08. The Meaning of the Ten Plagues

The Torah describes the ten plagues at length, without omitting a single plague. There are many things we can learn from this. The most obvious is that there is a Judge and there is justice, and the wicked eventually will be punished. Those who are especially wicked, like the Egyptians, who enslaved an entire nation, imposed backbreaking labor, and drowned their male children in the Nile, deserved to receive their full punishment, so that all generations might learn this lesson.

There is also a profound allusion here. As we know, the world was created with ten divine utterances (Rosh Hashana 32a). Kabbala interprets these as ten sefirot, or “emanations,” with which God created the world and continues to maintain and sustain it. However, until the nation of Israel emerged, these sefirot were concealed and hidden. Just as these ten spiritual elements were hidden, so too the Israelites, before they matured enough to emerge as a nation, were enslaved in Egypt.

When Israel finally reached maturity, numbering 600,000 (see above 1:4), the time had come for them to go free. It was then that God commanded Moshe to go to Pharaoh and order him to “free My people so they may make a pilgrimage to Me in the wilderness.” Moshe did so, but Pharaoh refused to free them, saying, “Who is God that I should heed His call to free Israel. I do not know God and I will not free Israel” (Shemot 5:1-2). Pharaoh stubbornly refused God’s command many times. But God’s will prevails. No human being can stand against God’s command, not even the leader of the strongest empire in the world. Using the same ten elements He used to create the world, God rocked the Egyptian empire with plague after plague, so that the ten utterances of Creation took the form of ten plagues, until the Egyptians were completely broken, and Israel went free.

When we arrived at Mount Sinai, God revealed the meaning of those same ten utterances in the Ten Commandments, the Torah’s foundation.

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