Each year, as we read these sections of the Book of Exodus and then reread them later in the year at our Passover table, I wonder about the apparent capricious and violent nature of the plagues.
Yes, I understand that back in the day the biblical author needed to present God as going toe for toe against Pharaoh, the God of Egypt. Yes, I understand that this was a life or death situation for our people.
But, I seek a sense of order to the plagues. I wonder about the violent nature of the plagues.
So, like many good Jewish questions, others have asked them before us. Travel with us back to Tanhuma bar Abba’s study room in 4th century Palestine:
All that the Egyptians planned against the Israelites, the Holy One brought upon their own persons:
1. The Egyptians intended Israelites to draw water for them. So “He turned their rivers into blood” (Ps. 78:44).
2. The Egyptians intended Israelites to carry wares for them. So He brought frogs, which chewed up those wares.
3. The Egyptians intended Israelites to till the soil for them. So He made the soil swarm with gnats.
4. The Egyptians intended Israelites to carry their young children about in the manner of tutor escorts. So He sent against the Egyptians wild beasts — lions, wolves, leopards, bears, and serpents. For example, an Egyptian with five sons would customarily put them under the care of an Israelite, who would escort the five in the street. A lion would snatch one, a wolf another, a bear another, a leopard another, and a fiery serpent still another, so that the Israelite would come back to the house of the Egyptian alone. The Egyptian would ask, “Where are my children?” and the Israelite would reply, “Sit down, and I will give you an accounting — a lion took one, a wolf another, a bear another, a leopard another, and a fiery serpent still another.”
5. The Egyptians intended that Israelites tend their cattle. So He sent a plague upon their cattle.
6. The Egyptians intended that Israelites serve as bath attendants for them. So He brought boils upon them.
7. The Egyptians intended to stone the Israelites. So He brought hail upon them.
8. The Egyptians intended that Israelites be their wine stewards. So He brought locusts, which consumed their vines.
9. The Egyptians intended to put them in prison. So He brought darkness upon them.
10. The Egyptians intended to slay them. So “the Lord smote all their first in rank” (Exodus 12:29).
11. The Egyptians intended to drown them in water. So He “hurled Pharaoh and his host into the Red Sea” (Ps.136:15). Tanhuma Bo #4.
A midrashic eye for an eye of sorts, Tanhuma’s midrash teaches us to look for meaning where there is apparent randomness. So it is for our Torah portion, so may it be in our lives.
(This column is a service of the Greater Pittsburgh Rabbinic Association.)