The chosennes of the Jewish people has gotten us into trouble over the centuries. Both we and the rest of the world have misused and distorted the moniker, “Chosen People.” It is nonetheless vital that we never forget the special bond that exists between God and Israel. We may prefer to call this special bond a responsibility, in that it obligates us to behave differently from the rest of the world, at a higher standard.
We normally think about the bringing of the Plagues upon Egypt as a way of introducing God to the pagan world. This is certainly reflected in the text, where Moshe repeatedly tells Pharaoh throughout our parsha that through these plagues (7:17), “You will know I am Hashem.”
There is, however, another way to read the story. Instead of the Plagues teaching the world about God, they are teaching the world about the Jewish people, who have a unique relationship with God. In other words, although the surface of the text seems to be God-focused, there is a sub-text that wishes to teach a lesson about how the Jewish people are a special, chosen nation, who are treated by God differently from the rest of mankind.
This lesson is so important to both Egypt and future readers of the Torah: Look how Egypt so harshly mistreated and subjugated this chosen and protected people. Look at the consequences they suffered by “awakening” the wrath of the God who attached Himself to this specific nation. Reader beware: If you provoke the Jews, you provoke their God.
Teaching Pharaoh, and the world, who God is
Our clues for this lesson come from four verses where Moshe expresses to Pharaoh that through the Plagues, Pharaoh and his people will “know” (Heb.: “תדע”) about God. Each time, Moshe expresses this phrase with slightly different language.
Lesson #1: After the plague of Frogs, Pharaoh asks Moshe to pray to his God to stop the plague. Moshe asks Pharaoh a bizarre question: “When would you like the plague to end?” Pharaoh answers an equally bizarre response: “Tomorrow!” Moshe says (8:6), “Fine. I’ll do it,” “לְמַעַן תֵּדַע כִּי־אֵין כַּיקֹוָק אֱלֹהֵינוּ” – “So that you’ll know that there is no one like Hashem our Lord.”
Why did Pharoah choose to wait until tomorrow to stop the plagues?! Some explain that Moshe was giving the skeptical Pharaoh a chance to test him: In case you believe that this is a manipulation of natural forces, and that I just happen to know when nature will bring an end to the plague, I’m giving you the option to decide when the plague should stop, so that you won’t be able accuse me of tapping into a natural phenomenon.
I’m reminded of a scene from Mark Twain’s novel, A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court, where a man from the 19th century is transported back in time to the 6th century. He wishes to impress upon the king’s court that he is a magician. He happens to know about a historical solar eclipse and so threatens the court that if they harm him, he will blot out the sun on the date when he had read the eclipse would occur. Moshe wanted to demonstrate that this wasn’t a fluke of nature, but that God would respond whenever Moshe called out to Him.
God treats Israel differently
Lesson #2: The second time is before the plague of ‘Arov, wild beasts. There, Moshe said that although the animals will attack all Egyptians, God will distinguish the Jewish neighborhood of Goshen in that they will not suffer from the plague. In this instance, Moshe said (8:18), “לְמַעַן תֵּדַע כִּי אֲנִי יְקֹוָק בְּקֶרֶב הָאָרֶץ” – “So that you’ll know that I am Hashem in the midst of the land.”
This demonstrated that God treats us differently from all other people. Egypt will suffer from the wild animals, but the plague will be completely absent from our community. Hashem chooses whomever He wishes to be His protected people.
Lesson #3: The third time is before the plague of Barad, hail. Here, Moshe warned Pharaoh that this plague would be multi-faceted (“אֲנִי שֹׁלֵחַ אֶת־כָּל־מַגֵּפֹתַי” – “I am sending ALL My plagues”), harming all manner of vegetation and creature. It would be the most devastating plague to date. Moshe then said (9:14), “בַּעֲבוּר תֵּדַע כִּי אֵין כָּמֹנִי בְּכָל־הָאָרֶץ” – “In order that you’ll know there is none like Me in all the land.”
You might argue: What’s so remarkable about the Jews? Other nations have powerful gods also. We can pit our gods against yours! The Jewish God is different: He is omnipotent and controls all the different forces that bring about the great destruction from the hail. Don’t mess with the Jewish people, because their God will decimate yours.
Lesson #4: The fourth and final time is when Pharaoh asked Moshe to stop the hail. Moshe agreed, but told Pharaoh that he, Moshe, first needed to “leave the city,” spread out his hands before God, and only then would the plague stop. Here, Moshe said (9:29), “לְמַעַן תֵּדַע כִּי לַיקֹוָק הָאָרֶץ” – “So that you know that the land belongs to Hashem.”
Pharaoh, you might argue: even though the Jews are entitled to pray to their God, why do they need to go to the desert to do so? The answer is that God owns the entire earth, and decides where and how He wishes to be worshipped. This argument is also important for future generations to know that Hashem assigned the Jews as the proprietors of Eretz Israel (compare with Rashi to Gen. 1:1).
This is why Moshe needed to leave the city in order to pray at a specific place for a reprieve from the hail, something which he didn’t do when praying over the other plagues. This indicated that there are distinct places that are more propitious for Divine connection.
These four lessons, taken together – (1) Hashem is completely responsive to the Jewish people’s needs; (2) Hashem distinguishes the Jews from others by protecting them amidst others’ suffering; (3) the Jews’ God is more powerful than any other nation’s god or power; (4) Hashem particularizes special places that He reserves for the Jewish people – bear witness to the specialness of the Jewish people.
Despite all our efforts to reach out to the rest of humanity and to be part of the family of man, we must still acknowledge that at the end of the day, this is the resounding undercurrent of the entire Torah. The world has been trying to beat us down, accusing us of terrible things simply because we won’t roll over and die, and because we won’t allow our mortal enemies to continue killing us.
While it may not be healthy to dwell on the idea of chosenness, it’s times like these when it’s worthwhile remembering. May we always assume that mantle responsibly, with humility and dignity, until we can unite with all humanity at the time of the Redemption, bb”a.