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The Ten Plagues - What's the Message?

By: Rabbi Barak Bar-Chaim

A large part of the Torah Portions of Va’eirah and Bo deal with the narrative of the ten plagues. It is commonly understood that the purpose of the plagues was divine retribution, meted out to punish the cruel Egyptians for their persecution of their Hebrew slaves. The clear message being that God ultimately punishes those responsible for oppressing others.

There are a number of textual difficulties with the above interpretation. Firstly, only the last two plagues (which were the only lethal plagues) are referenced with the word ‘justice’ (Mishpatim in the Hebrew). The first eight are called ‘signs and wonders’, which implies that their main purpose was to act as some kind of signpost and create a sense of wonder. It is also interesting to note that the name used to signify God’s attribute of justice Elokim is not mentioned at all in reference to the ten plagues. And finally, God himself expresses his purpose with phrases like ‘And the Egyptians will know that I am God’ (Exodus 7,5) and ‘…in order that you will know I am God’ (Exodus 10,2), which seemingly have nothing to do with punishment and retribution.

One of our great 16th century biblical commentators, Rabbi Oviadiah Ben Ya’akov Sforno therefore concludes that the main purpose of the plagues was in fact educational and not punitive. God, in his great compassion was sharing with the Egyptians a glimpse of His majesty and control over nature. Yes, the plagues were signposts that were to awaken the Egyptians to repent and return to God. Yes, the plagues were wake up calls, God reaching out to the oppressive Egyptians to wake up and change their ways. As the prophet states ‘… I do not desire the death of the wicked, rather that they should return from their ways and live’ (Yechezkel 33,11). The message for the onlooking Hebrews was clear: See my people, the extent of my great compassion. Only after God gives the Egyptians eight opportunities to absorb the message does he deliver the final fatal blows of justice.

We may not oppress others with physical whips and physical servitude, but we are guilty of oppressing others with the whips of our tongues and harmful emotional servitude. Perhaps, the most fundamental contemporary message of the ten plagues is to see the wondrous uncomfortable experiences in our daily lives as wakeup calls. As wake up calls to be kinder, more ethical and more compassionate human beings.