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Parashat V'aerah

"G-d spoke to Moses and said to him, 'I am Hashem'"

clouds2Moses has arrived on the scene, as saviour of the Jews.  However, since his induction, the suffering of the Jews has increased. He accusingly asks G-d, "Why have you harmed this people?" to which G-d replies, "I am Hashem" (using His Name pertaining to Mercy). 

That is to say, "Even when my actions appear harsh, they emanate from feelings of mercy."  G-d does great deeds for both good and bad, and the people must not despair of redemption.  In reality, this extra suffering was to benefit them all, for once their plight in Egypt became unbearable, they would be redeemed immediately.  No Jew would then say, "I love my master, I will not leave."

G-d then commands Moses and Aaron to go to Pharaoh and ask for the release of the Jewish people.  At this point, the Torah states that "Moses was eighty years old and Aaron was eighty three".  Why does the Torah have to mention their ages here?

People are accustomed to rest in their old age.  They are put on a pension scheme, and spent the rest of their days in rest and satisfaction.  This is not the way of our Sages and leaders: the older they get, the harder they work at Torah study and refining their character, and shepherding the city and the country.  The above verse shows us how right they are to do so; for in Moses' days the human life span had dwindled, as he himself said: "The days of our lives are seventy years, or with strength eighty years."  Even given their unusual life span, Moses and Aaron were already in their old age, and two thirds of their lives were over as they headed for Pharaoh's palace.  Yet see what they accomplished for the Jews and for the whole world, at a time when ordinary people are taking it easy!  With this in mind, one should stop and think what a desolate world it would be without the Torah, how the world would be sunk in ignorance, sorcery, tyranny and slavery, if these two old men had retired!

When they met Pharaoh, he asked for proof that they were who they said they were.  G-d had told them to throw down Aaron's staff, which will become a snake.  However, the word the Torah uses is "tanin" which means sea serpent.  Why is this?  In front of Moses and the Jewish people it appeared as a snake, but before Pharaoh it appeared as a sea serpent, because the Torah uses that image to refer to Pharaoh.  Land animals do not prey on their own species, whereas sea creatures do, their world being far more lawless and violent than the land.  By turning to a sea serpent, the staff was showing Pharaoh what he was like.  His rule was one of indiscriminate violence, and his end would be to sink into the sea, measure for measure.

Moses then tells Pharaoh that Hashem intends to bring about a plague of blood.  From here we see that Hashem's strategy in punishing Pharaoh was entirely different from human warfare.  If a man wants to defeat his enemy, he does so with secrecy.  Hashem gave an explicit warning to Pharaoh.  He hoped that Pharaoh would do teshuva, and the plague would then be unnecessary.

However, Pharaoh scoffed at Moses, and, despite being warned for a period of three weeks, was still unrelenting. G-d caused the Nile to turn to blood.  All the fish died, and the river stank - in this respect, the plague was even more severe that the flood in Noah's time, during which the fish stayed alive.  However, the plague did not personally harm Pharaoh for three reasons:

1. Hashem was long-suffering with him because Moshe had been raised in his house. 
2. Hashem hoped he would still do teshuva. 
3. Hashem caused Pharaoh to become exalted in the eyes of the Egyptians so that his subsequent downfall would appear all the more drastic.

Pharaoh was again warned for three weeks, but he did not heed the warning.  The second plague, frogs, filled the land.  They even entered the Egyptian houses after the doors were locked.  As soon as the frogs called out, "We are messengers of Hashem Who created the world," the marble and stones immediately parted, allowing the frogs to penetrate them.  As soon as this plague ended, Pharaoh again hardened his heart.  This is typical of all reshaim (wicked people) who never repent sincerely, but only make promises under duress, rescinding them as soon as they feel relief.

The third plague, lice, was not preceded with a warning, since Pharaoh had ignored the warnings preceding the last two plagues.  The lice infested the Egyptians (and their animals) by pricking their bodies like needles.  Interestingly enough, in his time, Jacob had foreseen the ten plagues.  He had commanded Joseph to take his corpse out of Egypt since it was revealed to him that the plague of lice would in the future infest Egypt, and he did not want his corpse to suffer from it.

Hashem then sends wild beasts, snakes and scorpions.  As well as those, the domestic animals turned wild and bit the Egyptians to death.  Why did Hashem plague Egypt with wild beasts?  It was a measure-for measure punishment.  After the plague of lice, when the Egyptians realised that the Jews would no longer build cities for them, they devised a new form of barbarity to torment them.  They ordered the Jews to catch wild beasts for them in the hope that they would be killed in the process.  After this, Pharaoh still hardened his heart, so Hashem sent the fifth plague - pestilence.  This was again measure for measure because the Egyptians had forced the Jews to became shepherds and donkey drivers in deserted spots and distant mountains to prevent them from multiplying.  As a result, all their animals perished.

The next plague - boils - was brought about by a partnership of Hashem, Moses and Aaron, because it was the most harmful of the Ten Plagues, bringing physical suffering upon every single Egyptian (and not merely harming their possessions).  These were no ordinary boils - they were a combination of twenty four different types of leprosy.  While the Egyptians had not been greatly stirred by the previous plagues, they considered the boils intolerable and cried out, "This is a horrible plague!"

The seventh plague was hailstones.  These were a combination of fire and water, a physical impossibility.  Hashem wanted the Egyptians to admit that the cosmos was governed by Divine Providence and not natural law.  The plague began as mere rain because Hashem hoped that the Egyptians would still do teshuva.  Eventually the rain was converted into a storm.  Thunder crashed, lightning struck, and the earth quaked, followed by hideously large hailstones, whose loud crashing rocked the land.  Whoever was in the fields was hit, frozen by the ice, and burnt by the fire.  The hail broke entire trees and destroyed the crops even down to the deepest roots in the ground.  All produce was destroyed except for the wheat and spelt which Hashem wanted to spare so that the locusts could devour it.

Pharaoh entreated Moses once more to end the plague.  Moses left the city and spread out his hands in supplication.  As soon as he lifted his hands, before he uttered one word of prayer, the hail ceased.  Even the hailstones that were on their way down to the ground did not continue falling but remained suspended in the air.  From the fact that the hail ceased immediately we discern the greatness of a tzaddik, who decrees and Hashem fulfils his will immediately.  But why did Hashem end this particular plague faster than the previous ones?  Pharaoh had begun to praise Hashem, saying, "Hashem is righteous."  Since Hashem does not want the praises of a rasha (wicked person), He immediately removed the plague in order to prevent Pharaoh from continuing to laud Him.

For the eighth, ninth and tenth plagues, see next week's Gur Aryeh.