The Ten Plagues and the Gift of Choice

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Pharaoh's decision not to let the Israelites go, which resulted in 10 gruesome plagues, shows the power — and gift — of free choice.

This week we read one of the most dramatic narratives in the Torah: the story of the 10 plagues that God brings upon Egypt through Moses and Aaron. These plagues are necessary, God tells Moses, to convince Pharaoh to let the Israelite slaves go. Since Pharaoh is the linchpin of the story, after each of the plagues, the Torah tells us of Pharaoh’s reaction to what has happened.
 
After the first plague, when the Nile has turned to blood, Pharaoh turns from the river and walks away (Exodus 7:23). Apparently his heart is untouched by the sight of life-giving water turned into a symbol of death. The second plague is harder to ignore. Frogs invade every space in Egypt, even the royal bedchamber. Pharaoh pleads with Moses and Aaron to remove the plague (8:4), but once it is gone, he again ignores their request for freedom (8:11).
 
With the third plague, lice, it is Pharaoh’s magicians who turn to him, pleading for relief, saying, “This is the finger of God!” (8:15). Pharaoh ignores them. Under the influence of the fourth plague, Pharaoh agrees to let the people go but then reneges (8:28). The fifth plague — little reaction. The sixth plague — Pharaoh stands firm.
 
The seventh plague, however, is different. This time, God warns Pharaoh that a plague of hail is about to come upon Egypt such as it has never seen, and God orders Pharaoh to bring human and beasts under shelter so that they are not killed (9:18-19). The Torah tells us that some of Pharaoh’s courtiers fear God and heed this advice, but many do not. Many people and animals die, and trees and orchards are destroyed.
 
What is Pharaoh’s reaction? “I stand guilty this time. The Lord is in the right, and I and my people are in the wrong” (9:27). For the first time in the story, after being unaffected by all that has come before, Pharaoh finally admits guilt and takes responsibility for his actions. Why?
 
Many commentators argue that Pharaoh had no choice but to resist the plagues, that God “hardened his heart” and prevented him from changing his mind. I disagree. I think that Pharaoh can admit his guilt after the seventh plague because he has finally understood that the actions he has taken were not pre-determined.
 
He had — and still has — a choice. He chose not to listen to God’s warning, and as a result he brought destruction upon his people. This is a message about cause and effect that can get through even to Pharaoh. Once he realizes that he had a choice, he can also admit his guilt. In fact, he is guilty precisely because he had a choice between good and evil — and he chose evil.
 
Without choice, there is no responsibility and no guilt. With choice, a moral universe is created. Too often, we delude ourselves into thinking that we have no real choices, no power and thus no moral obligation to act and no responsibility for what happens in our world. Like Pharaoh, we need to hear in this story a wake-up call.
 
Despite the huge forces that operate in our world, we always have the gift of choice, the enormous power to choose either good or evil. With this gift comes responsibility, the possibility of success or failure, righteousness or sin. May we always be aware of the gift of choice, and may we always use it wisely.
 
Rabbi Adam Zeff serves as the rabbi of Germantown Jewish Centre in Philadelphia. He is currently on sabbatical in Israel. Email him at: adamzeff1@gmail.com.
 

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