The Ten Plagues

Of blood, frogs, hail, & more.

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As further evidence of the miraculous nature of the plagues, one midrash notes the biblical description of the plague of hail as a mixture of fire and ice, commenting: "Imagine two fierce legions who were always at war with one another, but when the king needed their services for his own battle, he made peace with them, so that both should carry out the orders of the king. In like manner, fire and hail are hostile to each other, but when the time came to make war with Egypt, God made peace between them and both smote the Egyptians" (Shemot Rabbah 12:4).

The midrash further understands the hail to prefigure the punishment that, according to the Book of Ezekiel, God will bring on Gog and Magog in the war that will precede the coming of the messianic age. In linking the redemption of the Israelites from slavery with the ultimate redemption of the world, the midrash implicitly justifies any violence as a necessary means of reaching an unambiguously-positive end. Beyond being a punishment to the Egyptians, the plagues are a step in the process of redeeming the world.

Contemporary Interpretations

Many contemporary explanations of the ten plagues attempt to reconcile the presumed suffering of the Egyptians with modern-day conceptions of ethics and treatment of the other. Rabbi David Teutsch, a former president of the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College, for example, suggests that God is not, in fact, the author of the harshest plague--that of the murder of the firstborn of Egypt. Rather, he says, it is human beings who interpret this event as divine:

"How can we understand God's role in the death of the firstborn? One explanation suggests that all who did not defend the Israelite slaves in Egypt are responsible for what Pharaoh imposed. Thus, God's punishment of the Egyptians was justified. Another explanation holds that only in hindsight did the Israelites see the hand of God in the death of the Egyptians. God does not intervene in human history this way... By this reckoning, what is important is not whether the firstborn died, but whether we can see the power of human redemption in our lives as flowing from the divine" (Rabbi Joy Levitt and Rabbi Michael Strassfeld, ed., A Night of Questions, 61).

Rather than justify the plagues, some modern-day commentators instead try to sharpen our awareness of the suffering caused by these plagues in order to help us empathize with others who are oppressed. The Journey Continues: The Ma'yan Haggadah, produced by the women's program of the Jewish Community Center of the Upper West Side of Manhattan, offers the following meditation on the plagues:

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Rabbi Jill Jacobs

Rabbi Jill Jacobs is the Executive Director of Rabbis for Human Rights-North America. She previously served as the Rabbi-in-Residence for the Jewish Funds for Justice.