Justice in Judgment

HaRav Avigdor Miller zts"l

Judaism Ancient papyrus with Egyptian hieroglyphs
Ancient papyrus with Egyptian hieroglyphs
INN:Toras Avigdor

Why Did The Makkos (10 Plagues) Occur?

When we study the story of the ten makkos, it’s important to make clear beforehand what their function was. And therefore, one thing must be established at the beginning – the purpose of the makkos was not to set Am Yisroel free. The fact is that Hakodosh Boruch Hu had said beforehand that the makkos wouldn’t help.

More than once Hashem said openly that He was going to harden the heart of Pharaoh anyhow and that it would only be at that exact time when Hashem wants, that’ Am Yisroel would go free. And that’s precisely what happened – finally when Hakodosh Boruch Hu decided that the time was right, He made Pharaoh get up in the middle of the night and chase Am Yisroel from his land.

Now, if the Makkos weren’t needed to set us free so Hakodosh Boruch Hu could have saved us in a much less complicated way. He could have sent a dream to Pharoah, like he had sent to Lavan Ha’arami when he was chasing after Yaakov. Or like the dreams He sent to the king of the Philistines and to the old Pharaoh in the time of Avraham Avinu. And Pharaoh would have gotten up in the morning and called together his ministers and he would have told them, “Look people, after much solemn and prayerful deliberation I’ve come to the decision to let the Jews go.”

And that would have been the end of things – it would have been a royal decree! In the Cairo Tribune, it would have been front page headlines: Source In The Royal Palace Reveals: Pharaoh To Set Hebrews Free! And we would have walked out of Mitzrayim to freedom just the same, without all the hullabaloo of the makkos. Hashem could have made it happen that way, why not?!

Explaining the Erev Rav

And so, if the makkos weren’t needed to achieve the freedom of the Am Yisroel, what was their true purpose? Now, we don’t have to look far to find the answer because Hakodosh Boruch Hu stated it as clearly as could be – He told Moshe Rabbeinu what the makkos were for: וְיָדְעוּ מִצְרַיִם כִּי אֲנִי הַשֵּׁם – “And Egypt shall know that I am Hashem” (ibid. 7:5). That’s the purpose of the makkos.

And the truth is that very many Egyptians learned the lesson. Some benefited a little and some benefited more – and some even gained such great benefit that they decided to throw in their lot with the Bnei Yisroelוְגַם עֵרֶב רַב עָלָה אִתָּם – A big number of Egyptians left Mitzrayim with Bnei Yisroel. Why do you think they left? Because וְיָדְעוּ מִצְרַיִם – They had learned the lesson!

But we understand right away that it wasn’t for the benefit of Egypt that these makkos were given – it wasn’t the Egyptians who concerned Hakodosh Boruch Hu most. It was  Am Yisroel who were most important.

The lessons are for us! Who still reads the story in shul every year? The Egyptians?! Do they have a Pesach Seder to remember the lessons?! So when it states, וְיָדְעוּ מִצְרַיִם כִּי אֲנִי הַשֵּׁם, it means וְיָדְעוּ בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל כִּי אֲנִי הַשֵּׁם. It means, “Even the people of Egypt!” They will also learn, but the real purpose is that the Bnei Yisroel should learn that I am Hashem.

We Have A Living G-d!

And so, if the Egyptians saw Hashem, then the intended recipients of the lessons, the Bnei Yisroel, saw Him a thousand times more. You have no idea what was accomplished by each makkah! Each one was another shiur in Awareness of Hashem. לְמַעַן תֵּדְעוּ כִּי אֲנִי הַשֵּׁם אֱלֹקֵיכֶם – “I did all this so that you will know – truly know – that I am Hashem your G-d” (Devarim 29:5).

That’s the great lesson that there are no accidents in the world. If you’re going to become My people, then the very first lesson you have to learn is that Hakodosh Boruch Hu is in charge of all the affairs of the universe and whatever happens comes directly from Him. The makkos were intended as a lesson that the world has an Owner and that this Owner reacts to what people do.

Now as was explained here once, Hakodosh Boruch Hu doesn’t react by sending events stam, happenings that are entirely mysterious; instead He puts into each event a clue to give us a hint why it came. It’s a fundamental principle that Hakodosh Boruch Hu gives us clues – when something happens, it’s not merely a misfortune, it’s a clue. And so, if you want to know why something is happening, study it – look at the way it happened and very many times you can discover why it came.

An Eye For An Eye

The mishna (Sotah 8b) says it like this: בְּמִדָּה שֶׁאָדָם מוֹדֵד מוֹדְדִין לוֹ – “In the way a man measures out, so too is it measured out to him.” What does that mean? It’s telling us that the punishment a man gets in this world, in some way resembles the thing that he’s done wrong. And that’s the principle that’s commonly known as midah k’neged midah.

And that’s why Chazal understood that every makkah that came upon the Egyptians was planned middah k'neged middah. If you study the midrashim, you’ll discover many examples. In some cases you can use your own head and discover middah k'neged middah. What was the reason that just in this way the makkah had to come? Why with this and this detail? It was to compensate for something that was done by the Egyptians and this lesson was taught by means of the clues that were put into the makkos.

Too Busy To Study

However, all this needs a lot of thought and if we don’t bother spending time thinking, we don’t get the full benefit. And the Mesillas Yesharim sets down the principle that most people don’t learn the lessons that Hashem wants to teach them because they’re just too busy to think. There’s more than one reason, but the main reason why people don’t learn is because they’re too busy with life. There are so many things to do, so many happy things, so many other things – whatever it is, but they’re busy all the time. That’s his explanation. הַטִּפּוּל וְהַטִרְדָה – People are just too busy to think. People don’t pay attention and they don’t learn the lessons that they are expected to learn because they don’t make time to think, “Why is Hashem doing davka this and davka that?”

And now we can understand a medrash in our parsha (Rabbah, 10:1). It says there that עַל כָּל מַכָּה וּמַכָּה הָיָה מְשַׁמֵּשׁ הַדֶּבֶר - Every time one of the makkos came, there was a dever, a pestilence, that came along with it. Although one of the makkos was dever by itself, a pestilence also went along with every makkah. When the water turned into blood, there was a dever. When the frogs came, there was also a dever. With kinim, there was a dever. And so on and so forth; arov came with deversh’chin came with a dever. Now, we have to understand the significance of that.

The answer is that the gemara (Bava Kama 60b) states a principle of how to behave when chas v’shalom there’s an epidemic. It says there, דֶּבֶר בָּעִירכַּנֵּס רַגְלֶיךָ – When there’s an epidemic in the city, stay at home! It’s very important advice you’re hearing now. Don't go out and mix with people. Even when there’s an epidemic of the common cold or of the flu chas v’shalom, don’t go where there are crowds. First of all, why should you donate your germs to other people – keep it to yourself. And secondly, when there are a lot of people together, a lot of people donating germs to one big pool, so it’s easier, chalilah, to catch it. So when there’s a דֶּבֶר בָּעִיר, you keep away from crowds. What do you do? כַּנֵּס רַגְלֶיךָ – You remain home.

The Benefits of an Epidemic

And the Am Yisroel in those days had the good sense to make use of this time they had in their home because our forefathers had elders whom they looked to for guidance in everything. You remember when Moshe Rabbeinu came to tell the Bnei Yisroel the good tidings that they were now going to be redeemed, he didn’t come to Goshen, to the Jewish street, and shout. He didn't put up signs on the walls. He went straight to the elders, to the ziknei ha’am. And that’s because the Am Yisroel in those days had good leaders and they listened to them.

And so, when the zekeinim said, דֶּבֶר בָּעִירכַּנֵּס רַגְלֶיךָ – “Stay at home during the makkos,” that’s what everybody did. Everyone went into their little home and they locked the door so that they shouldn’t have any business with anybody else.

Now, if you’re staying home, what are you going to do? You have nothing to do. You can’t work. You can’t take walks. You can’t go apple picking. You can’t hike. You can only stay home and talk. So the father and mother and the children and the grandparents too – they were all crowded together in one little house. So what should they do all day? And so the leaders of the Am Yisroel taught them what to do.

The Longest Pesach Seder Ever

The zekeinim taught the people what the purpose of the makkos really was. And the Bnei Yisroel listened! They studied the makkos because they understood that every makkah that came upon the Egyptians was planned purposefully middah k'neged middah. And so they spent their days and nights sitting and talking.

What’s the news of the day? The current makkah, that’s what’s in vogue this week. What was the reason that just in this way the makkeh had to come? If you’ll study the medrashim, you’ll discover many examples of what the Am Yisroel discovered with their own minds. Those traditions in the midrashim are from them. It wasn’t the later sages who invented these lessons – it came from the Bnei Yisroel who sat there in their homes and observed what was taking place. And they understood that if Hashem was bringing punishment upon a people, it was to compensate them for what they did wrong and that the lessons were being taught by the clues that were put into the makkos themselves.

Right Back At You

Let’s say when Makkas Dam came; so they’re sitting in their houses and talking. “Did you hear what happened to Mamrei the Egyptian down the road? He went for a drink and his mouth is all bloodied up as if somebody punched him in the lips. He’s vomiting from disgust.”

“Aha! That bloody Egyptian now! You remember when he smacked me in the mouth and my mouth was bleeding? Now he’s getting it right back in his face!”

“Maybe in the wells there’s some water they can drink?”

“Nothing doing! Look at the well next door – you see how red it is? Look at them – they’re digging in the ground trying to find an underground spring. And his brother, the wicked slavemaster – he’s walking around dehydrated begging for a sip of water. He looks like he’s about to faint.”

“Is that so? He’s the one who forced us to work all day in the sun and didn’t let us drink from the well. He’s getting exactly what he deserves, midah k’neged midah.”

An Intense Study

So they were talking all day long – but not like we’re talking here. I’m just talking kindergarten talk now, but they went to the bottom of it. They had nothing else to do – they didn’t read newspapers or novels in those days; they didn’t waste time listening to the radio. And the zekeinim taught them how to use their time during the makkos – to think about what Hashem was trying to teach them and to talk about it.

It was a mesichta – Mesichta Makkos. It was a whole mesichta and each makkah was another perek. And they learned it with meforshim. They tried to pay attention to the details of each makkah and they talked it over. Bnei Yisroel saw Hashem in every detail. And so, they talked and talked and talked; they went into all the details. It was exciting. To us, it’s old news, but to them it was happening right now and therefore it was the rage of the moment.

The Am Yisroel studied middah k'neged middah, and they became wise; וְיָדְעוּ כִּי אֲנִי הַשֵּׁם – they knew Hashem more and more and more. The emunah got into their bones – into the marrow of the bones – that there’s a shoifet, a just Judge over the world who has everything under His control. So the makkos succeeded!

Not that they succeeded in setting free Bnei Yisroel, but they succeeded in teaching Am Yisroel the great lesson that because Hashem loves His people, He is always watching over Am Yisroel, and guiding them to perfection. And one of the ways He teaches His people is by means of the principle of midah k’neged midah.