"The Fifth Plague" by Gustav Doré, 1866
"The Fifth Plague" by Gustav Doré, 1866

A pre-Pesach lesson on God’s mighty hand and plague No. 5

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The Torah column is supported by a generous donation from Eve Gordon-Ramek in memory of Kenneth Gordon.


Vaera

Exodus 6:2–9:35


The Passover haggadah contains many concepts and ideas that are intriguing.

For many years, for example, I was puzzled by the statement that God’s mighty hand specifically referred to the plague of dever (pestilence).

No fewer than seven plagues are recounted in this week’s Torah portion — with another three in the following week’s portion. Of all these plagues, why would the author of the haggadah pick out only one as emblematic of the mighty hand of God?

I am fortunate to have a brother-in-law, Rabbi David Fohrman, who shared some thoughts that have helped me form a deeper understanding of this particular episode in the Exodus from Egypt.

The plague of pestilence is the fifth of the Ten Plagues. Interestingly, there are several occasions in the text that seem to highlight the number 5.

For example, there are five animals listed in the warning that Moses delivers to Pharaoh, “The hand of HaShem will be upon your livestock that is in the field; the horses, the donkeys, the camels, the cattle and the flock.” (Exodus 9:3)

In fact, it is this very reference that is cited by the author of the haggadah as proof that the mighty hand of God is this very plague.

There is another hint at the number 5 within the verses of the same plague. The portion describing this plague has only seven verses total. Within those verses, the three-letter combination of דבר appears exactly five times. The word means pestilence, but is also used in other forms with the same three-letter combination.

Why so many instances of the number 5 taking center stage in our story?

Earlier in the story, the Necromancers of Egypt declare to Pharaoh that the plague of lice must be the “finger of God.” (Exodus 8:15)

They could not replicate this particular miracle the way they could with the first two plagues, so they are convinced that it must be God’s work. The description they use regarding this plague is that it is a finger. It would then follow that when it comes to the fifth plague, the description would be one of an entire hand.

It still leaves the question as to why this particular plague would receive such a position of prominence in the Exodus story.

There is actually a very dramatic change that takes place after the first five plagues.

The description of Pharaoh’s reticence in allowing the Hebrews to leave takes a startling turn. Up to this point, Pharaoh hardened his heart and resisted all the pressure that the plagues were causing. Following the fifth plague, we see that God starts to harden or strengthen Pharaoh’s heart.

It seems that the plague of pestilence succeeded in defeating Pharaoh’s stubbornness and that he would have allowed the Israelites to leave. In essence, it was the mighty hand of God that did release them from bondage, and it was manifested through this very plague.

What of the remaining plagues?

God Himself informs Moses that He is keeping Pharaoh alive in order to demonstrate the full extent of his power as the Creator of the Universe. There is a separate agenda that God has, in which it is imperative for Pharaoh to remain as the obstacle to freedom so that the entire world will acknowledge that it was God Himself who broke the chains of bondage.

The author of the haggadah understood that pestilence was referenced as the mighty hand of God because it completely changed the approach. Pharaoh was now forced to witness the remaining plagues.

There are some that question how it is possible for God to rob Pharaoh of his free will through the remaining plagues.

If one looks closely at the language that is used to describe the hardening and strengthening of Pharaoh’s heart, it seems that, in reality, Pharaoh was being given the opportunity to choose to continue to refuse to grant the Isaelites freedom even under duress.

After suffering under God’s mighty hand, any human would have had to succumb. It was impossible for anyone to withstand the power of the first five plagues. Therefore, God had to strengthen Pharaoh’s heart to preserve his free will.

We should take the opportunity to pay close attention to the weekly portions of Exodus so that we can enhance the experience of our own Passover seders.

Rabbi Joey Felsen
Rabbi Joey Felsen

Rabbi Joey Felsen is the founder and executive director of the Palo Alto-based Jewish Study Network. He teaches at JCCs in Palo Alto and Los Gatos, and is the founding board president of Meira Academy in Palo Alto. Rabbi Felsen is also on the board of J. The Jewish News of Northern California.