Why Are Some Plagues, Others Signs, Warnings?


One complexity of Jewish tradition is the tendency of later generations to read early documents through interpretations offered by individuals of the intermediate generations.

For example: The book of Exodus (24:10) states that Moses and Aaron saw God. For medieval commentators, the idea that a) God could have a tangible "body" and b) that human beings could apprehend it was an offense to their philosophical sophistication. So they refashioned the story into something like a "mystical vision" or a "symbolic representation" — anything but what Exodus clearly states.

Modern Jews read this text with mediation from the medievalists and so, in one example, the Hertz Chumash comments: "It is supposed that they fell into a trance in which this mystic vision was seen by them."

Some biblical stories reach Jews via secondary sources, such as the siddur or Haggadah, where the texts have sometimes been emended or edited.

This week's portion introduces the narrative of what the Haggadah calls "the 10 plagues." But the Haggadah distills the Torah narrative down to 11 words and omits the portion in which the plagues are embedded. Consequently, more Jews know this story from the Haggadah than from the Torah, and the Passover text provides an impoverished reading.

Read in the context of Exodus, the plagues take on more complex meaning. But both Psalm 78 and Psalm 105 narrate the plagues as well — with the notable difference, in each case, that there are only seven plagues. The dissonance in detail is telling, pointing to a tradition among ancient Israelites of a mythic narrative about "the plagues" but little agreement on the number and sequence.

In contrast, the narrative in Exodus is a carefully edited literary piece whose architecture is not evident if we focus only on the actual plagues and their sequence. As noted by many scholars, especially Dr. Jeffrey Tigay in his commentary on Exodus in The Jewish Study Bible, the writers and editors of the narrative created an elaborate structure.

According to Tigay, the plagues in Exodus appear in sets of three, with the 10th offering an emphatic ending. In each of the sets of three, the first and second are announced in advance and the third is not. In each of the sets, the first is announced by Moses to Pharaoh in the morning at the Nile and the second is announced without specifying the time of day.

Aaron is the inciter of the first three plagues. In the second triad, Moses brings on the first two and God the third. In the third set, all the plagues are brought on by Moses. The final plague, significantly, is brought on either directly by God (Exodus 11:4) or by "The Destroyer" sent by God (Exodus 12:23).

The careful construction of the narrative suggests more than an attempt to record or recreate actual history. Dr. Carol Meyers in her book Exodus, which is part of the New Cambridge Bible Commentary series, notes that the word "plague" is only attached to the hail (Exodus 9:14) and the killing of the firstborn.

The other "plagues" are denoted as "signs" or "wonders." Because we so often encounter the story only in the Haggadah, we have grouped them under the term "plagues," which again provides an impoverished reading.

There are a number of ways of interpreting the editorial architecture in this week's and next week's Torah portions. One way to read it is as an implicit message that whatever affliction may challenge humans is a result of a series of interconnected factors rather than from a single root cause.

Rather than grouping all social ills under one heading, it may be more helpful to define which are "signs" of warning, which are "wonders" that make us take notice, and which are "plagues," the things that immediately threaten life.

One thing we do know: We do not have the luxury of allowing our "hearts to become hardened" because of the many challenges we face.

Rabbi Richard Hirsh is executive director of the Reconstructionist Rabbinical Association.


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