January 14, 2015
Rabbi H. Greenberg in #957, Bo, Parsha Thought

The Ten Plagues have traditionally been understood as G-d’s way of punishing Pharaoh and the Egyptians for their enslavement of the Jews. However, if that was the only objective, then why did G-d have to stretch it out, plague after plague, until there were Ten Plagues in all? Why didn’t He just bring one devastating and convincing plague to punish the Egyptians and compel them to liberate the Jewish people?

The truth is that the experience of the Ten Plagues had at least two other interconnected functions:

First, it was designed to educate the Egyptians (and the Jewish people) about G-d’s existence and His involvement in and power over this world; these major principles of Judaism were previously unknown to the Egyptians.

Education, by definition, cannot happen instantaneously. The process of education is like the process of growing a plant. One must first plow, sow, water and remove the weeds, etc. There is no shortcut to genuine growth and development.

On the spiritual level, education is what allows ideals and beliefs that are above and beyond a person to enter into that person’s entire intellectual and emotional structure. And since our souls are comprised of Ten Faculties (three intellectual and seven emotional, as discussed in Kabbala and Chassidic literature), the “Ten Plague educational program” was an effective ten step program to infiltrate and alter the totality of the people affected.


The second function of the Ten Plagues, as a corollary of the first, was to refine the Egyptian people and sensitize them to the suffering and pain of the Jews whom they had enslaved and persecuted for so many years. Knowledge gained through education shapes and molds our sensitivity to G-d and to others.

If the Ten Plagues fell short of completely transforming the Egyptians, they are still able to convey eternal messages to us today and prepare us for the Final Redemption. The prophet Micah illustrates their close connection when he compares the Final Redemption to the Exodus from Egypt.


With this introduction in mind, we can examine Rashi’s comment concerning Moses’ mode of prayer after the seventh plague, hail. Pharaoh summoned Moses and Aaron and said to them,

I have sinned this time. G-d is the righteous One. I and my people are the wicked ones. Plead with G-d… I will send you away, and you shall not continue to remain.

Moses’ response to Pharaoh was:

When I leave the city, I will spread my hands to G-d. The thunder will cease… in order that you should know that the land belongs to G-d…

Rashi, citing the Midrash, notes the words “When I leave the city, I will raise my hands to G-d” and addresses why Moses had to leave the city to pray: “He did not pray in the city because it was filled with idols.”

Commentators are puzzled why, in some of the earlier plagues, Moses did not leave the city to pray to G-d. Why, specifically, was it during the plague of hail that Moses found it necessary to avoid praying in the presence of idols?

Some commentators suggest that the difference lies in the manner of prayer Moses engaged in. When he prayed for the removal of the frogs and the mixture of the wild animals he cried out to G-d or implored G-d. However, with respect to the removal of the plague of hail, the Torah says that he “spread his hands to G-d.” This more intense form of prayer could not be performed in the vicinity of idols.

However, this explanation itself needs to be clarified. Why did Moses change his manner of prayer with regard to this plague in particular?


Bearing in mind our introductory comments about the Ten Plague educational program, we can shed some light on the above.

If the purpose of the Ten Plagues was to educate and sensitize Pharaoh and his people about G-d’s role and the pain they inflicted on the Jewish people, the question arises, what grade did Pharaoh receive? Did he fail the course?

When we survey Pharaoh’s responses to the six prior plagues, we find that he remained essentially the same stiff-necked disbeliever. The point at which the educational program began to make a dent and affect Pharaoh was with the plague of hail. His response to this plague was: “I have sinned this time. G-d is the righteous One. I and my people are the wicked ones…”

Not only was Pharaoh willing to relent and let the Jews go, he admitted to being the guilty party and that G-d was righteous. This sounds very much like a repentant sinner. True, Moses concludes with the words “I know that you and your servants still do not fear G-d.” But Pharaoh deserved some credit. Indeed, Moses was saying, in effect, “You haven’t failed, for some progress has been made, but you still have not gotten the grades G-d desires of you.”

In other words, the plagues were finally beginning to show their intended effect. The Egyptians were becoming somewhat sensitized to G-d’s existence, His role and the pain they had inflicted. The world was a more G-dly receptive place.


Now we can begin to understand why, after the seventh plague of hail, it was difficult for Moses to remain in a city filled with idols to pray.

Why hadn’t these idols been an impediment to his prayers with the preceding six plagues? Previously, the atmosphere of Egypt was inhospitable for anything G-dly. Whether or not there was an idol nearby made little difference. The entire Land of Egypt was saturated with impure energy. And it made no difference where Moses stood to pray. The entire country was one idolatrous cesspool!

When, however, Pharaoh started a process of T’shuva-repentance and acknowledged G-d and his own sin, the air subtly became more refined. Now, Moses was able to sense the idolatrous atmosphere of the city, which was antithetical to G-d’s presence, and sought to connect to G-d in prayer in a more sanitized area.

On a deeper level, the more we have been refined, the more sensitive and “allergic” we become to evil. As Egypt became more refined, it created a greater sensitivity and reaction to the idols. Previously, their presence did not seem to pose a problem. However, when the degree of impurity was lessened and the environment became more receptive to G-d, idolatry concomitantly became more of an impediment. The more one is sensitized to G-dly truth, the more one will be disturbed by untoward and impure influences.


A question still remains. Why was Moses, the world’s most spiritual person, able to pray in the presence of idols up until the seventh plague? And why did his mode of prayer change and intensify, as manifested by his stretched hands, in step with the gradual elevation of Pharaoh and Egypt?

Our Sages state, “A leader is for the generation.” If the generation is corrupt, it creates a cloud around their leader and makes it harder for him to reveal his full measure of spiritual energy. If the generation is meritorious, its leader’s radiance will shine.

A primary example of this mutual dynamic is G-d’s telling Moses to “descend” from the mountain when the people worshipped the Golden Calf. This, Rashi stated, was G-d’s way of saying to Moses that you too have been diminished by virtue of the degradation of your flock.

By G-d telling Moses that he was diminished, His intention was not to berate Moses, G-d forbid. Instead G-d’s rebuke of Moses meant that he would have to work harder and generate even deeper soul powers. Until then, he could not help rehabilitate the fallen stature of the Jewish nation and upgrade the dynamic of a people who had become more resistant to G-d.

We can apply the above analysis to the seventh plague. As the Egyptians became more receptive to G-d, so too did Moses’ spiritual stature increase. Even the greatest of Jews could discover new vistas and enjoy greater sensitivity and awareness from the progress made by the people his mission was to inspire.

At this point, Moses can sense the all-so-subtle change in the prevailing atmosphere. He can now allow himself to pray on a higher, more sophisticated level, symbolized by his outstretched hands.


We are living in the most refined generation of history!

This statement may appear to be counterintuitive. It is based on the premise that thousands of years of collective observance of the Mitzvos and Torah study practiced with incredible self-sacrifice have rendered the spiritual air far more pure and holy. By this reckoning, we are the most suitable generation in history to welcome Moshiach.

Our problem today is not a dearth of inner spirituality; it is the incredible proliferation of “idols” that permeate our society and impinge on our ability to express our profound and unprecedented spiritual energy. When we are able to leave the “city” and distance ourselves from these idols, we can discover how spiritual and G-dly we really are.

In the past, the world was much less refined. It had not yet accumulated the energy we have today and the “idols” permeated all of society. Our potential and our prayers then were much more limited. But today we have reached the positive milestone of the “seventh plague,” i.e., the seventh degree of education and sensitivity.

It may be suggested that this seventh degree of education parallels the seventh generation of leadership from the Alter Rebbe, who set into motion the teachings of Chassidus, through our Rebbe. As the Midrash tells us: “All sevens are beloved.” Moses was in the seventh generation from Abraham and he liberated us from Egyptian exile. So too, our generation will be the generation of the Final Redemption. Sevens possess an uncanny ability to sanctify and liberate. With our enhanced status, we can now “stretch out our hands” to G-d and successfully demand of Him to bring the Final Redemption through Moshiach.

One of the ways Moshiach is identified by the Talmud is that he suffers from tzaraas, a skin disorder. In the case of Moshiach, tzaraas is an “allergic” reaction to Galus and its evil. This is emblematic of our generation, the most spiritually sensitive of all, which is more than ready to enter into the Final Redemption.  

Article originally appeared on Beis Moshiach Magazine (
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