“That very day the Lord freed the Israelites from the land of Egypt, troop by troop.” (Exodus 12:51)
The plagues that God sends down on Egypt have been fodder for every Biblical commentator from Rashi (an acronym for Rabbi Shlomo Yitzchaki, the pre-eminent eleventh-century Jewish commentator) to Cecil B. Demille. But while we lump them together as The Ten Plagues, most traditional interpretations see them as nine-plus-one. That is, they can be divided into three sets of three based on a recurring internal structure, with the final plague, the death of the firstborn, standing apart and alone. Parashat Bo picks up the story with the locusts and darkness, and climaxes with Pharoah’s release of the Israelites following the final, deadly plague.
The tenth plague is different from the other nine in many ways. One is that it is the only plague that requires the Israelites to do something: paint their doorposts with the blood of the Passover lamb. Ostensibly, this is to signal to God to spare that house from death. It’s hard to understand, though, why a God that has spared the Israelites while upending nature for the Egyptians nine times already needs a signpost saying, “Don’t enter.”
The plagues demonstrate to all (Pharoah, the Egyptians, and the Israelites) God’s power. The message in the plagues is that things can change because God intervenes in history. The message of the painted doorposts is different: redemption requires human partnership. God is powerful, but ultimately, God cannot work alone.
Good Shabbos/Shabbat Shalom,
Dr. David Ackerman is the director of JCC Association’s Mandel Center for Jewish Education.