What were the makos, the 10 plagues? Were they what Albert Camus describes in his book, “The Plague,” the bubonic type that swept through his French town killing the populace? No, of course not. The plague that slew the first born was selective. It didn’t kill the other brothers and sisters, only the firstborn. It wasn’t contagious, and it happened all at the same time, at the stroke of midnight.
Interestingly, the first born always seems to lose out. Rabbi Morduchowitz used to say we learn how to raise our children with the first born. Maybe that’s why, according to biblical law, the first born gets a double portion for his inheritance.
But, the more I thought about it, the more I realized that the plagues of ancient Egypt were different. In fact, there were some positive aspects to the plagues. Maybe they were not all that bad, except for the 10th maka of course, which may be viewed as the maka of judgement.
I remember my father suggesting the positive aspect of the plague of frogs. The frogs helped resolve the Egyptian border disputes with their neighboring countries. The frogs went right up to the border, clearly delineating where it was.
My wish is for that to happen today, to have Hashem resolve Israel’s geographic borders for the world, so maybe we can all live in peace and harmony. And how well do we get along with our neighbors? How many people shovel the snow on their sidewalk right up to their neighbor’s sidewalk? How many of us go further and shovel the neighbor’s sidewalk as well?
There have been many natural explanations offered for the plagues. My microbiology lab professor at Long Island Jewish Medical Center, Dr. Isenberg, a German Jewish refugee, argued that blood was really red algae that flourished. He grew some for me.
The classic commentaries say it was real blood. It was good timing. There happened to have been an acute shortage of blood needed for transfusions in the Egyptian hospitals at that time. Lucky for them, the blood was O negative, the universal donor. What has troubled the sages throughout the ages is the question of why it didn’t clot. What anti-coagulant was used? Aspirin? Coumadin? Eliquis?
Mr. Aronow, my earth science teacher, attributed the hail with fire to a volcanic eruption. The subsequent darkness was a dark cloud resulting from that volcanic ash. I can’t forget my college biology professor, Rabbi Dr. Moshe Tendler, who brought in a picture of a sea in India that splits with a sand bar that extends across for a few hours only once every 70 years.
The first ancient thinker to see a pattern in the makos was mentioned in the Haggadah, 2,000 years ago. Rabbi Yehudah said the makos can be divided into three groups and form the acronyms: “D’TZ’CH, A’D’SH, B’A’CH’V” (usually pronounced DeTZaCH ADaSHB’ACHaV), which are symbolic of the basic elements in the universe. The first three plagues were symbolic of water, the next three earth, and the final three air.
In the year 1125, the Rashbam, Rabbi Shmuel ben Meir, the grandson of Rashi, noticed the following pattern in the three triplets of plagues. Two times Moshe warned Pharaoh with the first two plagues, but the third plague of each triplet of makos descended without a warning. This pattern repeats itself for all three groups of three makos.
Other commentaries note similar patterns. The first two plagues in each group were external, affecting their environment; their water, fields, and cattle. They are hit where it hurts most, the wallet, with financial penalties serving as warnings. The third plague of each triplet, though, was an attack on the physical body. They actually felt it. Lice was itchy. Boils were pus-filled, sore wounds. Darkness may have caused a panic attack.
In 1492, the Abarbanel suggested that the makos were a threefold response to the questions posed by Pharaoh. When Pharoah was first challenged by Moshe and Aharon, he asked, “Who is this Lord that I should listen to his voice to let Israel go? I know not the Lord and I will not let them go.”
Pharoah denied Hashem’s existence and his requests. Before the first plague of blood, he was warned, “In this shall you know that I am the Lord,” showing that Hashem exists. Dam, blood, was an attack on the Nile, their deity, their source of irrigation.
Before the fourth maka, the second triplet of makos, Hashem warned, “So that you shall know that I am the Lord bekerev haaretz, in the midst of the land.” Hashem didn’t just create the world and then step back. Hashem is not passive in this world. Hashem can be found in our everyday life as well.
Before the seventh plague, the third triplet of makos, Hashem warns, so they shall know that there are none like me in all the earth, I am not just the G-d of the Hebrews. According to the Abarbanel, the makos were a poetic imagery response to Pharaoh’s questions and challenges. The plagues were a communication by Hashem for all to see and experience, His mastery over the universe, His active role in this world not only for the Hebrews, but for all mankind.
By Uncle Dovie