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HOLIDAY FEATURE The bases of the 10 Plagues — and their relevance to modern life

ENCINO, Calif., Feb. 28 (JTA) — Legs and Smoochy, the Beanie Baby frogs, sit at our Passover seder. So does an assortment of other plush, plastic and wooden frogs. Frogs are not merely a child-friendly motif in Passover table decor; like the other nine plagues, they are also a powerful reminder of the Haggadah’s lessons about the existence, protective powers and omnipotence of God. And so, at the first seder on March 31, my husband, Larry, and I, along with our four sons and extended family, will spill drops of wine onto our plates, recalling the Ten Plagues. And on this quintessential night of questions, my son Gabe, 11, will ask, “Why 10 plagues? Why did God have to send so many?” Yes, why didn’t God just begin with the 10th plague, the slaying of the first-born, a catastrophic show-stopper? In an instant, the Israelites could have grabbed their unleavened dough, their flocks and their herds and hightailed it out of Egypt. But God needed all 10 plagues to teach Pharaoh — as well as the Israelites and us modern Jews — some important lessons. It was Pharaoh’s comment, in Exodus 5:2, that began the yearlong siege of scourges: “Who is the Lord, that I should hearken unto His voice to let Israel go? I know not the Lord, and moreover, I will not let Israel go.” Interestingly, according to rabbinic authorities, the plagues can be classified into groups of threes: blood, frogs, lice; flies, cattle disease, boils; hail, locusts, darkness; and, standing alone, the slaying of the first-born. In each group, Moses warns Pharaoh of the first two impending plagues, but Pharaoh’s heart remains hardened and God hurls the third plague unannounced. And significantly, each of the three groups demonstrates a different aspect of God. God’s purpose in sending the first three plagues is, according to Exodus 8:18, “In this thou shalt know that I am the Lord.” As the Egyptians see the Nile River turn to blood and see frogs and lice overrun the land, they painfully realize the existence of God, ever more forceful and frightening than Pharaoh’s sorcerers. The second set goes even further, showing how God works, on earth, to protect the Jewish people. Exodus 8:18 states, “And I will set apart in that day the land of Goshen, in which My people dwell, that no swarms of flies shall be there; to the end that thou mayest know that I am the Lord in midst of the earth.” Thus, the Israelites are spared the affliction of flies as well as cattle disease and boils. In the third group —hail, locusts and darkness — God threatens to annihilate Pharaoh in order to show omnipotence. Exodus 9:14 says, “For I will this time send all my plagues upon thy person, and upon thy servants, and upon thy people; that thou mayest know that there is none like Me in all the earth.” These first nine plagues teach Pharaoh not only about the strength of the Israelites’ God but also about the impotence of his Egyptian gods. Pharaoh’s gods — the Nile River, the sacred animals and the sun god Ra — are easily and emphatically subdued by the plagues of blood, disease and darkness. The last plague, the slaying of all first-born, is unique. It is the final blow, the most extreme of all plagues, necessary to make Pharaoh finally relent. This plague also affects the Israelites. After 430 years in slavery (Exodus 12:40), their imminent foray into freedom and the unknown, while welcome, is a terrifying prospect. And now they must physically demonstrate their commitment to a God they barely know by smearing lamb’s blood on their lintels and doorposts. The Ten Plagues succeed in ending slavery in Egypt, but at a high cost. And so, at Passover, we remove wine from our cups, taking away some of our happiness, as we remember the Egyptian deaths and devastation. As Proverbs 24:17 instructs us, “You shall not rejoice when your enemy falls.” But plagues are not merely afflictions that occurred more than 3,000 years ago. There are also modern plagues. “I think the worst plague is bad guys. You know, robbers and killers,” my son Danny, 7, says, pointing his index finger and thumb like a gun. “You’re wrong,” his brother Jeremy, 9, answers. “People can’t be plagues.” And so we create our own list of plagues: infestations of killer bees and fire ants; AIDS, cancer and antibiotic-resistant bacteria; earthquakes, floods and tornadoes. All emanate from external sources. “Also,” my son Zack, 15, adds, “people can have individual plagues, like drug or alcohol addictions — or younger brothers.” These modern plagues may or may not be a form of God’s punishing us. But, as clearly as their ancient prototypes, they give us an opportunity to learn. Pharaoh had to understand that only God has power over life and death and that all humans have value in God’s eyes. Perhaps, as equal opportunity victims of modern plagues, we have to learn the same lesson today. And so, as we observe Legs, Smoochy and their amphibian friends at this year’s seder, we are reminded of the existence, protection and ultimate power of God. And we are also reminded that our own personal exodus — from whatever plagues we face — is possible only in partnership with God.
Jane Ulman lives in Encino, Calif., with her husband and four sons.