Timeless Lessons from the Ten Plagues
Based on a shiur by Rabbi Chaim Mintz at Torah Spot before Pesach 2019, prepared for print by Oorah’s Rabbi Nechemia Levi
When we study the Ten Plagues that G-d brought upon the Egyptians, and when we discuss them at the Pesach Seder, we tend to look at them as ancient history. While spilling some wine out of our goblets may make them feel a bit more real, for the most part they don’t feel like they have much to do with us in our times. Yet in reality, as with everything recorded in the Torah, these plagues actually teach us fundamental lessons of faith, and with a little bit of thinking and creativity, we can apply them to our everyday lives.
Before the first plague, G-d sent a message to Pharaoh: “So says Hashem, with this you will know that I am G-d, behold I will smite the waters in the river with the stick in my hand, and they will turn into blood.” This was actually a preface to all the plagues, for the purpose of each one was to illustrate to the Egyptians another aspect of G-d’s might, and His control over all that takes place in the world.
But the plagues were not meant for the Egyptians only. The Torah informs us at the beginning of Parshas Bo that the great wonders performed by G-d were for the Jews in Egypt to learn from, as well as for all future generations.
So, although we all know a lot about the Ten Plagues, let us take a bit of a deeper look and see what relevance they have for us in our days.
דָם – Blood
The first plague – blood. All the water in the Nile, Egypt’s primary source of water, suddenly turned to blood. The Egyptians actually worshipped the Nile, for it would periodically flood its banks and irrigate the entire land, making Egypt one of the most fertile civilizations of the time. And now it was rendered completely useless! This is what G-d meant when He said that the blood will prove to you who is the true G-d, for He showed them without a doubt Who was really in control of the water – He and not the Nile.
While we don’t worship water, we definitely tend to take water for granted. When we wake up in the morning and open the faucet, we expect to find water rushing out to wash ourselves with. Well, what would happen if suddenly no water would come out? Or how about if we turned on the washing machine and there were no water to wash the clothes? We would surely panic and not believe that this could actually be happening to us!
Well, that’s exactly how the Egyptians felt at that time. And just as G-d did it to them, He can take our water away from us at any time too, if He so wishes, for He is the one who provides us with water in the first place.
This is the lesson we must take from the first plague, to realize that G-d is all-powerful and the one who provides us with water. We must thank Him for our water while we have an abundance of it; after all, not everyone can access so much water so easily. Many people in developing countries are constantly in need of water, and during wartime water can be scarce as well. And how about the problem of water pollution? It’s a real problem, and although man is responsible for it, nothing happens in this world without G-d deciding so, and He is showing us that if we’re not careful, He can pollute our water just like He took the water away from the Egyptians.
This was the first lesson the Egyptians were taught, and we must learn from it that G-d is in charge, and we should not take for granted the gifts He gives us. Thank Him for them all the time.
צְפַרְדֵעַ – Frogs
The second plague was frogs. Everywhere an Egyptian would go, anything he would try to do, frogs would croak in his ear and disturb him. One would try to bake a cake and a frog would jump into the batter, another would try to go to sleep and a frog would be resting in his bed, and yet another would try to take a walk and frogs would jump all over him. This caused them terrible anguish. The Egyptians were practically driven insane from all the noise and disturbance, until Pharaoh finally called upon Moses to beg G-d for mercy and remove the terrible nuisance, restoring some of their sanity.
We all look to have peace of mind in our busy lives, but sometimes it seems so elusive. Well, who do you think makes it so elusive? G-d, of course. He may not send swarms of frogs, but there are many different things that come our way that throw us off kilter. It may be car trouble, or maybe a child acting out at school. It may be some misplaced money, or maybe an annoying boss who never seems to be pleased. Whatever it is that comes your way, it is G-d who is disturbing your peace of mind, and there’s probably some message He’s trying to get across to you.
So if you had a good day, everything went smoothly and no curveballs were thrown your way, thank G-d for it, because He alone is in control of our peace of mind. And if you had a day when everything went wrong and you feel like you’re going to lose it, recognize that it is G-d who, for whatever reason, is making that peace of mind ever so elusive. Pray to Him, and hopefully tomorrow will be a better day. Even the frogs eventually left Egypt and they had some peace of mind once again.
כִּנִים – Lice
Next came the lice. Until now G-d had shown His power over the water, and now He showed Who is boss over the earth. Aaron hit the dirt and it turned into lice, crawling all over the Egyptian people and their animals.
Many good things come from the earth. The ground may look dormant, but it is really full of wonderful life. We plant in it and out comes wheat and vegetables and trees, sustaining mankind with its bounty. Coal comes from the earth, diamonds and metals are dug from the earth, and even oil is drilled from the earth.
Who makes all this come from the earth? Who controls what comes out where and when? G-d! By turning all the dirt to lice, He showed us for all eternity who owns the earth and all that is in it. He can make wonderful bounty sprout from the ground, but He can also cause destruction to come from it if He so desires. So next time you go outside and take a walk on G-d’s earth, thank Him for all the life-giving things He put into it.
עָרֹב – Wild Animals
Next came one of the scariest plagues of all: wild animals. All sorts of scary animals roamed the streets of Egypt, attacking young and old, men and women, striking fear into the hearts of the people wherever they were. G-d was sending a message to the Egyptians, “You think wild animals stay in the wild because that’s where they belong? No, they stay there because that’s where I want them to be. And right now I want them to roam the streets, so they will roam the streets as if they own them, and no one can stop them.”
This provides an interesting lesson for us. You walk down the street and see a ferocious looking dog, barking so loud that, even though it’s on a leash, you cross to the other side. G-d is the one who is scaring you, and it is He who is holding the dog back and not allowing it to injure anyone. And if, G-d forbid, someone does get bitten by a dog, it is G-d who decreed that he should get bitten, not the dog or its owner.
Over the last several years there has been an increased presence of deer in urban areas that in the past had not seen deer. If you are driving around and a deer unexpectedly jumps out in front of you, realize that it was not the deer who decided to cross over into the domain of humans, it was G-d who sent him there. And if you see a dead deer on the side of the road, thank Hashem for generally keeping the roads safe from wild animals.
Indeed, the rabbis instituted a wayfarer’s prayer called Tefillas Haderech, and in it we ask G-d to protect us from wild animals along the way. The story goes of a group of people who were traveling along the highway, and after reciting the prayer, one of them commented how protection from wild animals is not relevant nowadays. Precisely at that moment a deer jumped out in front of them and bang!
Wild animals are held in check by G-d, a fact we must always remember and thank G-d for.
דֶבֶר – Animal Sickness
During the next plague all the domesticated animals died. One may wonder what that has to do with us, since most of us don’t own animals these days. The answer is a lot. Imagine one day there is no gasoline to be had. No one would be able to get around, not by car, not by bus, not by train, not by plane. We wouldn’t be able to live. Add to that that trucks and ships would be grounded as well, and no food or goods would be transported either.
That’s exactly how the Egyptians felt at that time. Their prized horses and donkeys, the primary means of transportation and trucking of that era, all perished. G-d showed them very clearly that He is in charge of all means of transportation, and it’s not the horses, not the donkeys and not their riders.
This is something easily applied to our daily lives. For example, when we experience car trouble we tend to blame it on the car being old, or failure to maintain it properly. These may be true, but it is G-d who did not want your car to start this morning, and these are only His ways of accomplishing that. And when you pump gas into your car, it’s not the gas making it drive-it’s the will of G-d. Or if you’re waiting forever for the bus or train to arrive and it just won’t show up, again it’s G-d who, for whatever reason, wants you to wait and show up late to your appointment.
So next time you turn the key in the ignition and the car starts, thank G-d for making it start. Or next time you fly and you experience a smooth, easy flight, thank G-d that there was no turbulence. But if the flight is not so smooth, and there’s a lot of turbulence and everyone is starting to get scared, remember it’s not the winds or some storm acting up, it’s G-d who decided that there should be so much turbulence, and perhaps He’s trying to send the passengers a message. And this is not only true on an El Al flight to Israel, even if it’s a United Airlines flight over the Pacific, or anywhere else, G-d is controlling the plane, and He’s deciding if it should be smooth flying or not.
שְׁחִין – Boils
Next came the plague of boils. Moses threw ashes up in the air, and the Egyptians were covered head to toe in burning, itchy boils. They attempted to heal and sooth themselves with all types of remedies, ointments and creams, all to no avail.
The Egyptians were no slouches when it came to knowledge of medical science; they were the leaders of their time. From the mummies that have been preserved to this day, we know of their great knowledge of herbs, natural medications and the like. Scientists and archaeologists still marvel at the advanced knowledge they must have possessed to be able to preserve dead bodies for thousands of years. Yet even the wisest of Pharaoh’s men were stricken with boils and could not get rid of them, forcing them to lock themselves in their homes out of shame.
We tend to think that we’re in charge of our bodies. We feel that if we exercise properly, eat a healthy diet, and refrain from dangerous activities, our bodies will remain healthy and we’ll live long lives. Plus, we live in a country with top doctors and one of the best health-care systems in the world. This is all partially true, but G-d is the only One really in charge of our bodies. He can make us healthy and He can make us sick, G-d forbid. Don’t delude yourself into this false feeling of security, because we see too often how a family can be turned upside down overnight due to a sudden illness, G-d should spare us from such things.
So take a lesson from the plague of boils and thank G-d every day for the health He continues to bestow upon you and your family. And if you or a loved one are not well, pray to G-d for a speedy recovery, or if you know of someone who is sick, ask G-d to heal that person and all other sick people soon. Even the mighty Egyptians were struck with seemingly small pimples and they couldn’t function at all, because good health and life are in the Hands of G-d.
אַרְבֶּה – Locusts
Next came the swarm of locusts that ate up all the crops that were left from the hail, leaving the Egyptians with nothing left to eat.
Living in the United States, a land blessed with great bounty, we tend to take food for granted. But not everyone has it so easy; there are developing countries where millions of people are starving every day. During wartime, people have to scrounge for morsels of food. And the Egyptians also thought they had so much to eat, until G-d displayed His great might and reduced their vast storehouses of food to nothing.
So if we have enough to eat, remember it’s G-d Who decided to shower us with plenty, and thank Him for it. It’s not so difficult for a Jew to find time for such things: all he needs to do is concentrate a little when he recites a blessing before and after eating food, and he will be thanking G-d. Or when you go to the store and see so many different types of apples, for instance, praise G-d for them. He could have made one type, one color, and we would have also had our apples, but instead He chose to provide us with a dazzling array of different colors and tastes of not just apples, but all types of foods for us to enjoy. This is the lesson of the locusts.
חֹשֶׁךְ – Darkness
The next plague was darkness. For six days there was no light, just strong, thick darkness that could literally be touched. People were pinned down to their chairs and couldn’t move because the darkness was so thick. G-d showed the Egyptians that He controls not only what comes down from the skies, but the heavenly bodies too, the sun, the moon and the stars.
We live in an age where light is taken for granted. We have gotten so used to light appearing at the flick of a switch that we tend to forget who the creator of light really is. G-d created the sun, the moon, the stars, the planets, and only He is the source of all light.
So on a gloomy, cloudy day, or in the dead of winter when daylight is scarce, or if you’re left in the dark because the electricity went off, think about G-d’s kindness. He created light, and He is also the One Who makes the light go on when you flick that switch. Let’s remember this, and thank Him for providing us with so much light.
מַכַּת בְּכוֹרוֹת – Death of Firstborn
Finally we come to the climax, the killing of the first-born. G-d showed the Egyptians that He controls the most important thing of all-life itself.
In our times people espouse many different theories of creation. There is Darwin’s ridiculous theory of evolution, how man developed on his own over the course of time. What utter nonsense! There are many versions of this stupidity, one more ludicrous than the next. G-d showed all mankind that He is the one who gives life and He is the one who takes life away. He created our bodies and our souls, and when He decides it’s time to go there is nothing anyone can do about it. Life is the most precious commodity, and it doesn’t come by itself, it’s in the hands of G-d, and His hands only.
These are the timeless lessons of the Ten Plagues, and a wonderful topic to discuss at the Pesach Seder, either during the recitation of the Haggadah or at the meal. If we do this, we will surely infuse ourselves and our children with a dose of emunah-faith in G-d, which is the primary goal of this holy night.