Monday, January 30, 2006

Exploring Judaism with Rabbi Yisroel Gordon - The Talmudic Parsha: Bo

This Monday, January 30th at 7:30pm, we will continue our series of classes devoted to mining the weekly Torah portion for its mitzvot. In each class, a new mitzva will be analyzed fromm Talmudic, Halachic and Midrashic perspectives, in an attempt to glean legal definitions and relevant lessons. Join us as we learn, discuss and experience the extraordinary depth of Torah! We currently find ourselves in the saga of the 10 Plagues, and the following is a discussion submitted to the JewniProj by Rabbi Gordon:

In this past week’s very entertaining parsha we find the first seven of the famous Ten Plagues. After a futile attempt at shuttle diplomacy with his trusted ambassador Moshe, G-d resorts to the military option. He attacks Egypt with an arsenal of unconventional weaponry, but Pharaoh stands firm.

Pharaoh’s intransigence goes far beyond his refusal to free the Jews; he won’t even accept the existence of G-d! When Moshe first approaches Pharaoh and declares in the Name of G-d, “Let my people go,” Pharaoh replies, “Who is G-d that I should obey Him and let Israel go? I do not recognize G-d” (Shemot 5:2). So much for ‘know your enemy.’

The plagues begin and the question we are confronted with is this: Who needs them? It is obvious that G-d does not need plagues to force Pharaoh to free the Jews; it wouldn’t take G-d ten plagues to accomplish that. Nor can we say that the plagues were exclusively for the purpose of punishing the Egyptians for enslaving the Jews. If that were the case, why does Moshe keep saying that if Pharaoh frees the Jews the plagues will stop? Rather, G-d’s primary objective with the ten plagues was to introduce Himself to Pharaoh, the Egyptian people, and the world.

A careful reading of the text will reveal that the ten plagues are actually a beautifully structured lesson plan for a basic theology course. The first nine plagues are divided into three sets of three, each set with its own message. At the beginning of the first set G-d says, “Through this you will know that I am G-d” (7:17). The first thing Pharaoh needs to learn is that G-d exists.
Before the second set G-d proclaims, “You will realize that I am G-d, right here on Earth” (8:18). Lesson two is the concept of Divine Providence. Not only does G-d exist, He is intimately involved in the affairs of man. Before the third set G-d says, “You will know that there is none like Me in all the world” (9:14). In this set G-d demonstrates His ability to break the laws of nature. (To explain how each of these lessons is taught by the plagues of each set is beyond the scope of this overview. See Abarbanel and Malbim.) The tenth plague, the Plague of the First Born, stands by itself. In that plague, G-d Himself descended into Egypt (11:4). The final lesson is that there can be a revelation of G-d’s Presence in the physical realm.

This is not all. The Ten Plagues have more to tell us about the nature of G-d. For example, we see the effectiveness of prayer (2:23-24, 8:5-9), G-d’s love for the Jews (8:18), and His compassion for the Egyptians even at a time when He is punishing them (9:19). The plagues, when viewed in their entirety, also attest to the truth of monotheism. Otherwise, the only way to explain events would be to say that the God of the Nile, the God of weather and the Gods of wildlife all got together and formed a united coalition against Egypt. Of course, this is inconceivable. Gods don’t work together, they fight each other. The only explanation that makes sense is that one G-d Almighty controls everything.

Although G-d is a great teacher, Pharaoh’s arrogance makes him a slow student. He stubbornly refuses to accept G-d and actively “hardens his heart” time and time again (7:13,22, 8:11,15, 8:28, 9:7). So G-d decides to take drastic measures. After attacking Pharaoh’s country, palace and body to no effect, G-d invades his mind. In the sixth plague, “G-d made Pharaoh obstinate” (9:12). Can we imagine Pharaoh’s terror at the realization that he had lost control over his own mind? Maybe this was his breaking point. In the next plague, at the very end of the parsha, Pharaoh’s arrogance is shattered and he faces the truth: “This time I am guilty. G-d is Just! It is I and my people who are in the wrong” (9:27).

The purpose of the Ten Plagues was not just for the education of Pharaoh and the ancient Egyptians. It is for us Jews today as well. G-d tells Moshe, “I have made [Pharaoh] and his advisors stubborn, so that I will be able to demonstrate these miraculous signs among them. You will then be able to tell the story to your children and grandchildren how I made fools of the Egyptians, and how I performed miraculous signs among them. You will then fully realize that I am G-d” (10:1-2). In other words, G-d deliberately designed things in a way that would make for an entertaining story, in order to facilitate the education of future generations!

With the Ten Plagues G-d taught mankind who He is. It was a lesson for all time, never to be forgotten. He is One, creator and director of all the forces of the world. He is a G-d of both Justice and Mercy; a G-d who answers prayers. It is He who grants man free will, and He has the power to take it away.

This Shabbat when we study the Ten Plagues, G-d is both the curriculum and the instructor.
This course was, and is today, a core requirement for enrollment into Sinai.


For location, contact Rabbi Yisroel Gordon at (650) 961-4576 or at yisroel@jsn.info .

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