April 18, 2024
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Dr. Yael Ziegler at Yeshivat Noam: Making Sense of the Ten Plagues

Dr. Yael Ziegler, a highly regarded Tanach scholar and lecturer, addressed the community last Thursday evening in the Middle School Beit Knesset of Yeshivat Noam. Margi Saks, Yeshivat Noam’s enrichment coordinator, is a close childhood friend and former college roommate of Ziegler. Saks also arranged for Ziegler to address Noam’s middle school girls during a whirlwind speaking tour.

Ziegler, who is based in Israel, lectures internationally including at venues in Hong Kong, South Africa, Australia and Europe. A native of Philadelphia, Ziegler attended Stern College and immediately after earning her BA made aliyah where she continued her education, earning a master’s and Ph.D. in Tanach from Bar Ilan University. She resides in Alon Shvut with her husband and five children and is a regular lecturer at Herzog College and MATAN. Previously she taught for close to twenty years at Midreshet Moriah. Her publications to date include “Promises to Keep: The Oath in Biblical Narrative” and “Ruth: From Alienation to Monarchy,” which Saks is studying with her daughter in preparation for her upcoming bat mitzvah.

Speaking on parshiot being studied at this time of year, Ziegler noted that the narrative of the makot is not just a one-time yearly Torah reading. It recurs in our Haggadot on Seder nights where it is accorded many paragraphs and is the theme of many songs. The overriding question raised about the makot has always been: If their purpose was to coerce Pharaoh into releasing the Jews from slavery and sending them out of Egypt, why not begin and end with Makat Bechorot, the slaying of the firstborn? Why the need for nine intervening plagues?

The Midrashim abound with suggestions and every commentary offers its own interpretation of the purpose of all ten makot. One of the most common themes is that the plagues served as “measure for measure” punishment for the Egyptian cruelty to Bnei Yisrael. The blood in the Nile served as retribution for the killing of the male Jewish babies and throwing their bodies into the Nile. The boils were in retaliation for the boiling water the Jews were required to provide to the Egyptians which often splashed in their faces and scalded them. And the parallels continue.

A second recurring reason for all ten makot is that they were a process for establishing God’s power in the world, not just universally and specifically to the Egyptians, but to the nation of Israel as well. God’s power over the pantheon of Egyptian gods becomes evident through the various makot, such as the total darkness the Egyptians experienced which obliterated the power of their supposed all-powerful RA, god of sun, while the Jewish slaves were never blinded with darkness.

A third and unique idea suggested by Ziegler, based on midrashic suggestions, is that the makot utilize the language and objects of original creation such as the creatures of the sea, the snakes, the fish, the land, the insects as if to show that there was a further attempt at creation through the Jews, this time in the hopes that it would be successful and not another failure as in Gan Eden and in the days of Noah. The language used to describe the Jewish people as multiplying geometrically are creation words. “U’Bnei Yisrael paru vayishritzu vayirbu vaya’atzmu b’meod meod, vatimalei ha’aretz otam,” meaning, “And the children of Israel were fruitful, and increased abundantly, and multiplied, and grew exceedingly mighty; and the land was filled with them.”

Also, when Moshe was born, the language used harkens back to creation: “Vateire oto ki tov hu, vatizt’pinaihu shelosha yerachim”—and “when she saw he was a goodly child she hid him three months.” The saving was done in the Nile, the same body of water that earlier had devoured the Jewish male children. With Moshe’s birth and his concealment in the Nile, we can look forward to a new and hopefully more successful creation.

Are there additional patterns in the arrangement of the makot which convey specific methods and messages? We are all familiar with the division of Rabbi Yehuda into three sections—“detzach adash be’achav”—and all the Midrashim about the three categories that these divisions represent. Dr. Ziegler offered several new and innovative divisions which open up our view of the makot into a larger perspective.

According to one suggested division, the makot represent a slow, steady and incremental military strategy against the Egyptian monarchy. From breaking their water supply in the Nile to slinging arrows at them in the shape of lice, the plagues came along to whittle away at Pharaoh’s military confidence and history of conquest. Egyptian kings were unused to being attacked from without. The plagues culminated in “sus v’rochvo ramah bayam,” meaning, “his horses and his chariots were drowned in the sea.” Thus Egypt’s military might was challenged for the first time.

A second look at the order of the makot suggests, according to Rabbeinu Bechaya, that the plagues are arranged in an upward motion, beginning from the sea and advancing to the wind and air. In the process they are taking on the many gods of Egypt that are believed to be in charge of the various aspects of nature. The makot make clear that one supreme God is in charge of all these forces of nature.

Yet another division suggested by Ziegler is that the makot break into two divisions of five, much like the Aseret Hadibrot (Ten Commandments). Each division of five ends with a plague that threatens death to the Egyptians, which is the ultimate challenge to their belief in their immortality.

Makot Arov and Dever (mixed wild animals and death of the livestock) threatens the Egyptians, their families and even their animals with total destruction as does the final plague, Makat Bechorot (the slaying of the firstborn). The Egyptians were obsessed with overcoming death. Witness their mummifying their bodies, their burial with household possessions, their inclusion of 365 miniatures of servants in their tombs to represent the servants who will serve them in their immortality throughout the year. Notice that their caskets are inscribed with passages from the Book of the Dead to ensure them entrance into paradise. Finally, their great pyramids ensure their immortality. Interestingly, the name Pharaoh has been translated as Great House, impenetrable except by enemies such as Moshe.

Thus the makot brought the Egyptians face to face with the fearful concept of their own mortality.

Among the many possible divisions of the makot comes one which can serve us as inspiration for our own lives. We notice that the first seven plagues were described in the Biblical portion of Va’eira. Then the narrative stops and a new chapter, Parshat Bo, goes on to describe the last three makot. Why the division of the 10 makot into two parshiot?

Ziegler suggests that the first seven makot served as punishment to the Egyptians. The last three makot serve as an education—for the Jewish people. The arbeh (locust) cover the earth in black cover, choshech (darkness) blinds the Egyptians, Makat Bechorot (the slaying of the firstborn) cuts off their future. But for the Jewish people, the last three makot which they were spared is a lesson to them about their future. Parshat Bo is the story of redemption, of their looking toward the light of the Exodus and the Receiving of the Torah. The Egyptians celebrate MAN and attempt to get their corporeal bodies into the next world. The Jewish people, who heard the voice of Hashem on Har Sinai, were worthy to become like angels in the service of God. They were not affected by lice, and when they died their bodies did not rot. Happy are they in this world and in the World to Come as they recognize that Hashem is their God and they will serve Him in both worlds.

By Pearl Markovitz

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