This is a text of a d’var Torah I gave at Altshul on January 25, 2020
First, I want to say that I am so glad my family joined altshul a year and a half ago. The generosity and kindness of this community is amazing. I feel lucky to be a part of it and to get to say a couple of words today.
This week, we begin the plagues. Reading them this year, I was struck by their structure, their slow reveal, and I want to take some time to look at that aspect of them, especially as it plays out in the first four plagues.
We begin with God telling Moses to tell Aaron to act. He raises his staff and first turns the rivers to blood, then brings forth frogs. Aaron does this, but remarkably, Pharaoh’s magicians do the same. It is a sort of tit for tat, between God’s actor, Aaron, and Pharaoh’s, the magicians, with neither getting the upper hand.
Then in the third plague, Aaron brings forth from the dust, lice. Here, the magicians cannot follow. Instead they proclaim that surely this is the work of God.
Only now, in the fourth plague, does God himself act – there’s no Moses, no Aaron, just God. He brings forth the wild animals, perhaps the most mysterious of the plagues. And for the first time, God declares that he will protect his people, that the horde, the wild animals, whatever they might be, will not descend on Goshen, where God’s people live.
Tradition tells us that the Jews suffered from none of the plagues. But why is God’s protection only articulated here in the fourth plague? And for that matter, why is it only here, well into the action, that God alone brings forth a plague?
Rashi tells us that Moses did not take part in the first three plagues because of his personal relationship with the river. But that doesn’t explain why we have to wait to the fourth plague for God to take center stage.
Perhaps to explain this it’s helpful to think of the plagues as revelation of God’s power and omnipotence, not only to the Egyptians, but to the Jews as well.
We know the plagues can be broken into three sets of three, with the final plague standing alone in its horrible power. The first three show God’s existence, the second three, his providence over the earth, and the final three, his omnipotence. When Aaron is acting under God’s direction, he is also publicly confronting Pharaoh’s magicians. Does the God Moses speak of exist? Will he really save the Jews from bondage? Moshe says so, but when Aaron turns the Nile to blood, so do the magicians; when he raises the frogs, they do the same.
The tension builds.
But then Aaron raises the lice and the magicians are awed – they are in fact the first non-Jews in Exodus to admit God exists. Right after, God himself takes over and makes clear that he alone holds these powers over the earth. He directs the horde of wild animals towards the homes of the Egyptians and for the first time, states that he will protect his people in Goshen.
Here is God, finally taking direct control. And here is God, not Moses, and not Aaron, defining who his people are and assuring them that he will protect them.
Why does this take so long?
As a friend’s son asked, why doesn’t God just teleport the Jews out of Egypt?
Surely if the Jews were to suddenly disappear, the Egyptians would be awed. But perhaps the Egyptians alone are not the audience here. Perhaps we too are the audience, and we are the ones who need to be shown, and reminded not once, but twice every year, that God is greater than human tricks, and that God alone decides who is, and isn’t, among his people.