Whither the Plagues? A Good Question Today

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Sarai’s treatment of Hagar is, in a word, harsh.

PARSHAT BO
EXODUS 13:16
Early in the Book of Genesis, we read that Hagar HaMitzrit (“The Egyptian”) attempts to flee from Abraham’s tents, and yet she is told by an angel to return and submit herself to Sarai’s harsh treatment. She is promised that her son’s offspring will also become a great nation, at least in number. While the other descriptions of her future progeny are not exactly laudatory, the Torah in Genesis 16 is quite clear: Sarai’s treatment of Hagar is, in a word, harsh.
Hagar does return — and yet, we are left wondering why anyone would do so, especially in light of the treatment she endures. That being said, there is some sort of persevering reality for those who live with humiliation and abuse, who are unable to extricate themselves from their living conditions and from the humiliation they suffer by the hand of those who abuse them.
In time, Hagar will be cast out again, but her progeny will found a nation, eponymously named Mitzrayim or Egypt. It is there that the Children of Israel will travel to for sustenance; and it is there that they will remain, both protected and well treated until there arises a Pharaoh that knew not Joseph. It is with a new Pharaoh in the Book of Exodus that we see the rise of the Egyptian slavery and Israelite humiliation.
Very quickly, we meet Moses in the first Parsha of Exodus. Raised as both an Egyptian and as an Israelite, he must flee Egypt because he no longer fits in. He has killed an Egyptian and has been mocked by one of his fellow Hebrews.
Away from Egypt, God tells Moses that he must return to Egypt and demand that Pharaoh let his people go. Moses remonstrates, claiming that he is unqualified and not the right one to go back. Unlike Hagar, who willingly returns to Abraham and Sarai’s harsh treatment, we can hardly blame Moses for not wanting to return. Moses is right to be concerned, not with his speech impediment, but rather that the Israelites more than likely will not listen to nor believe him. We now can more clearly see the emerging purpose of the plagues that God will visit upon Egypt.
We see that with every plague, Pharaoh is only too eager to settle the issue and just as willing to send the Israelites away hoping to be rid of very problem brought about by each plague’s arrival.
If we understand it this way, then the plagues could not serve solely as an instrument of punishment for the Egyptians. After all, they were the ones who were willing to let the Israelites go.
One could easily make a mockery out of Egypt with just one plague and so we are left with the question as to why God needed 10 plagues in order to get his message across. Perhaps the plagues were brought in order to teach the Israelites something that they could not even begin to fathom before Moses first arrived.
For those who have lived in humiliating conditions, an understanding of the plagues as justice served and appropriate punishment neither seems farfetched nor inappropriate. This is especially so in a world that all too often appears terrorized by one people doing horrible things to another.
To pray for or to ask for divine retribution is neither unheard of nor difficult for any of us to understand. However, it would seem that one plague should have been enough. The Israelites do not see this as divine retribution; instead, they see the very system that has kept them in this state of dehumanizing slavery as now falling apart and beginning to implode.
As the plagues unfold, the Israelites are able to learn that the slave masters who terrorize them are no longer in control. Pharaoh’s decisions are made from weakness and then, especially toward the end, made in fear. Pharaoh’s heart has been hardened and he has lost control. The Israelites discover that very power that has been exercised over their lives is empty, temporal and ultimately illusory. Most importantly, it is now coming to an end, and it is unfolding before their very eyes.
An important lesson we all might take note of, even in our own times.
Rabbi Seth Frisch is the rabbi of Congregation Kesher Israel in Center City Philadelphia and a member of the Executive Board of the Philadelphia Board of Rabbis. The Board of Rabbis of Greater Philadelphia is proud to provide the Torah commentary for the Jewish Exponent. 

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