The Plagues: Physical and Psychological
In this week's parsha the narrative of the Exodus from Egypt reaches one of
its most climactic moments. Pharaoh finally succumbs to the pressures of the
plagues and to the demands of Moshe and of the God of Israel. The last three
plagues that are discussed in detail in this week's parsha are those of the
locusts, darkness and the slaying of the firstborn.
These plagues represent not only physical damages inflicted on the Egyptians
but also, just as importantly, different psychological pressures that were
exerted on Pharaoh and the Egyptians.
The plague of locusts destroyed the Egyptian economy, or whatever was left
of it after the previous seven plagues. Economic disaster always has far-
reaching consequences. Sometimes those results can be very positive, such as
the recovery of the United States from the Great Depression. Sometimes they
are very negative, as the rise of Nazism in Germany in the 1920s and 1930s
could not have occurred if it were not for the economic crisis that
enveloped the Weimar Republic.
Here the economic crisis engendered by the plague of locusts brings Egypt to
its knees, so that it is only the unreasoning stubbornness of Pharaoh that
keeps the drama going. The next plague of darkness is one that affects the
individual. Cooped up in one's home, unable to move about, blinded by
darkness unmatched in human experience, the individual Egyptian is forced to
come to terms with his or her participation in the enslavement of the Jewish
For many people, being alone with one's self is itself a type of plague. It
causes one to realize one's mortality and to reassess one's behavior in
life. This is not always a pleasant experience. Most of the time it is a
very wrenching and painful one.
The final plague of the death of the firstborn Egyptians, aside from the
personal pain and tragedy involved, spoke to the future of Egyptian society.
Without children no society can endure - and especially children such as the
firstborn, who are always meant to replace and carry on the work of their
elders and previous generations. We all want to live in eternity and since
we cannot do so physically we at least wish it to happen spiritually,
emotionally and psychologically.
The plague that destroyed the Egyptian firstborn destroyed the hopes of
eternity that were so central to Egyptian society. The tombs of the leaders
of Egypt were always equipped with food and material goods to help these
dead survive to the future. Even though this was a primitive expression of
the hope for eternity it nevertheless powerfully represents to us the
Egyptian mindset regarding such eternity.
By destroying the firstborn Egyptians, the Lord sounded the death knell for
all of Egyptian society for the foreseeable future. It was this
psychological pressure – which is one of the interpretations of the phrase
that there was no house in Egypt that did not suffer from this terrible
plague – that forced Pharaoh and his people to come to terms with their
unjust enslavement of Israel and to finally succumb to the demands of Moshe
and the God of Israel.
We should remember that all of these psychological pressures, even though
they do not appear in our society as physical plagues, are still present and
influential. The trauma of life is never ending.
Rabbi Berel Wein