Lectures on the Torah Reading

by the Faculty of Bar-Ilan University

Ramat Gan, Israel

Parashat VaEra

A project of Bar-Ilan University's Faculty of Jewish Studies, Paul and Helene Shulman Basic Jewish Studies Center, and the Office of the Campus Rabbi. Sponsored by Dr. Ruth Borchard of the Shoresh Charitable Fund (SCF).
Permission granted to reprint with appropriate credit.
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Parashat Va-era 5758-1998

The Magicians of Egypt and Redemption

Prof. Haim Halperin

Department of Physics

The magicians of Egypt played an important role in the redemption of the Israelites from Egypt. We first encounter them in Genesis 41, when their failure to solve Pharaoh's dreams causes Pharaoh to take Joseph out of the dungeon, thus setting in motion the process that led to the children of Israel going down to Egypt. The next mention of these magicians in the Torah comes only in Parshat Va-era, during the early stages of redemption. They appear there five times, when they turn rods into serpents and in connection with the plagues of blood, frogs, lice and boils. What is their role in the story of the redemption?

The key to understanding can be found in the Sermons of the Ran (Nissim ben Reuben Gerondi),[1] whose approach we follow. One of the main objectives of the miracles associated with the exodus from Egypt was to show the entire world, especially the children of Israel, that the Holy One, blessed be He, is the omnipotent Lord of the Universe, providentially overseeing all that happens. The plagues in Egypt were aimed at achieving this objective, as Ran put it: "The Lord, bless His Name, wished to perform miracles at that redemption ... so that it be known that what is impossible according to the laws of nature is not impossible according to the laws of the Lord."

It was therefore essential to perform the miracles in Egypt, the land of magicians and sorcerers, whose expertise, according to the Ran, is "one of the branches of science,"[2] for only there would they recognize that the signs performed by Moses and Aaron did not follow the laws of science or nature. This reasoning is already intimated in the Midrash:[3] when Pharaoh mocked Aaron, saying that turning his staff into a serpent was nothing extraordinary, Moses answered, according to the Midrash, that on the contrary, in a country where such matters are well understood one knows how to distinguish the counterfeit from the true.

In this light, we can understand why the magicians were mentioned three more times in this week's reading. In the first two plagues they are able to bring about pseudo-plagues resembling what G-d brought on Egypt -- turning the water into blood and bringing up frogs over all of Egypt. However, with respect to the frogs, Pharaoh knew that only Moses, and not his magicians, had the power to remove them. By the third plague, the magicians no longer succeeded in imitating Aaron's deed to raise up the lice. They have to admit to Pharaoh it is the "finger of G-d," i.e. that it is above and beyond the laws of nature known to them. This is what Rashi means when he says, "Spirits do not rule over creations smaller than a grain of barley."[4] In other words, the sorcerers had no control over such tiny objects. Finally, in the subsequent plague, the magicians are presented as so weak and of no account, that they themselves are stricken with boils along with the rest of Egypt.

The objective of future redemption is also to bring the entire world to acknowledge the sovereignty of the Lord, as stated in many prophetic passages on redemption, such as Ezekiel 38-39. One of the ways to acknowledge the sovereignty of the Lord is stated at the end of Micah (7:15-16): "I will show him wondrous deeds as in the days when You sallied forth from the land of Egypt. Let nations behold and be ashamed ... to the Lord our G-d; let them fear and dread You!" Just as in the first redemption from Egypt it was necessary to recognize that "what is impossible according to the laws of nature is not impossible according to the laws of the Lord," so too, this must be recognized in the ultimate redemption.

However, in order that later generations would not claim that all that occurred were natural events but were not known by the science of the day (as is often claimed today with respect to the exodus from Egypt), the whole world ought to know beforehand, as much as is possible, all the laws of nature. Perhaps this is one understanding of the words of the Zohar,[5] "In the sixth century of the sixth millennium the gates of wisdom above and the wells of wisdom below shall open." Indeed, the unprecedented technological and scientific progress of the last 150 years appears to be a realization of this vision. If so, we can draw a parallel between the role of scientists in our day with the role of the magicians in Egypt during the first redemption: to enable Mankind to discern the greatness of the Lord.

[1] Derashot ha-Ran, third sermon.

[2] According to Derashot ha-Ran, fourth sermon, their sorcery had real substance, for were this not the case the masses would not have believed in them. Apparently the sorcerers were extremely learned in the laws of nature and used these laws to perform their tricks, while pretending to be using super-natural powers. Only in this way can Ran be understood.

[3] Babylonian Talmud, Menahot 85a; Exodus Rabbah 9.4.

[4] Rashi, Exodus 8:12, s.v. ve-lo yakhlu.

[5] Zohar, Va-Era 1.117

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