Rebbi Yehudah’s enigmatic acronym for the ten plagues found in the haggadah apportions them in groups of three דְּצַ”ךְ עֲדַ”שׁ בְּאַחַ”ב. One explanation is that after Pharaoh’s response to Moses (Exodus 5:2) ‘Who is this G-d that I should listen to Him to send out Israel? I do not know G-d’, G-d used the plagues to establish Himself in Egypt as the One True G-d.
Before the first plague G-d told Moses to tell Pharaoh (Exodus 7:17) ‘Through this you shall know that I am G-d’. At the end of the plague of lice, the Egyptian magicians failed to replicate the miracle and declared (Exodus 8:15) ‘This is the finger of G-d’. The first three plagues were therefore brought to rectify Pharaoh’s ignorance of G-d by launching an assault against the idols of Egypt, such as the River Nile.
When G-d sent the second triplet plagues, which began with wild animals, G-d said (Exodus 8:19) ‘On that day I shall set apart the land of Goshen upon which my people stands, so that there shall be no wild animals there, in order that you will know that I am G-d in the midst of the land’. Rashi explains that G-d was teaching Pharaoh that although He exists transcendentally in Heaven, His decrees are also immanent, directly influencing the physical world.
The purpose of the third triplet of plagues was (Exodus 9:14) ‘…so that you will know that there is none like me in the land.’ The first of this group was the plague of hail which the Torah describes as having fire within it (Exodus 9:24). Here G-d demonstrated his dominion over the physical laws of the universe. If G-d decrees it, even nature itself can be suspended to allow fire and water to coexist. Finally, the plague of the death of the firstborn demonstrated that G-d’s dominion also extends to the realm of life itself. It is ultimately G-d Who decides who will live and who will die.
These four stages also resonate with the different levels of faith we often experience. Some do not believe in G-d at all. Then there are those who believe in some form of higher spiritual being, but are not willing to accept that this being interacts with the world. There are some who accept that G-d exists and that He directly interacts within the world, but that there are rules of nature which also have an influence. Then there are those who accept that G-d controls everything, including nature, but cannot accept that ultimately life and death is also governed by Him.
What is clear however, is that faith is not something we either possess or lack, but rather something which must be developed and nurtured within us. Each stage is critical for our growth so that we may also ‘know that He is G-d’.
A version of this article appeared in Daf Hashavuah