Wednesday, 13 Jan 2016

Written by Alasdair Nisbet

In Parashat Bo, the rules of the celebration of Pesach are sandwiched between the descriptions of the last three plagues.  Within it, we are told to teach the events to our children and it is from this passage that words for three of the four children in their questions are derived: the wicked (Exodus 12: 26-27), the Simple (Exodus 13:14) and the One who doesn’t know how to ask (Exodus 13:8). I too will ask a simple question with a number of answers – How Many Plagues?

As we read last week and now this week, there were Ten Plagues, remembered in the Haggadah.  Nechama Leibowitz highlights that these can be grouped in pairs:   Blood and Frogs:  both are related to the Nile river.

Lice and Wild Beasts: both are swarms of living creatures.  Leibowitz points out that arov can also be interpreted as flies which gives a much stronger connection between the two plagues.

Pestilence and Boils: similar diseases one affecting animals and one affecting mankind.

Hail – Locusts: the sources of damage to crops.

Darkness – Killing of the Firstborn: two types of darkness.

Often within the Torah there is a recapitulation of key points.  For example, the Ten Commandments are repeated with minor differences in Deuteronomy (5:6-18).   And yet there is no other mention of the plagues in the Torah.  The obvious place to look would be in the Book of Deuteronomy where its authors try to link their authority back to Moses and specifically the Exodus of Egypt.  The best we get in the Torah is the passage quoted in the Haggadah.  “And the Lord took us out of Egypt, with a strong hand and outstretched arm, and with great awe, and with signs and wonders.” (Devarim 26:8).

In Joshua 24:5, we finally read “Then I sent Moses and Aaron, and I plagued Egypt with [the wonders] that I wrought in their midst, after which I freed you.”  Many Bible scholars associate the authorship of the Book of Joshua to the time of King Hezekiah at the end of the 8th Century BCE. So by then there is some acknowledgment of the plagues but no detail.

It is not until the Psalms, probably written later, that the plagues are mentioned again.  They appear in two Psalms 78 and 105.  In both there is a long description of the Exodus from Egypt and the trials and tribulations of the Children of Israel.  But there only seven or eight plagues are mentioned and in a different order.  We can conclude here that either there are several traditions for the plagues that have been skilfully merged into a single narrative or that they are an abbreviation, albeit a near complete one, of the full plague story, the view of Robert Alter, the Bible translator and scholar.

Richard Elliott Friedman proposes that the plague stories have three authors: the J text from Judah favouring Moses, the Priestly text favouring Aaron the first Priest and the Redactor fitting it all together.  The plagues are either carried out with Moses present (Flies, Pestilence, Hail, Locusts and Darkness).or with Moses and Aaron together (Blood, Frogs, Lice and Boils), highlighting their mixed authorship.    For a long period during the formation of the Bible there was a major schism between the Northern Kingdom, known as Israel and representing the now “Lost” ten tribes, and the Southern Kingdom of Judah which survived with Jerusalem at its heart.  Each probably developed its own version of the key stories of the Torah.

When the North was destroyed by the Assyrians in 722 BCE, it was important that the influx of refugees into Jerusalem were seen as part of Judah, the “New Israel”.  Gradually both versions of the stories became part of a shared narrative.  But it was also important to encourage togetherness so there are many places in the Torah that we read of support for the stranger such as the phrase in this parashah “There shall be one law for the citizen and the stranger who dwells among you.” (Exodus 12:49)

Whilst the Temple was standing, Passover was about the Passover sacrifice.  2 Kings 23 describes it during Josiah’s time, which had not been celebrated during all the times of the Kings. Nothing is mentioned about the Plagues.

By the Common Era the concept of the plagues was up to ten.  Josephus mentions in Jewish Antiquities ten if the Pestilence and Boils passage are seen as two. 

By the Mishnah, about 200 CE, the Temple had gone but the memory of the Passover sacrifice remained.  A new type of Passover began to be observed and gradually the detailed story of Moses leading the Children of Israel out of slavery in Egypt into the Promised Land became the central theme.  Without mentioning Moses by name the Haggadah’s authors had to use other devices and it may only have been at this time that the importance of the Ten Plagues was recognised.

But was it ten? There is the amusing discussion, included in today’s Haggadah, of the story of Rabbi Yossi the Galilean who says it is ten plagues in Egypt and 50 at the Red Sea, a total of 60. With much further discussion, Rabbi Eliezer gets the number to 240 and Rabbi Akiva gets to a grand total of 300, claiming 50 in Egypt and 250 at the Red Sea. 

Passover can be a great unifying festival for the Jewish People as a whole and for families around the Seder table.  “The whole community shall offer it [the Passover sacrifice].” (Exodus 12:47). However it can be very divisive. The Torah is clear, ”Whoever eats leavened bread from the first day to the seventh day, that person will be cut off from Israel.” (Exodus 12:15)  So we can often get into an arms race of cleanliness removing hametz, changing plates, throwing away good food, even selling off one’s whisky (hoping to buy it back) and making sure we only buy Kosher for Passover milk.

When we sit with others, we need to find a way of being inclusive.  We should remember that we have a tradition that has changed and should continue to change but we must work diligently to combat schisms.    When we read the plagues remember that they may represent a number of traditions that our ancestors worked hard to keep together as one people of men and women; North and South, Ashkenazi and Sephardi, Orthodox and Progressive; and Israel and the Diaspora.  Let’s make sure that we do the same.

Alasdair Nisbet former Chairman of the Board of Governors of Leo Baeck College from 2011 to 2014

The views expressed in this D’var Torah do not necessarily reflect the position of Leo Baeck College.