Parashat Beshalach / A Dream in Two Parts

Why do these great scholars relate to and multiply the number of plagues in connection with what happens at the Red Sea? This is especially puzzling because no hint is given in the Torah of such a connection.

In a celebrated homily, Rabbi Yossi of Galilee calculates the number of plagues God meted out to the Egyptians, asking: “How do we know that 10 plagues were visited upon the Egyptians in Egypt and 50 were visited upon them at the Red Sea? In connection with Egypt, it is written: ‘Then the magicians said unto Pharaoh: “This is the finger of God”’ [Exodus 8:15], whereas, in connection with the Red Sea, it is written, ‘And Israel saw the great work [literally, the great hand] which the Lord did upon the Egyptians, and the people feared the Lord; and they believed in the Lord, and in his servant Moses’ [Exod. 14:31].

“How many plagues were visited upon the Egyptians with the finger of God? Ten. Thus, we know 10 plagues were visited upon the Egyptians in Egypt and 50 were visited upon them at the Red Sea” (Mechilta, Vayehi: 6; Passover Haggadah).

The plagues visited upon the Egyptians are described in great detail in Parashat Va’era and Parashat Bo, which were read during the last two Sabbaths. The splitting of the Red Sea and the drowning of the Egyptians in it are depicted in this week’s portion, Beshalach (Exodus 13:17-17:16).

Whereas the first half of the above homily relates to the number of plagues suffered by the Egyptians, the second half takes the number of plagues described in Parashot Va’era and Bo, and, in this week’s Torah portion, multiplies them by five and places them at the Red Sea. The image that illustrates Rabbi Yossi’s ability to multiply the plagues by five is that of a hand.

When God instigates the plague of lice, Egyptian magicians try in vain to remove them from their countrymen’s bodies, and declare: “This is the finger of God” – that is, it’s not just another magic trick.

Rabbi Yossi juxtaposes the image of the finger and the image cited by the Children of Israel, which is in this week’s reading: After the Egyptians drown in the Red Sea, the Torah notes that the Children of Israel see God’s great hand. If the magicians associate the acts of God in Egypt with a “finger,” and the Israelites relate to those at the Red Sea as involving a “hand” – it can be deduced that the plagues visited upon the Egyptians at the Red Sea were five times as powerful as those in Egypt, since the former ones were visited upon them by a hand, which has five fingers.

While the mechanism of the homily is clear, the motivation behind it is not. God visits the plagues upon the Egyptians before the Exodus, and they are referred as “plagues.” And yet, regarding the Red Sea, where the Egyptians drown, no mention is made in the Torah of any plague. Why does Rabbi Yossi insist upon using the term “plagues,” from the two recent Torah portions, in reference to the drowning of the Egyptians, and why does he multiply the number by five?

The homily goes on to describe two other ways to calculate the number of plagues at the Red Sea; the first involves multiplying the number of plagues that take place in Egypt by four, the second multiplies that number by five.

The same homily continues: “Rabbi Eliezer says: How do we know that each plague God visited upon the Egyptians in Egypt was the equivalent of four plagues? It is written, ‘He sent forth upon them the fierceness of his anger, wrath and indignation, and trouble, a sending of messengers of evil’ [Psalms 78:49]. Thus, each plague in Egypt consisted of four plagues, represented by ‘anger,’ ‘wrath and indignation,’ ‘trouble’ and ‘a sending of messengers of evil.’ Thus, we know 40 plagues were visited upon the Egyptians in Egypt, and 200 at the Red Sea.

“Rabbi Akiva says: How do we know that each plague God visited upon the Egyptians in Egypt was the equivalent of five plagues? It is written, ‘He sent forth upon them the fierceness of his anger, wrath and indignation, and trouble, a sending of messengers of evil’. Each plague in Egypt consisted of five plagues, represented by ‘the fierceness of his anger,’ ‘wrath,’ ‘indignation,’ ‘trouble’ and ‘a sending of messengers of evil.’ Thus, we know 50 plagues were visited upon the Egyptians in Egypt and 250 at the Red Sea.”

Rabbi Eliezer and his student, Rabbi Akiva, cite the text in Psalms that represents a “rewritten Torah passage” – a retelling of the Exodus. There, a phrase is inserted in the sequence of the plagues to describe how they are wrought. God visits upon Egypt “the fierceness of his anger” in the form of “wrath,” “indignation,” “trouble” and “a sending of messengers of evil.” According to Rabbi Akiva, the last four terms are not expressions of “the fierceness of his anger,” rather additions to it.

Rabbis Eliezer and Akiva deduce that each plague in Egypt consisted of four or five plagues and, in accordance with Rabbi Yossi’s interpretation, their intensity increased fourfold or fivefold at the Red Sea. However, this explanation does not solve a basic problem: Why do these great scholars relate to and multiply the number of plagues in connection with what happens at the Red Sea? This is especially puzzling because no hint is given in the Torah of there being such a connection.

Apparently, the motivation behind creating the above homily is rooted in a fundamental difficulty related to the literal reading of the Torah text. The story of the Exodus has two parts. The first is a highly detailed narrative, stretching from the middle of Exodus 7 to the end of Exodus 11, in the readings preceding this week’s. The reader learns of the 10 plagues in Egypt, and how after the last one, the killing of the first-born, the Israelites leave, with Pharaoh and his entire army in hot pursuit.

The arcane description of the plagues in Egypt is starkly contrasted with their importance in the process of Israel’s liberation. Even before the first plague, that of blood, the Israelites could have left Egypt, and Pharaoh could have led his army in going to bring them back. So why were the plagues useful?

The second part of the Exodus – the splitting of the Red Sea and the drowning of the Egyptians – is depicted in only 10 verses, as the act of the “great hand” that God showed the Israelites, causing them to believe in him and in Moses, his servant.

In light of the disparity between the length of Torah text depicting the plagues in Egypt and their lack of impact, on the one hand, and the paucity of text describing the events at the Red Sea and their import, on the other – Rabbi Yossi, Rabbi Eliezer and Rabbi Akiva interpret the text to explain what it does not expressly tell us. They use the vehicle of the images of the finger and the hand to interpret the description of the plagues in Egypt as a “prototype” of what happens in a more amplified form at the Red Sea. They deduce that the seemingly superfluous passages depicting the earlier plagues are actually intended to describe in a minimalist manner what will transpire later and more powerfully at the Red Sea.

The images of God’s finger and hand serve as signposts that help readers to liberate themselves from the shackles of the linear narrative, as dictated by the text, and instead to interpret it as a dream consisting of two parts, each reflecting the other.