Parasha / E-Letter

Parashat VaEra: The pain of discrimination

10 Comments 10 January 2018

In the story of the exodus, G-d hardens the heart of Pharaoh and then rains down terrible plagues on the Egyptian people because of it. In her dvar Torah to Parashat VaEra, Rabbi Dr Iris Yaniv seeks to understand how we, as people who seek equality and justice, are supposed to understand the painful suffering of the Egyptians while the Israelites are spared.

Moses and Aaron before Pharaoh. By Benjamin West – BJU Museum and Gallery, Public Domain

By Rabbi Dr. Iris Yaniv

Most of Parashat VaEra is a description of seven of the ten plagues of Egypt:

• Water into blood (דָם): Ex. 7:14–24
• Frogs (צְּפַרְדֵּעַ): Ex. 7:25–8:15
• Lice (כִּנִּים): Ex. 8:16–19
• Mixture of wild animals or flies (עָרוֹב): Ex. 8:20–32
• Diseased livestock (דֶּבֶר): Ex. 9:1–7
• Boils (שְׁחִין): Ex. 9:8–12
• Thunderstorm of hail (בָּרָד): Ex. 9:13–35

According to the text,  all the plagues stem from the fact that G-d hardened (or strengthened) Pharoah’s heart. G-d informed Moshe of these before the plagues started: “And I will harden Pharaoh’s heart, and multiply My signs and My wonders in the land of Egypt” (Exodus 7:3).  And indeed, as the plagues continue,  this point is repeated again and again (for instance: Exodus 7:22 – regarding the plague of blood, Ex. 8:11 – regarding the plague of frogs, Ex. 9:12 – plague of boils, Ex. 9:35 – regarding the plague of hail).

To explain the hardening (or strengthening) of Pharoah’s heart the text gives us a number of reasons. According to chapter 7, verses 3-5, the reasons are:

3. But I will harden Pharaoh’s heart, and I will increase My signs and My wonders in the land of Egypt.
4. But Pharaoh will not hearken to you, and I will lay My hand upon the Egyptians, and I will take My legions, My people, the children of Israel, out of Egypt with great judgments.
5. And the Egyptians shall know that I am the Lord when I stretch forth My hand over Egypt, and I will take the children of Israel out of their midst.

And in chapter 9, verse 16:

“But, for this [reason] I have allowed you to stand, in order to show you My strength and in order to declare My name all over the earth.”

In other words, the reasons given are:

• In order to increase the signs and wonders of G-d in the Land of Egypt
•  In order to bring the people of Israel out of Egypt with “great judgments”
•  So the Egyptians will know that Hashem is G-d.
•  To show them G-d’s power
•  In order to pronounce the name of G-d throughout the world

The hardening (strengthening) of Pharoah’s heart creates a great theological difficulty that many interpreters of Torah have attempted to solve. This time, however, I would like to focus on another theological problem that arises from the text, and this is the discrimination between the children of Israel and the Egyptians, as is noted clearly in the description of three of the plagues in our Torah reading:

The plague of the mixture of wild animals (Erov) – Chapter 8, verses 18-19:

“And I will separate on that day the land of Goshen, upon which My people stand, that there will be no mixture of noxious creatures there, in order that you know that I am the Lord in the midst of the earth. And I will make a redemption between My people and your people; this sign will come about tomorrow.”

The plague of the diseased livestock, Chapter 9, verses 4-7:

4. And the LORD shall make a division between the cattle of Israel and the cattle of Egypt; and there shall nothing die of all that belongeth to the children of Israel.
5. And the LORD appointed a set time, saying: ‘Tomorrow the LORD shall do this thing in the land.
6. And the LORD did that thing on the morrow, and all the cattle of Egypt died; but of the cattle of the children of Israel died not one.
7.  And Pharaoh sent, and, behold, there was not so much as one of the cattle of the Israelites dead. But the heart of Pharaoh was stubborn, and he did not let the people go.

The plague of hail, Exodus, in the same chapter 9, verses 25-26:

25. And the hail smote throughout all the land of Egypt all that was in the field, both man and beast; and the hail smote every herb of the field, and broke every tree of the field.
26. Only in the land of Goshen, where the children of Israel were, was there no hail.

The traditional commentators explain the word discrimination (haflaya) but sense no theological difficulty arising from the discrimination itself. They point out that this discrimination emphasizes the greatness of the miracle of the plagues. Ibn Ezra says about the discrimination described in the plague of the diseased animals:

“And Moshe did not mention this to Pharaoh as he saw that Pharaoh sent out (observers who) saw that the cattle of Israel did not die, not even one, and he did not pay attention to it”.

That is to say Moshe did not mention to Pharaoh that the cattle of Israel were not harmed, and Pharaoh took no notice of it himself. Perhaps this is Rabbi Ibn Ezra’s way of expressing his wonder at this discrimination.

However, attorney Yotam Tolov, executive director of “Bezchut” organization, concerned with the rights of people with special needs, and an author, writes the following regarding discrimination:

“Firstly, it creates distinctions and separates between two (people), secondly discrimination according to most understandings of it knows to ‘cover its tracks’ and to find ‘natural’ explanations for the distinctions while disguising or hiding the advantage to the discriminating party. Thirdly, discrimination is likely to arouse wonder regarding ‘why did this land suffer but that land did not suffer?’ When discrimination becomes no longer invisible and arouses questions (literally ‘wonder’) then the process of inner collapse begins.”

I, too, like Yotam Tolov, perceive a great problem in this discrimination. Discrimination leads to injustice. I would have preferred that no plagues were visited on the Egyptians at all, who suffer because G-d, for G-d’s own reasons, hardened Pharaoh’s heart. If we add to this the discrimination inherent in the plagues – the sense of inequality and injustice is even more extreme.

May it be Heaven’s Will that we reach a situation in which no plagues or suffering befalls us or anyone else because of us, a state in which there will be no discrimination between one human being and another. Until then, each one of us is obliged to act against all discrimination.

Rabbi Dr. Iris Yaniv is a member of Rabbis for Human Rights

Special thank you to Rabbi Yehiel Grenimann for translation

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Your Comments

10 Comments so far

  1. Alyssa kaplan says:

    The Egyptians were punished due to paroahs refusal to let them go and the fact that Egyptian society was complicit in allowing the Israelites, the Jews to be enslaved. Hashem was not going to punish the Israelites for the crimes committed against them. The plagues did not happen in Goshen because that is where the Israelites lived and Hashem wanted the Egyptians to know that it was Hashem’s will to punish them and it was not a freak of nature these years plagues happenned.

  2. alyssa t KAPLAN says:

    It says in the Torah that the Egyptians were guilty of crimes against the Israelites, and not only Pharaoh. In Exodus 9:27, “and Pharaoh sent, and called for Moses and Aaron, and said to them, I have sinned this time: the LORD is righteous, and I and my people are wicked.”

    See also Ex. 1:13-14 “They made their lives bitter with harsh labor in brick and mortar and with all kinds of work in the fields; in all their harsh labor the Egyptians worked them ruthlessly.”

    (http://www.mesora.org/ibnezra-10plagues.html) Regarding Ibn Ezra and cattle disease: Ibn Ezra also made specific note of two plagues where no staff was used. These two also included the lesson of national distinction: Exod. 8:18, “And I will distinguish on that day the land of Goshen that My people stand on it, to prevent from being there the wild beasts…” Exod. 9:4, “And God will distinguish between the cattle of Israel and the cattle of Egypt, and nothing will die of the Israelites.” Why were both of these plagues designed to distinguish Egypt from Israel? Not just one plague, which could be viewed as a freak incident, but two plagues which differentiated “Egyptians” and “Jews,” taught that God works differently than Egypt’s view of the divine. The Egyptians thought that to please their gods was man’s correct obligation, and precisely how gods operated: an expression of a child/parent relationship. How would such an infantile idea be corrected in order to teach God’s true system? By Egypt witnessing punitive measures only on their “side of the river,” they were awakened to a new idea: objective morality. They were held accountable. They also realized something even more essential: their relationship to their gods was one where their gods benefited from man’s actions. Egypt felt that their gods need man to serve their needs, which were projections of man’s own needs. But Judaism teaches that relating to God is not for God, but truly only for man. God does not need man. Man cannot affect God, as if God does not previously know our actions. Man must do that which is proper for himself, and if he does not, he will not only be punished, but he will lose the true good for himself. The Egyptian’s exclusive receipt of these two plagues—a system of “reward and punishment”—awoke them to a realization that service of God means not catering to a god’s needs, but rather, an alignment with proper ideals and morality. This is a drastic difference from Egypt’s primitive notion of worship and pleasing their gods.

    Simultaneously, these two plagues attacked the very core of Egyptian gods: animals. Their own animals died, and then, wild animals attacked them. It was a devastating blow to their esteemed deities. Their deification of animal gods was destroyed. Pharaoh’s response (Exod. 8:21), “sacrifice to your God” confirms his lowered estimation of animals, to the point that he encourages Moses to slaughter them, and to do so to his God. In other cases, Pharaoh does gesture to free the Jews, but only here in connection with the animal plagues does Pharaoh say “sacrifice to your God.” I believe the Torah includes these words of Pharaoh to inform us that the plague had the desired effect on Pharaoh. God understands what will affect man, and so it does. The Egyptians were all the more confused when they saw that Israel was not affected, even though they did not serve animals. In Exod. 9:7, Pharaoh himself sends messengers to see if Israel was harmed. This plague of the animal’s death concerned him greatly. “One question remains: Why are the two animal-related plagues placed in the middle of the series of the Ten Plagues? Perhaps, as these plagues specifically intended to distinguish Egypt from Israel, the evildoers from the victims, this theme of “justice” is placed smack in the middle of the set of 10 Plagues. Thereby, justice emerges as a highlighted message of all the plagues. A story or an awards dinner does not commence with the primary plot or the guest of honor…in both, they are placed at the midway point. Here too, perhaps God placed His plagues of justice in the midway point of all the plagues, to underline the theme that all the plagues were in fact an expression of justice, not viciousness.”

  3. alyssa t KAPLAN says:

    regarding ibn ezra, it says Hashem felt sorry for the Egyptians and that is why that Moshe did not mention it to Paroah. זאת היתה מכה קשה שהרג אדם ובהמה ושבר עץ השדה רק שהשם חמל עליהם ועל מקניהם ולא הזכיר משה לפרעה זה שראה ששלח פרעה ולא מת ממקנה ישראל עד אחד ולא שת לבו (https://www.sefaria.org/Exodus.9.25?lang=bi&p2=Ibn_Ezra_on_Exodus.9.25.1&lang2=bi&w2=all&lang3=en)

  4. Wayne says:

    Respect to those that actually responded substantively to the completely asinine commentary. I could barely get past the statement that the Jews did not suffer. This is the problem with these more liberal than Jewish so called branches of Judaism. After hundreds of years in Egypt as slaves, the execution of children, etc. to claim the Jews did not suffer is preposterous. It is the same affliction that affects the liberal perspective on Israel & the paLIEstinians. After years and years of persecution at the hands of Arabs/Muslims, the massacres in Hebron, Tsfat, forced conversions, expulsions of over 800,000 Jews from Muslim lands, these same liberals (Jews) are more concerned about the Arabs who would see them dead than the protection of Israel. Shame on you.

  5. Aryeh says:

    Rabbah Yaniv wrote: “…a state in which there will be no discrimination between one human being and another….”. When does distinction become discrimination? Surely, Justice is not found in failing to discriminate (non-pejorative sense) or distinguish, but in discerning truth and applying morality? By the logic of her opinion, and especially the context of enslaved Israelites in Egypt, we should not discriminate against criminals, but rather allow them to be treated no differently than society?
    I don’t disagree with significant amounts of what I perceive R Yaniv believes given her alignment with RHR, but the above is disingenuously facile, and not worthy of the carbon footprint it’s producing.

  6. Lorensacho says:

    It’s all mythology. Commenting on the moral implications of the 10 plagues is like looking for misogyny in the Flintstones.

    • Wayne says:

      Mythology or not is irrelevant. You can have deep moral discussions over a Flintstones episode. The premise that retribution for bad acts is discriminatory because the victim isn’t concurrently punished is not only flawed thinking, it’s a perfect example of the “beaten dog syndrome” that affects leftists Jews who want to prove how enlightened they are, how equal they are. It’s a disgrace.

  7. Barry S says:

    The allied forces in ww2 similarily discriminated between the nazis and the jews by shooting at the nazis and protecting the jews….

  8. Suzanne Baruch says:

    BLASPHEMY. Anyone who would write this about G-d doesn’t even KNOW Him, much less UNDERSTAND Him.

  9. Jeanette Jonas says:

    What sort of rabbis only sees one side? Has she blotted out the murder of the Jewish firstborn males were killed first by pharaoh’s dictate? Is she saying that the pharaoh’s vitriolic behaviour to these enslaved Jews who were beaten and killed at their will. They asked to leave and were made to pay for this with even more pain! But this idiot person blames God for attacking the Egyptians! A rabbi…I don’t think so. What sort of rabbi is she?


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