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January 15, 1988 - Image 33

Resource type:
Text
Publication:
The Detroit Jewish News, 1988-01-15

Disclaimer: Computer generated plain text may have errors. Read more about this.

I TORAH PORTION I

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What Is The Source
Of Signs And Wonders?

RABBI RICHARD C. HERTZ

Special to The Jewish News

T

his week's 'Ibrah por-
tion contains a won-
drous story that the
Jewish people has never ceas-
ed relishing to retell. Indeed,
so exciting was this to genera-
tions of our forefathers, that
it was told in loving detail,
adding wonder to wonder at
the Passover Seder: the story
of the ten plagues.
Pharaoh refuses to let the
Hebrew people leave Egypt.
His heart is hardened. In a
great confrontation between
Pharoah and Moses with
Aaron at his side, the story
assumes an element of
miracles. What is a miracle?
There are many kinds and
many definitions, but in this
context a miracle becomes an
extraordinary or surprising
event which God has brought
about to demonstrate His
power.
To accomplish this purpose,
ten plagues or miracles are
described in the Torah.
Pharoah first asks for a sign
or a wonder and Aaron takes

Shabbat Va'era:
Exodus 6:2-9:35;
Isaiah 66:1-24

his rod, casts it down before
Pharoah and it becomes a ser-
pent. Pharoah then calls upon
his wise men and sorcerers.
They can do the same thing;
they know the secret arts.
Snake charming was wide-
spread in the ancient east.
Pharoah was not impressed,
only his heart was hardened.
Moses and Aaron did no more
than Pharoah's own magi-
cians could do.
Then come the plagues. The
first four are like nuisances.
The second group are serious
attacks on persons and pro-
perty. The final ones, the
ninth plague of terror and the
tenth, destroying the first-
born, finally lead to the
liberation of the Hebrew
people.

The plagues are intended to
be disciplinary chastisements
sent by God. Ten times
Pharoah is warned by God.
Ten times he is given time to
repent and change his mind.
Ten times God shows Pharoah
His tremendous power. Each
series of plagues rises to a
climax, all but a prelude to

Dr. Hertz is rabbi emeritus at
Temple Beth El.

the tenth plague — the death
of the first-born.
Throughout these plagues
the natural is comingled with
the supernatural. The
plagues seem but an inten-
sified or exaggerated form of
natural occurrences that hap-
pen in Egypt. The Nile often
turns into a dull red, with the
look of blood. The river often
breeds vast numbers of frogs
and the air filled with
numbers of tormenting in-
sects. Decaying frogs natural-
ly breed swarms of flies that
will attack the animals in the
region of the Nile.
But the purpose of Scrip-
ture is not to rely on natural
or supernatural accounts of
the plagues. The purpose is to
give a moral and religious in-
struction to depict the stub-
bornness of Pharoah and his
hardened heart against the
almighty power of God.
Commentators have also
stressed that the story of the
plagues is a judgement on the
gods of Egypt. The Nile River
was worshipped as a god.
Frogs were looked upon as
signs of fruitfulness. The
sacred animals, especially the
bull so venerated in Egypt,
were all smitten and finally
the eclipse of the sun god, Ra,
is symbolic of the idols con-
sidered false.
No wonder that the Hag-
gadah, the storybook of the
Passover Seder, delights in
recalling each and every
plague as if they were hap-
pening today.

But are these really
miracles? Are these the signs
of God whose purpose goes
beyond mere proof of divine
power? The problem of
whether miracles are natural
or supernatural may concern
scholars and philosophers,
but not the writers of Scrip-
ture. The Bible does not as a
rule tell stories of miracles for
their own sake, but rather to
regard these signs and
wonders of God as a way of
showing us that God can do
anything, whatever and
whenever He chooses.
In time, the plagues that
arose out of events in Egypt
were embellished and
reflected in the religious
celebration of the Exodus,
namely the Passover.
Thus the plagues grew even
more marvelous "to spread
the fame of God's great power
that Israel might realize He
is the Lord and teach it to
their descendents, so that this
belief might live on in Israel
forever.' (Commentary of
Ralbag)

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THE DETROIT JEWISH NEWS

33

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