Would We Have Seen Hashem in the Plagues?
The Torah emphasizes the supernatural in the Exodus, especially the plagues and Splitting of the Sea. Hashem is quoted frequently to the effect that these wonders were to make clear to the Egyptians and the world Who was making this happen.
Taken at face value, it makes us wonder how the Egyptians denied the necessity of submitting to Hashem through ten full plagues and then, a few days later, decided to chase the Jews to the Sea. Why didn’t they reconcile themselves to the inevitable?
Perhaps Hashem hardened Paro’oh’s heart at some point, but that doesn’t explain the conduct of the rest of the Egyptians, who did not urge him to let the Jews go until late in the game, and never forced him to do so. Their hearts weren’t hardened, but they don’t respond as if it were completely clear that their only choice was to submit to Hashem.
Perhaps we can understand them better if we ask a different question: did the plagues obviously and undeniably come from Hashem? Some strands of tradition say no. Several commentators, especially Ramban but also Rashi, show how a stubborn denier could have convinced him/herself that the plagues were natural.
For them, the challenge of the plagues wasn’t to accept the blindingly obvious, it was to choose to acknowledge Hashem’s orchestration of events, despite the possibility that they could explain those events another way. (That also makes it more comparable to challenges of faith today, where we have to choose the explanation that includes Hashem, despite its not being the only reasonable one).
Let’s look at how Hashem left the Egyptians—and too many Jews-- room to misconstrue what was in front of them. And then to ask ourselves, what would we have done had we been there?
When Aharon turns Egypt’s waters to blood, Par’oh’s sorcerers do it as well. Rashi thinks Par’oh concluded that Moshe and Aharon were sorcerers, perhaps more powerful than his, but not essentially different. Once he could fit the plague into a familiar framework, he and his people could avoid rethinking their world, could reject any need to grapple with whether this God was qualitatively different than other gods.
Drawing from Chazal (which goes without saying for Rashi, and henceforth will), Rashi also says that a week of plague was followed by three weeks of warnings. He likely thought this was to give the Egyptians time to learn the lessons of each plague, to react as they ought to have. But they could equally use it as breathing room, to let the memory of the plague fade, to reassure themselves nothing novel was happening, that life would continue as they were accustomed.
When introducing frogs, Shmot 7;27, Hashem speaks of being נגף, sending a plague. Rashi notes that the verb indicates a damaging but not completely destructive event. Today we might say the plagues were never an existential threat; they caused loss of property, displacement, discomfort, and occasional loss of life, but no realistic possibility of the Egyptians’ losing their nation, their society, or their culture. The lower the threat level, the less they were forced to learn the lessons Hashem was teaching. And until they were forced, they found ways to avoid doing it.
Rashi’s Lice: Beyond the Reach of the Natural
For Rashi, the sorcerers couldn’t produce lice because the demons who did their bidding had no power over anything smaller than a barley-grain. In more modern terms Rashi could be saying that there was (and perhaps always is) a limit to humans’ ability to control the world, through sorcery or science. Certain things, only Hashem can do.
The sorcerers recognize that Aharon’s ability to manipulate something that small points to a supernatural source, and tell Par’oh that. They’re ready to admit that Aharon was doing something that no natural force could. At the same time, their admission excuses their failure; perhaps that self-serving element helped Par’oh reject their view.
They were right, but his reaction speaks to the difficulty we can have in accepting anything truly different. Applying that to ourselves, we can ask when we would accept that we had reached an absolute human limit, and when we would insist that it was a matter of not yet having the right technology to accomplish the task?
The sorcerers correctly said it was the first; Par’oh shows how tempting it is to cling to our existing framework, adjusting it without fundamentally changing it when exceptional events threaten it. Seeing Aharon as the most powerful sorcerer ever is still less disruptive or discomfiting than admitting Hashem’s omnipotence.
Ramban’s Lice: Supernatural How?
Ramban thinks the sorcerers could produce lice generally, and had done so on other occasions. Here, Hashem prevented them, which was how they knew this was the finger of God. His reading explains why they tried and failed to produce the lice. If they knew their magic didn’t extend to lice, why try at all?
Ramban assumes an intervention of Hashem’s about which the text stays silent. It also makes it even harder for non-sorcerers to see that this was coming from Hashem, since sorcerers did sometimes produce lice.
Without rejecting that, Ramban offers an idea closer to Rashi’s, noting that this plague was the first to create new material. Blood came from existing water, and the frogs were also already in existence (according to Ramban). The lice were new, however, and demons have no power to create new.
This agrees with Rashi on how the sorcerers recognized Aharon’s lice as supernatural, but differs on the bounds of the natural, in a way that also translates well to modern life. For Ramban, magic or science might be able to combine or transform existing substances remarkably, but truly new life will always beyond their capabilities.
Do we accept Ramban’s distinction? Do we notice that modern science always builds off that which already exists? If we lose sight of that, we run the risk of emulating Par’oh, deciding there is nothing in the plagues to induce us to rethink our worldview.
Gone, Not Forgotten
The sorcerers disappear after the lice fiasco, not mentioned again until the Torah notes, 9;11, that they could not stand before Par’oh when the boils struck.
Ramban says their vulnerability embarrassed them so much that they stayed locked up in their homes. The comment suggests that for all that they conceded that the plagues were from Hashem, they clung to their respected social position—Hashem and Aharon might be stronger, but they as sorcerers were still a power to be reckoned with, to be present as Par’oh dealt with the Jewish problem. Only when they couldn’t protect themselves, let alone compete with Hashem, did they have to completely withdraw.
It Never Happened Here
9;18 says the hail was unprecedented in Egypt. To Ramban, that means there had been hail that severe elsewhere; the miracle was the where, not the quantity or quality. Similarly, 10;14 describes the locusts as unsurpassed in severity, but in that case without limiting it to Egypt.
Yet Yoel 2;2 warns of locusts that would be more destructive than any that had come before. Rashi answers that the plague in Yoel’s time involved several species, whereas Moshe’s was a never-matched one species infestation. Ramban disagrees, first because Tehillim speaks of several species decimating the Egyptian crops. He suggests instead that the Torah meant the locusts never had or would descend on Egypt like this, again leaving room for a determined rationalist to categorize the plague as unusual but not unheard-of, and therefore not unnatural.
The modern parallel would be if a prophet predicted a tsunami would hit New York. It might be the first and/or worst to ever hit New York, but the fact that such tsunamis have occurred elsewhere would let skeptics insist there was nothing supernatural about the event.
It Happened, But Not Naturally
Ramban’s second answer offers more reason the Egyptians could fail to see the plague’s full import. He suggests the Torah meant there had never been such a swarm of locusts naturally, with no intention of commenting on past or future supernatural plagues. An historian of locust swarms might see this one in the upper levels of severity, but not uniquely so, since Hashem might bring more severe swarms. Leaving room to decide that all those swarms, including the one in Egypt, were natural.
Ramban does think the Jews’ immunity to the plagues was an obvious Divine intervention, especially plagues that should have spread. They should have suffered from the wild animals just like the Egyptians, for example, since no physical boundaries barred the animals from roving into Goshen. He and Sforno add that even in Egypt, the animals ignored Jews they encountered, killing and eating Egyptians instead.
Since the Jews’ and Egyptians’ grazing lands were next to each other, the pestilence that struck the Egyptian cattle should have continued on to the Jewish cattle, but did not. Even the relatively naturalist Ramban, in other words, saw ample room for the Egyptians to have caught what was actually happening.
Rashi’s Miraculous Plagues
Rashi several times reads the plagues as more miraculous than the text itself requires, making the Egyptians’ denial more surprising. For example, when 8;2 refers to the “the frog” rising from the river (a quirk of Biblical Hebrew, which can refer to many items with a singular). Rashi offers the Midrash’s literal reading, that only one frog rose; when the Egyptians hit it, it shot out more frogs (we will return to this, when we discuss the Egyptian people’s role in the plagues).
At 9;5, Rashi assumes Moshe brought the plague of boils by taking all the ashes he and Aharon gathered in both their fists in one hand (already a remarkable feat—holding in one hand the content of four fists’ worth of ashes), then throwing them up in the air, from where they spread, miraculously, all over Egypt. (Ramban suggests a wind blew them, again providing natural cover for what was happening).
Even still, the Egyptians managed to ignore it all. Can we be confident we would have done different? True, they experienced the direct and announced hand of Hashem, but the history of prophecy suggests that wasn’t the crucial difference, since our people ignored or rejected the many prophets sent to call us to change.
Watching the plagues go misunderstood, we may need to recognize ourselves, to accept that we all tend to opt for our baseline, to refuse to change even when new information calls for it. Finding ourselves sharing characteristics with the Egyptians should make an urgent goal of changing that aspect of ourselves.
The less obvious Hashem’s involvement was and is, the more responsibility it places upon us to see it, to find it. As we work to put ourselves back in the Exodus, a first challenge is to avoid the Egyptians’ error of failing to see the supernatural. Tomorrow, we will see that we can fail to open our eyes in many places. Or we can succeed, as did some of our forefathers back in Egypt.