the death of their children. HaShem is demonstrating His power, showing that even Paroh, who was considered a god himself, does not control anything, yet Paroh is not convinced. Even the final plague doesn't do the job, since right after he lets B'nai Yisrael go, he goes after them, to be killed by the Sea of Reeds.
It shows us that miracles don't convince, as Nechama Leibowitz, z"l, says. HaShem performs big ones if He has to, to teach a lesson or save lives, but that's not how He normally does business, but they don't convince. They make people shiver and go ooh and ah, like fireworks, but if HaShem only worked seemingly out of nature (seemingly because none of the plagues was something outside of nature)then He would have no bearing on our lives. What convinces is obeying His laws and performing His mitzvot - "we will obey and we will listen". If we wait for signs and miracles and wonders before doing these things, if we wait to feel something first, we may never do them at all, or we may for a day or so and then stop. Think about what happened at Sinai. The greatest miracle since creation happened, and forty days later we made the Golden Calf.
On the other hand, if we start to do mitzvot of our own volition, of our own free will and not out of fear, even if they don't mean much to us at the time, even if we can't do more than a few at first, then things are different. Then we notice that HaShem is already part of our lives and is already performing small miracles for us, as we say in our prayers, in Modim. Just as Paroh made his choice to do evil, we can make our own choices to do good, and we, too, will have our consequences - not plagues and pestilence, but the knowledge of all the good that HaShem does for us.
May we all increase in our mitzvot and grant HaShem's will a greater
presence in our lives.
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