Editor’s Note: This week we welcome the first in what we know will be a wonderful series of chinuch articles, contributed by the heads of school at our community institutions.
We recite the famous acronym developed by Rav Yehuda at the Pesach seder each year, in which he divides the plagues into three groups. He clusters the first three plagues into one group, the next three into a second group and the last four into a final group.
Our rabbis chose not to follow the division of Rav Yehuda when dividing the plagues across parshiyot, placing the first seven plagues in Parshat Va’era and the last three plagues (locusts, darkness and killing of the firstborn) in Parshat Bo. Why did our rabbis choose to do this? Wouldn’t it make more contextual sense to place all 10 plagues into one parsha? Even if we were to divide the plagues between two parshiyot, why not follow the division of Rav Yehuda and read the last four plagues in Parshat Bo? After all, there are many textual patterns and similarities that justify the division of Rav Yehuda.
Rav Yitzchak Abravanel offers two explanations for this division:
(1) Thematic Connection:
The last three plagues are thematically related in that they all connect to the sky and to darkness. This is why they are placed in the same parsha.
Locusts flew in from the sky, darkness resulted from absence of light from the sky and the death of the firstborns resulted from lack of air, which led to an inability to breathe.
There were so many locusts that the land became dark. During the plague of darkness, the whole land was dark. The plague of the firstborn took place at midnight, which was a time of complete darkness.
2) A turning point in the story—an attitude change in Pharoah:
Pharaoh expressed his concern regarding a specific plague only once the plague was brought. This emotional reaction changed in the last three plagues. Pharaoh and his servants began to express fear even before the plague began. This heightened anxiety led Pharaoh to work to find areas of compromise with Moshe. Negotiations began at this point, leading to the liberation of the Jews. Thus, the eighth plague represents a turning point in the story and a fitting place to begin the next chapter of the Exodus story.
A strong argument can be made that the turning point for Pharaoh and his servants is actually during the seventh plague, not before the eighth plague as the Abravanel states. First, before the plague of hail, many of Pharaoh’s servants, fearing Hashem, moved their belongings inside. This represented the same attitude change Pharaoh experienced in that the servants demonstrated concern even before the plague struck. Second, following the plague, Pharaoh admitted that he had sinned for the first time, showing that his attitude was beginning to change at the end of Va’era.
A third approach that I offer provides an additional explanation of the division of plagues between Parshat Va’era and Bo; it differs slightly from that of the Abravanel and addresses the same questions:
Parshat Bo represents a change in attitude, not from Pharaoh, but from the Egyptian people. Egyptians, living under a tyrannical rule, had no say in the affairs of government. The onset of the plagues challenged them to speak out against Pharaoh yet they remained silent through the duration of the first seven plagues. Finally, in the beginning of Parshat Bo they reached a breaking point where their fear of God was greater than their fear of the all-powerful Pharaoh:
And the servants of Pharaoh said to him: How long will this be a snare for us? Send out the men that they may serve Hashem their God. Do you not yet know that Egypt is lost? (10:7)
This statement marks the first time that the Egyptians displayed bravery in speaking out against Pharaoh. Seeing that he had lost control over his people, Pharaoh was forced to call Moshe and Aharon back, swallow his pride and allow the people to leave. This is why the Torah says “Vayushav et Moshe ve’et Aharon el Pharaoh.” (10:8) Note the usage of a passive verb: “And Moshe and Aharon were brought back to Pharaoh.” Pharaoh did not really want to bring them back, but recalled them out of fear of an uprising. The first time that the Egyptians were willing to stand up against their leader was a significant event that changed the course of history and was a turning point that led to the Exodus. As such, it is an appropriate place to begin the parsha.
Why did Pharaoh only begin to negotiate with Moshe and Aharon after the eighth plague? The first plagues were extremely difficult, yet he was able to withstand them. The difference lay in the power of the people. Hashem wanted the Egyptians to speak out against the evil being done in their land. This change began in the beginning of Parshat Bo.
I feel that this is an important lesson for both parents and educators to instill in our children. Every individual has the ability and the responsibility to affect positive change in the world. Our role is to ensure that our children are motivated to want to make this world a better place, to stand up for those who can’t, and to speak aloud for the values that we hold so dear. While we don’t intend to use plagues to make our case, we can and should be thinking about educational experiences that will motivate our students to grow into both leaders and followers who are fiercely committed to Torah values and to making this world a better place.
By Rabbi Daniel Alter, The Moriah School
Rabbi Daniel Alter is head of school at The Moriah School, in Englewood.