Rabbi Yossi Slotnick
Former Rosh Kollel in Cape Town (1997-1998)
Currently Ra”m in Yeshivat Ma’ale Gilboa
A review of the first plagues with which God strikes Egypt reveals an interesting duality. The plagues are described from two different perspectives: they are directed against Paro and his household, and they are also sent to afflict the Egyptian nation in general. As an example, let us examine the plague of frogs (although the same model appears in other plagues as well).
The verses seem to present a repeated description of the plague of frogs:
A. Moshe’s description of the plague to Paro focuses on Paro’s close circle – his household, his chamber, his bed; and also a wider circle – the houses of his servants, his people (it becomes apparent that this refers to the members of his court, rather than the Egyptian nation as a whole – ), his ovens, and his kneading troughs.
B. The description of the plague which God commands Moshe to instruct Aharon to perform focuses on the Egyptian nation as a whole, and for this reason Aharon is commanded to lift his staff over all the rivers and ponds, bringing frogs upon ALL of the land of Egypt (8:1).
This dual perspective is not limited only to the initial description of the plague, but rather continues afterwards. But in contrast to the initial description, in the continuation of the narration describing how the plague becomes manifest, the Torah chooses, at each stage, only one perspective.
In the description of how the Divine instruction is carried out we read that the frogs covered the land of Egypt, not only the house of Paro, as a direct continuation of the command to Aharon. When the magicians copy Aharon’s act, again we find that they bring frogs over all of the land of Egypt, not only upon Paro’s house.
In contrast, when Paro calls upon Moshe and Aharon to cancel the decree, he asks: “Pray to God that He may remove the frogs from me and from my people”; he concentrates on the evil that is affecting him personally and his closest circles; he makes no reference to the suffering of all of Egypt. Indeed, when Moshe responds to his request, once again focusing only on the plague that affects Paro, he asks: “For when shall I pray for you AND FOR YOUR SERVANTS AND YOUR PEOPLE that the frogs should be cut off FROM YOU AND FROM YOUR HOUSEHOLD?” No mention is made of removing the plague from the Egyptian nation as a whole. It should be emphasized that Moshe does mention, “they shall remain only in the river” – in other words, the frogs will disappear from all other areas of the land, but this is a side-effect, as it were, of the act of removing them from Paro; the Egyptian nation is not the focus of the discussion.
At the end of the plague, the Torah tells us: “The frogs died from the houses, from the courtyards and from the fields” – in other words, they disappeared from all of the land of Egypt.
The dual perspective emphasizes Paro’s egocentric approach, placing himself at the center. Moshe, in his attempt to persuade Paro to let Bnei Yisrael leave Egypt, is forced to adopt this point of view: the king is the most important consideration, such that even tragic events that affect his entire nation are evaluated, first and foremost, in terms of their effect on the king, rather than in national terms. The Torah, in contrast, adopts the opposite view in the narrative. The plague is described as affecting, first and foremost, the nation. The suffering of an individual cannot be more important than the suffering of the collective. Therefore, in the description of the plague and of its removal, we hear about the affect on the Egyptian nation as a whole.
Apparently, one of the aims of the plagues is to create the proper balance between the king and his subjects. Paro learns to be more attentive to what is happening to his subjects, rather than being interested only in what is happening to himself and his household. This process reaches its climax in the death of the firstborn: “Paro arose in the night, he and all his servants and all of Egypt, and there was a great cry in Egypt, for there was not a single house where there was not one dead. And he called for Moshe and for Aharon that night and he said: Arise, and get out from among my people.” Paro is described as getting up in the night with his servants and as reacting to the outcry that emanates from his nation; only then does he let Bnei Yisrael go.