The Plague of Darkness

The ninth plague, of darkness, is extremely telling. According to Midrash, the Egyptians could not see everything but the Israelites, in their neighborhood of Goshen, had full access to light. This was an all-consuming darkness, where “people could not see one another and for three days no one could get up from where he was.”[1] The medieval commentator Nachmanides describes the darkness as a fog-like condition which extinguished all flames. Ibn Ezra said it was so dark that the Egyptians could not even keep track of the passing days.

The Etz Chaim Chumash challenges the idea that this was a physical darkness, as why then would the Egyptians not light candles? It comments that perhaps it was “a spiritual or psychological darkness, a deep depression.”[2] After all, this is the ninth plague that has befallen the Egyptians, and it is one that attacks the sun, which they worshipped. Perhaps the Egyptians no longer believed there was hope for a better future, so why bother doing anything?

In such a condition of fogginess, confusion and depression, it was the perfect opportunity for Israel to enter into armed rebellion against the Egyptians or at least steal all of their belongings. However the Israelites did neither of these, instead leaving the Egyptians and their property untouched.

When one is vulnerable, surrounded by complete darkness, s/he realizes the kindness of others. As Samson Raphael Hirsch points out, this led the Egyptians to willingly give the Israelites their silver and gold during their exodus. It also led to some of the Egyptians joining with the Israelites in leaving Egypt. These Egyptians saw that because the Israelites left their belongings alone during a time of vulnerability that this was a trustworthy people who they could join, as opposed to staying in a harsh, Egyptian society.

This illustrates a core teaching of Judaism. As Jews we are not supposed to take advantage of the misfortunes of others, especially when they did not provoke the situation. The plagues were meant to be primarily against Pharaoh, to show him who G-d was, yet they affected all of the Egyptians. Our ancestors recognized that the plagues falling on the Egyptians did not give them the right to “run amuck” and plunder their belongings. It would have been enticing for a slave to turn on his master at the slightest opportunity, yet the Israelites understood that the plagues were there for a higher purpose, to demonstrate the power of G-d.

There are times in each of our lives at which we might feel schadenfreude, pleasure in the pain of someone else, especially if that person has exploited or taken advantage of us in the past. It is tempting to descend on him/her at this moment of great vulnerability. Our ancestors understood, however, that this human temptation was not something to embrace. The Egyptians were suffering enough from G-d, and our ancestors would soon be free from their tyranny. The compassion that they showed the Egyptians during this time would not go unnoticed. Perhaps our ancestors were starting to learn what it means to be a people of G-d: to show compassion and mercy to those who are in a weaker state, even when one can make a valid argument to do otherwise. May we learn from their example and make it our own.

[1] Exodus 10:23

[2] Etz Chaim Chumash, Page 377, note 23

Aaron’s Rod

Do you believe in magic? One of my Jewish Studies college professors asserted that there is magic in Judaism; the key is that “our magic comes from God and is good; others’ magic comes from man and is bad.” As we begin to read about the Ten Plagues in this week’s portion, I think a lot about divine magic. However, I want to start with the sign before the plagues, that of Aaron’s rod turning into a snake.

In most of the Torah, the snake is a bad animal. In Genesis, the snake talks Eve into disobeying God and eating from the tree of knowledge. In Numbers, the people are disobeying God and are struck by snakes, until a copper snake is mounted to heal them. Here, we have a snake as a sign of God’s presence.

What’s even more interesting is that Aaron’s rod can not only turn into a snake but also act on its own. When Pharaoh implores Aaron “show me a sign” and he throws his rod down and it becomes a snake, the Egyptian magicians are able to replicate this same act. The difference is that Aaron’s “snake” swallows theirs and then turns back into a rod. This is the start of the Israelite “magic,” under the control of God, superseding the Egyptian magic.

Why would Pharaoh ask Israel to show him a sign? Such a question is raised by Isaac ben Judah Abravanel.[1] Abravanel comments that it because Pharaoh has already questioned God’s existence. If Pharaoh does not believe in the Israelite God, but rather that he himself is god, why would he ask for a sign?

Furthermore after seeing the sign, why spurn Moses’ request to let the Israelites go-and not once but through 10 plagues! At least elsewhere, in the Book of Isaiah, King Ahaz of Judah spurns Isaiah’s attempts to show him a sign of God’s presence. Here Pharaoh asks for a sign but then disregards it. In Shemot Rabbah[2] Pharaoh clucks like a hen, saying “Such are the wonders of your God! Usually, people bring merchandise to a place where it is needed…Don’t you know that I am the master of all magic arts?” It is clear that neither Pharaoh nor his magicians were ready to embrace this magic, until the third plague when the magicians are forced to concede אצבע אלוהים, this is the finger of God!

Was it really the case that Pharaoh disregarded the miracle? Another Midrash in Shemot Rabbah[3] indicates that Pharaoh was shaken when he saw Aaron’s rod consume the others, thinking ‘what if he tells the rod swallow Pharaoh and his throne’? Pharaoh was forced to concede that this was a supernatural act, an inanimate object “swallowing” other inanimate objects. If a snake had swallowed another snake, Pharaoh could have conceded that it was following the laws of nature. We see later in the Torah other examples of Aaron’s rod acting supernaturally, like when it grows almonds on it in Numbers, indicating that he is the true High Priest.

Aaron’s rod is considered so great that according to Pirkei Avot (Ethics of the Fathers)[4] that “the rod”[5] was one of the ten wonders created at the beginning of the world. It was not an ordinary walking stick but rather something imbued with divine powers, utilized to give testament to God’s will.

We learn from Aaron’s rod that we do not need a magic carpet or a fairy princess with a wand to bring forth miracles; rather an everyday item, if imbued with the will of God, can produce the most fascinating of miracles. Magic in Judaism is a tool through which to recognize the power of God, as opposed to being utilized as an end to itself. The signs of God’s presence are in front of us; if only we choose to accept them. Ken yhi ratzon, may it be our will to do so.

[1] 15th Century Spanish and Portuguese commentator (until exiled to Italy under the Inquisition) who had great wealth and who supplied provisions for the royal army under Queen Isabella. On a number of occasions he gave large sums to allow Jews to stay in Spain until he was expelled by the Inquisition.

[2] 9:4

[3] 9:7

[4] 5:8

[5] It does not specify whether it was Aaron’s or Moses’ rod. Most commentators say it was Moses’, yet both rods were used to perform supernatural wonders.

The Merit of the Hebrew Midwives

The cat’s out of the bag. Pharaoh discovers that the Hebrew midwives who he entrusted to kill the baby boys of the Israelites were actually allowing them to live. Instead of following his supreme command to kill their kin, they disobeyed and saved their lives. He asks the midwives “Why are you disobeying me?” and their reply is “The Israelite women give birth so vigorously, even before we come to them, they deliver the baby.”

Did Pharaoh really buy this explanation? Perhaps he did. After all, one of the words used to describe how quickly the Israelite population grew is וישרצו,[1] meaning that they multiplied like insects. It seems more likely, however, that Pharaoh did not, as he quickly changes his strategy to having all the people throw the baby boys into the Nile rather than having the midwives kill them.  Why then doesn’t he arrest the midwives for civil disobedience, for defying his order?

From most accounts it appears that the midwives are rewarded for their efforts. The continuation of the story reads, “G-d dealt well with the midwives; and the people multiplied greatly. And because the midwives feared G-d, He established homes for them.”[2] What is the purpose of the homes which are established? Who is the “he” who establishes homes? Who is the “them” for which they are established?[3]

Rashbam[4] views the two parts of the verse as separate from each other. Because the midwives feared G-d, he (Pharaoh) put them (the midwives) in homes, to guard them lest they allow more Hebrew children to live. As punishment for disobedience, Pharaoh put the midwives in a controlled environment, so he could keep an eye on them. The difficulty with this, however, is why would Pharaoh do an about face and change his command to throw the Israelite children into the Nile River? If he had control over the midwives, he should proceed with his plan of killing all the sons.

A more compelling way of looking at the midwives is that they were being protected from Pharaoh. Rabbi Saadia Gaon[5] asserts that it simply means that G-d protected the midwives. The midwives obeyed G-d, and in return G-d ensured that Pharaoh would not harm them. Midrash HaGadol[6] expands on this, affirming that Pharaoh did come to kill the midwives, and God put two walls around them, protecting them.

Rashi[7] has a different take, referencing the Talmud.[8] He states that the houses refer to the descendants of the midwives. Shifra, who the Talmud equates with Yocheved, was blessed to have the Kohanim and the Leviiim[9] descend from her, through Aaron and Moses. Puah, who is equated with Miriam, has royalty follow her line, as she is an ancestor of King David. The houses thus refer to the midwives’ descendants.

Hizkuni[10] expands upon Rashi’s idea, arguing that בתים, or homes, really means בנים, or children. The midwives undertook a daring task, putting their lives in danger to save others. In return, G-d ensured that their memory would endure forever through their descendants. For Hizkuni, one’s descendants are his home, as they ensure stability and permanence. Thus God gave the midwives the greatest gift they could ask for: families.

Rabbi Yaakov Tzvi Meklenberg[11] has a unique take, arguing that the midwives were not directly rewarded but that the entire people of Israel benefitted from their action. He states that because the midwives feared G-d, He (G-d) made for them (the people of Israel) homes. Rabbi Meklenberg points out that the them (להם) is masculine and so it could not possibly refer to the midwives; rather it must go back to the previous verse,[12] where it states “the people of Israel multiplied and increased greatly.” Because the midwives let the male children live, the Israelites increased in number, and because they increased in number, G-d established dwelling places for them.

The lesson to take from the example of the midwives is to do the right thing precisely because it is the proper thing to do. One needs to defy immoral commands, even if they come from the ruler of the land and even if they will not result in direct benefit for oneself. David Hazony wrote about the “six women and Moses.”[13]  Our redeemer from Egypt would not have been able to save the Jewish people if he, himself, had not been saved by six women.  Shifra and Puah, those faithful midwives, help to ensure his birth by creating a culture of civil disobedience. Miriam and Yocheved, his sister and mother, protect and hide him for as long as they can. Pharaoh’s daughter takes him into her home and adopts him.  Finally, his wife Tzipporah circumcises their son to stop an approaching angel who seeks Moses’ death. Without these women, there would be no exodus story. As the Talmud[14] declares: “As the reward of the righteous women of that generation were the Israelites delivered from Egypt.” May we be as righteous as the Hebrew midwives, doing the right thing at a time of great difficulty, and may it lead to our houses, our children, knowing and sharing our merits. That is the greatest reward for which we can ask.

[1] Exodus 1:5

[2] Exodus 1:20-21

[3] The latter two questions might appear to have obvious answers: the “he” is G-d and the “them” is the midwives. However, it’s not so clear cut, as we will see in the commentators.

[4] Rashi’s grandson who lived in 12th century France

[5] Leader of the rabbinic academy in Sura (Babylon) in the 9th century

[6] A 14th century collection of Midrashim (rabbinic interpretations of biblical verses)

[7] 10th century France and the grandfather of Rashbam

[8] Babylonian Talmud Sotah 11b

[9] The Jewish priestly class

[10] Hezekiah ben Manoah of 13th century France

[11] 19th century Prussia; author of HaKtav V’HaKabbalah

[12] Exodus 1:20

[13] From Jewish Ideas Daily, December 22, 2010.

[14] Babylonian Talmud Sotah 11b