PARSHAT VA'ERA/ROSH CHODESH SHVAT: The Power of Hate, by Daniel Pinner

"And Hashem said to Moses: 'Say to Aaron: Take your staff and stretch forth your hand over the waters of Egypt … and they will become blood… and the Egyptian sorcerers did the same with their black magic'" (Exodus 7:19).

This is the remarkable comment on the power of hate. The previous day, Moses and Aaron had stood before Pharoah and his sorcerers. Aaron had cast down his staff, it turned into a snake – whereupon the Egyptian sorcerers matched that miracle with their sorcery. True, Aaron's snakes swallowed all the sorcerer's snakes for telling that miracles from Hashem would inevitably overpower black magic from impure sources – but nonetheless, they succeeded in reassuring Pharoah that Egyptian magic could protect him. So when Aaron and Moses brought the plague of blood on Egypt, those sorcerers again duplicated the miracle using their own black magic, again demonstrating to Pharoah that they were a match for Hashem, the G-d of the Hebrews. Surely it would have been more sensible for them to turn the blood back into water! But instead, they took what little water they had (according to Targum Yonatan) they took water from Goshen ; according to the Or Hachaim, they dug for subterranean water), and turned that into blood. So important was it for them to prove that Moses and Aaron did not have special powers, they were willing to add to the plague.

With the second plague, too, the Egyptian sorcerers displayed the same characteristic: "Aaron stretched forth his hand over the waters of Egypt, and the frogs came up and covered the Land of Egypt. And the sorcerers did the same with their black magic, bringing up frogs onto the Land of Egypt," (8:3). Again, instead of trying to eliminate the frogs, they brought up even more frogs – purely in order to prove that their magic could match Moses's and Aaron's.

With the third plague, that of lice, they tried to do the same: "Aaron stretched forth his staff and struck the dust of Egypt; it became lice, on man and beast – all the dust of Egypt became lice throughout the Land of Egypt. And the sorcerers did the same with their black magic, to bring forth lice, but they were unable to" (8:13-14). It was then that the sorcerers confessed to Pharoah "this is the finger of G-d, (8:15). But at no stage did the sorcerers try to alleviate the Egyptians' suffering.

This seems to have been a consistent Egyptian characteristic: More than 80 years earlier, a previous Pharoah had made the infamous decree, "when you deliver the Hebrew women and you see the birth stones, if it is a boy, you will kill him, and if it is a girl she will live" (1:16). When this evil scheme failed because the midwives refused to collaborate, "Pharoah commanded all his nation [not just the Jews] saying: Every son who is born [not just the Jewish boys] you will throw into the river; and every daughter you will save alive" (1:22). The Midrash explains his rationale: "The astrologist told him: The mother of the savior of Israel has become pregnant, but we do not know if it will be an Israelite or an Egyptian," (Exodus Raba 1:18 and compare Targum Yonatan to Exodus 1:22). With hindsight, we understand their uncertainty: Moses was both an Israelite and an Egyptian prince. But the practical result was that in his attempt to frustrate the Israelites' salvation Pharoah was willing to perpetrate mass murder, even against the sons of his own people.

As the plagues progressed, Pharoah persisted in attempting to destroy the Israelites, even as he knew that he would destroy his own nation in the process. By the eighth plague, that of locusts, Pharoah's servants could already see the writing on the wall: Pharoah's servants said to him: Until when will he be a snare unto us? Send away the people so they will serve Hashem their G-d; Do you not know that Egypt is destroyed?!" (10:7).

In his desperate fight against Israel, Pharoah ultimately plunged himself and his army into the Red Sea – leaving them to their own destruction.

And this set a precedent for all our enemies. A few weeks later, we encountered Amalek in the desert, in Rephidim, (17:8). The Torah gives a fascinating insight into that encounter, and the nature of Amalek: "As it happened that when Moses would raise his hands, Israel would prevail…" (17:11). And the obvious question is: When Israel prevailed – as they eventually did when Aaron and Hur held Moses's hands up – why did Amalek not simply break off contact? After all, they were in the desert, far from Amalek's settled homeland; they had nothing material to fight for. Evidently, this was yet another example of the enemies of Israel being willing to doom themselves in order to fight against us.

Pharoah and the Egyptians managed to inflict horrendous damage on us before they were finally destroyed; so, too, our enemies in our own days. But the historical lesson is clear; an enemy so consumed by hate that he is willing to destroy himself in order to kill a few more Jews is an enemy whose defeat and utter desolation we will ultimately celebrate. "So, too, may all Your enemies be destroyed, Oh Hashem, and those who love Him will be as powerful as a rising sun" (Judges 5:31).

SHABBAT SHALOM AND CHODESH TOV

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