Abarbanel on the Parsha

For the week ending 9 January 2016 / 28 Tevet 5776

Parshat Vaera

by Rabbi Pinchas Kasnett
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Two Aspects of the Plagues

In his analysis of the ten plagues that afflicted the Egyptians, Abarbanel provides two different perspectives on the exact nature of the plagues. Firstly, he emphasizes that they were all based on natural phenomena. Since the prevailing belief in the ancient world was that nature was controlled by the four elements of water, earth, air and fire, each of the plagues could be connected to one of the four to demonstrate G-d’s control over all the forces of nature. Furthermore, Abarbanel demonstrates that each of the plagues set the stage, in a natural and physical sense, for the plague immediately following. This also demonstrates G-d’s manipulation of natural phenomena to afflict the Egyptians. The second perspective, which is shared by other commentators as well, is that each of the plagues was a punishment, measure for measure, for what the Egyptians had done to the Bnei Yisrael. This is another important and significant demonstration of G-d’s Divine Providence.

The first five plagues were based in the first two elements: water and earth. The waters of Egypt turned to blood, and the frogs emerged from the Nile river.

The dust of the earth then swarmed with lice, followed by swarms of dangerous animals that covered the ground. The fifth plague was the epidemic that struck their domesticated animals, which were nourished by the vegetation of the earth.

The last five plagues were based on the elements of air and fire. The plague of boils came about when Moshe threw handfuls of soot from a fiery furnace heavenward. The plague of hail was a miraculous combination of ice and fire striking the earth together. The locusts arrived in Egypt due to a strong easterly wind. The plague of darkness was also related to air. Normally, darkness is something that is not felt, just like air. Here, however, G-d created a thick, substantive darkness that would not allow even the smallest ray of sunlight to penetrate. Finally, the first-born Egyptians died from the sudden appearance of foul and unbreathable air.

Each of the plagues created natural conditions that helped bring about the following plague. The bloody water of the Nile which killed off the fish, allowed the frogs to proliferate. Similarly the eventual putrification of the dead frogs contaminated the ground, which created ideal conditions for both the lice and the assortment of dangerous vermin and other animals that followed. These conditions also killed off the vegetation necessary for the domesticated animals and contributed to the epidemic that killed them. Even though these putrid environmental conditions did not result in an epidemic that affected people, they were sufficient to contribute to the outbreak of boils. The atmosphere was also profoundly affected by the conditions on the earth. The drastic increase in humidity contributed to the hail, and the ensuing change in atmospheric conditions caused a shift in the direction of the wind, resulting in the plague of locusts. The wind from the west which drove away the locusts was exceedingly powerful and moisture-laden. The searing heat of Egypt, however, prevented the clouds from disgorging their moisture. The result was the incredibly thick and murky darkness. Finally, this darkness contributed to the foul conditions which resulted in the deaths of the first-born Egyptians.

Abarbanel’s second perspective is the “measure for measure” punishment of the Egyptians. The infant Hebrew boys were thrown into the Nile; the Nile becomes a source of death instead of life, for the Egyptians. The Hebrew mothers wailed and cried out at the loss of their sons; Egypt suffered from the cacophony of thousands of screeching frogs. The Hebrews were forced to make bricks from the dirt of the ground; the dirt of the ground swarms with lice. The Egyptians invaded their homes and took their children as their personal slaves; swarms of dangerous animals invaded the homes of the Egyptians. The Egyptians confiscated their herds and flocks; Egyptian herds and flocks perished in the epidemic. The Egyptians embarrassed and humiliated the Hebrews and prevented them from having children; the Egyptians suffered humiliating boils and would not go near each other. The Egyptians terrified the Hebrews with screams, shouts and physical abuse from fists and rocks; the Egyptians were terrified by the fire, thunder and lightning that accompanied the pelting, pain-inflicting hail. The Egyptians confiscated their crops; the locusts destroyed the crops of the Egyptians. The Egyptian exile is compared to darkness, while the redemption is compared to light; the Egyptians suffered through a unique darkness of their own. Finally, the Egyptians inflicted broad all-encompassing evils on the Hebrews, who are referred to as G-d’s “first-born” (Shemot 4:22); the killing of the Egyptian first-born was also all-encompassing and not a single household escaped the punishment.

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