Shabbat candles: 4:30 p.m.
Torah: Exodus 6:2-9:35
Havdalah: 5:34 p.m.
Readers have long noticed that the Ten Plagues come in three triads followed by the final plague, the death of the firstborn. In each triad, the first two are preceded by warnings to Pharaoh of what is to come, while the third is brought on without advance notice. The announcement of the seventh plague, though, differs from the preceding warnings in a number of interesting ways.
After the sixth plague has abated, Moses is told to say to Pharaoh, “Thus said the Lord … ‘Send off My people, that they may worship Me. For this time I am about send all My scourges to your heart and against your servants and against your people, so that you,” in the masculine singular — you, Pharaoh, “may know that there is none like Me in all the earth’” [Exodus 9:13–14].
That the point of the plagues is quite distinctly focused on Pharaoh had been stated before. In the warning preceding the fourth plague, for example, Pharaoh is told that the plague will not be felt in Goshen, where the Israelites lived, “so that you,” again, in the masculine singular, “may know that I am the Lord in the midst of the land” [Ex. 8:18].
The speech continues [Ex. 9:15–16] with something new — a look back at the previous plagues to underscore the point: “For by now I could have sent forth My hand and I could have struck you and your people with pestilence, and you would have been wiped off the face of the earth. And yet, for this I have let you stand — so as to show you,” again, specifically Pharaoh,”My power, and so that My name will be told through all the earth.”
Now the Lord turns to the imminent seventh plague: “Look, I am about to rain down very heavy hail at this time tomorrow, the likes of which there has not been in Egypt from the day of its founding until now.” We expect to be told next that Pharaoh refused and that the Divine threat was carried out. Instead, we encounter an offer of opportunity — limited but significant — to flee the effect of the coming plague. Moses is to say, “And now … gather in your livestock and everything you have in the field. Every man and the beasts that will be in the field and that are not taken indoors, the hail shall come down on them and they shall die” [Ex. 9:18-19].
The Torah immediately informs us that some of Pharaoh’s courtiers heeded the advice, sheltering their workers and livestock, but others didn’t, leaving their workers and livestock in the field [Ex. 9:20–21], presumably to suffer or die in the hailstorm.
What motivated the Lord to offer Egyptians an opportunity to avoid the plague?
A Midrash [Shemot Rabbah] suggests that by giving Pharaoh and his courtiers a chance to save their servants and livestock, the Lord was modeling good behavior. One Sage obverved, “Come and behold the Blessed Holy One’s compassion. Even in a moment of anger, he had compassion on the evildoers and on their cattle. For the plague of hail was not sent forth against them but rather [only] against the produce of the land, and He warned them to protect themselves and their cattle from being lashed by the hail.” A fine idea but is it an accurate interpretation of the Divine motives here? If the point is the compassionate treatment of opposing forces, why was no such offer made before?
The story itself offers a useful insight. Among Pharaoh’s entourage were some people who heeded Moses’ advice and some who did not. Imagine how the two groups felt after the hailstorm, what each thought of the other, and of Moses and God, once the differences in damage had been reported? Had a wedge been driven between the obstinate Pharaoh and some (most?) of his royal retinue? If so, was that perhaps not the very point of the Lord’s advice — to drive that wedge? As Robert Alter notes in his “The Five Books of Moses,” “The existence of a contingent of Egyptians now genuinely terrified by the dire predictions of the Hebrews is an indication of developing cracks in the pharaonic front.”
It may be that the two explanations are really one. Faced with an array of hostile forces, perhaps one should try to peel away from the core opponents factions with whom an accommodation can be found and peace can be made. Dividing the opposition and reaching an agreement with adversaries who need not be sworn enemies may be both practically wise and ethically saintly.
Rabbi Peretz Rodman is a Jerusalem-based writer, editor and translator.