Why did Hashem need to send ten different plagues in order to convince Pharaoh to send out Yisrael?
(10,1) “And Hashem said to Moshe: Come to Pharaoh, for I have hardened his heart and the heart of his servants, in order that I might place these, My signs, in his midst.”
Everyone wonders why Hashem hardened Pharaoh’s heart in order to force him to continue to disobey Him? Because although we find that Chazal teach that if one wants to sin, Hashem gives him an opening to do so, we don’t find that Hashem actually helps a person to sin, G-d forbid! But, as we will explain, Pharaoh actually hardened his own heart, and continued to refuse to send out Yisrael.
Now, Pharaoh was certainly not an idiot, so why did he stubbornly continue to refuse to obey Hashem, and was not afraid that that he would be killed by pestilence or by the sword? Surely he had already seen how many had been harmed by the plagues! But the reason for his refusal was because he erred in his assessment of Hashem’s abilities. When he saw that Hashem sent them the plague of blood and then the plague of frogs, he asked himself why, if Hashem wants to redeem Yisrael, does He not simply kill all the Egyptians by sending upon them a plague of pestilence, and leave Pharaoh alive by himself? Then he would send Yisrael away immediately, and there would be no need for several plagues. This is in fact what happened in the end at the Red Sea, when all the Egyptians were killed apart from Pharaoh, so why did Hashem not do this immediately?
Now, in truth, this is not a valid question, because the Merciful One does not initially punish by harming lives. But still, at least when Pharaoh asked Moshe to pray to Hashem to remove the plague of frogs and he would send out Yisrael, afterwards when Pharaoh changed his mind Hashem should have sent that same plague a second time, since Pharaoh was already afraid of it. Why did Hashem send a different plague?
Now, the truth is that Hashem always repays measure for measure, and so, as the Midrash explains, every plague was a specific, measured punishment for what they had done to Yisrael. Pharaoh, however, knew none of this, and therefore mistakenly thought that Hashem’s ability to do things was not equal in all matters and at all times, and consequently thought that Hashem did not have the power to kill them completely with pestilence, and thus he hardened his own heart and refused to send them out.
This is the meaning of Hashem’s words: “Come to Pharaoh, for I have hardened his heart”. That is, due to the fact that I sent different plagues each time, I caused him to harden his own heart, because he thought that Hashem is unable to do whatever He wants, whenever He wishes. And Hashem explained the reason why he had sent different plagues: “in order that I might place these, My signs, in his midst”. I want to punish him specifically with these different signs, because they are a measure for measure punishment for what they did to Yisrael.
What was Hashem’s message to Pharaoh in this posuk?
(10,3) “And Moshe and Aaron came to Pharaoh, and they said to him: Thus said Hashem, G-d of the Hebrews - "How long will you refuse to humble yourself before Me? Send out My people so that they will worship Me. For if you refuse to send out My people, behold, I will bring tomorrow locusts within your borders".”
The meaning of Hashem’s message to Pharaoh, "How long will you refuse to humble yourself before Me?", was that even though Pharaoh had repented many times and had each time determined to send out Yisrael, it was not for the honour of Hashem, obeying Him because He had commanded him to do so. Had he repented before the plague was brought, it would not be considered that he had repented because of fear of the plague, but rather for the honour of Hashem alone, because he believed in Him and in His ability to bring upon him the plague. But since he repented only after the plague, it is clear that it was only because he was afraid of the plagues. Thus Hashem said to Pharaoh, "How long will you refuse to humble yourself before Me" - before Me, and not because of the plague.
Hashem’s message continued, “Send out My people and they will worship Me”. Notice that the next posuk “For if you refuse to send out My people”, does not conclude with the words “to worship Me”. Hashem was telling Pharaoh that the proper thing to do was to send them out only to honour Hashem, and not because he fears being punished by the plagues. He should send them in order that they can worship Hashem, and bring Him pleasure. However, even if he does not intend to honour Hashem, but he at least sends them out for whatever reason, he would not be punished. But if he refuses completely to send them, then he will certainly be punished.
This is the flow of the posukim - “How long will you refuse to humble yourself before Me”, for My honour? “Send out My people so that they will worship Me”, and bring Me pleasure. This is the correct thing to do. But if you do not do this, but rather send them out because of fear of punishment, still you will not be punished. However, “if you refuse to send out My people”, neither for My honour, nor because of fear of being punished, then you will receive your punishment and “I will bring tomorrow locusts within your borders”.
What was the difference between the Egyptian plague of locusts, and that which occurred in the days of Yoel?
(10,6) “And they will fill your houses, and the houses of all your servants, and the houses of all Egypt, which neither your fathers, nor your fathers’ fathers have seen since the day they were on the earth until this day.”
Concerning this plague of locusts, it says in posuk 14: “before them, there was never such a plague of locusts, and afterwards there will never be one like it”. But Rashi observes that the locust plague which occurred in the days of Yoel was described by the prophet in Yoel 2:2 as “the like of which has never been”, which teaches us that it was more severe than that of Moshe! He answers that the plague during the days of Yoel was comprised of many species, but the one during Moshe’s time was only one species, and a locust plague like that never was and never will be.
However, if not for Rashi’s explanation, we could explain that the difference between the two plagues, is that it is not the nature of locusts to go into the houses, but to lodge in the fields - since they come to consume the produce and the fruit of the trees, why should they enter the houses? Therefore, those locusts at the time of Yoel which Hashem sent in order to eat the produce and thereby create a famine, were only in the fields and not in the houses. In addition, in order to consume all the produce in the world, there needed to be a massive amount of them, much more than the locusts of Moshe’s time.
But the locusts of Egypt did not come only to eat the produce, because there was in fact very little, since the hail had already destroyed a great deal. As it says in posuk 5, “they will eat the surviving remnant which remains for you from the hail”. Instead they came mainly to cause distress to the Egyptians, and to actually kill them - Chazal teach us that they stung them. Like Pharaoh said about the plague of locusts: “let Him remove from me just this death”. Therefore, since the main reason that they came was to cause distress to the Egyptians, most of them entered the houses. Also, to kill people and to eat the small amount of produce there was no need for such a large number of locusts.
Thus, when it says in Yoel “the like of which has never been, and after it shall be no more ”, it is referring to the huge amounts of locusts. But here it says “and they will fill your houses, and the houses of all Egypt”, and that is something “which neither your fathers, and your father’s fathers have seen”. And so when it says "there will never be one like it", it is not talking about the amount, but about their entering of the houses.
An additional point is that it says in posuk 14 “and they alighted within all the borders of Egypt, very heavy”. It does not describe the locusts as being very numerous, but rather they were very heavy. Now, something which is light can be moved from its place, but something heavy is impossible to move. Thus, something that is impossible to move from its place can be described as being heavy.
According to this, some of the locusts of Yoel’s time may have entered the houses by chance, but since they were not sent to enter the houses, but rather to consume the produce in the fields, it was easy to chase them away. But the locusts of Egypt, whose main purpose was to enter the houses, were not able to be chased away and moved from their place. Therefore it says “and they alighted within the borders of Egypt, very heavy”, implying that they were impossible to move.
What did Pharaoh’s servants advise him?
(10,7) “And Pharaoh’s servants said to him: how long will this one be a stumbling block for us? Send out the people and they will worship Hashem, their G-d. Do you not yet know that Egypt is lost?”
The words “and they will worship Hashem, their G-d”, are seemingly superfluous, since it should have been sufficient to just write “Send out the people, do you not yet know that Egypt is lost?”. But I wrote earlier, that it was not proper that Pharaoh should send them out because of fear of punishment, but for the honour of Hashem. And on the contrary, he would benefit if he sends them in order to worship Hashem, because then it would also be considered a merit for him.
This is what his servants were saying to him: “Send out the people, and they will worship Hashem, their G-d” - your main intention in sending them should be to honour Hashem, to bring Him satisfaction by doing His will. “Do you not yet know that Egypt is lost?” - send them before you will know that Egypt is lost, and then you will be sending them to honour Hashem. But if you send them after you already know that Egypt is lost, then you will be sending them because of fear of punishment, and it is not proper to do so.
This is what Pharaoh says to Moshe later on, “let the men go now and worship Hashem, for that is what you request”. I am not sending you out because of fear of punishment of the plague, but rather to honour Hashem. Therefore, if I also send the children like you ask, since they would not be going to worship Hashem it would not be clear that I am sending you to honour Hashem, to worship Him. Therefore, “let the men go now and worship Hashem”, but no one else, and then it will be clear that I am sending you only for His honour. "For that is what you request" - you yourself said to me explicitly in the name of Hashem, “How long will you refuse to humble yourself before Me”, meaning to honour Me, as I explained earlier.
What was Pharaoh’s reasoning why the children should not leave with the adults?
(10,10) “And he said to them: So may Hashem be with you, as I send you and your young children. Look, there is evil is before your faces.”
It appears that Pharaoh is cursing them, and yet it is not fitting for a king to utter a curse like a lowlife. So maybe his intention was different, and we can explain it according to Chazal’s teaching that when the Sanhedrin was exiled during the first exile to Bavel, the Shechinah (the Divine Presence) did not go with them. But once the young children were exiled, immediately the Shechinah went into exile with them, as it is written in Eichah 1:5, when “her young children went into captivity before the enemy”, immediately “gone from the daughter of Zion is all her splendour”.
Now, Chazal taught on our posuk “Look, there is evil (רעה) before your faces”, that Pharaoh said to them that a star which is called רעה is rising opposite them in the wilderness to kill them. However, Hashem changed the bloodshed into the blood of circumcision in the days of Yehoshua, when he circumcised them.
It would seem that the star hinted that only the children would be killed, and not the adults, because it was only the children who did not circumcise themselves in the wilderness as it says in Yehoshua 5:5 “For all the people who came out were circumcised, but all the people that were born in the wilderness by the way as they came out of Egypt had not been circumcised”. So we see that Yehoshua circumcised only the children. Thus it is clear that the decree of killing portended by the star was only to kill the children, and through the circumcision that Yehoshua did, he annulled the decree. Because if you say otherwise, that the decree was actually against all those who came out of Egypt, then how did the decree become annulled through the circumcision in the days of Yehoshua, since the adults did not circumcise themselves at that time. Perforce, it was only a decree on the children.
Thus, Pharaoh understood that whatever happens, the children were going to die, because this is what the star רעה foretold. Therefore he said to them: Perhaps your intention for wanting the young children to go with you, is because only if they go, the Shechinah will be with you. But, “so may Hashem be with you, as I send you and your young children” - just as the Shechinah would be with you if I would send you and the children, so too will the Shechinah be with you if I send you alone without the children. And the reason why this is so, is because “there is ‘evil’ before you” - there is a star which foretells the death of your young children, and so why do you need to take the children? Whether they leave with you or not, either way they will not be with you, since they will die. Therefore, there is no benefit in having the children go out with you, to guarantee that the Shechinah will dwell amongst you, any more than if they stay behind. Either way the Shechinah will be with you.
An alternative way of explaining this posuk, is that Pharaoh was saying that he was concerned for their good: Even if you do not care if the children die in the wilderness, at least you should be concerned about the Shechinah. Because now, when you have young children, the Shechinah is dwelling amongst you. But if they go also, behold, the star foretells that they will die in the wilderness, and if so, you will no longer have the Shechinah with you.
This is what the posuk is saying: Do you think that “Hashem will be with you, when I send you and your young children!” - do you think that this is possible? “Look, ‘evil’ is before your faces”, which portends that the children will die, and the Shechinah will leave. Therefore, it is better that they don’t go.
Why was the plague of the firstborns the only plague which affected the Land of Goshen?
(11,7) “But against any of the Children of Yisrael no dog shall whet its tongue, against neither man or beast, in order that you will know that Hashem will distinguish between the Egyptians and Yisrael.”
Behold, Hashem already said before the plagues of noxious beasts “I will distinguish on that day the land of Goshen, and all the plagues will not be on Yisrael” (Shemos 8:18), and concerning the plague of hail it says “only in the land of Goshen where the Children of Yisrael were, there was no hail” (Shemos 9:26), so why was necessary to state here again “in order that you will know that Hashem will distinguish between the Egyptians and Yisrael”?
Also, why does it say concerning the plagues of noxious beasts and hail “I will distinguish between the land of Goshen” and “only in the land of Goshen”, but here it says "that Hashem will distinguish between the Egyptians and Yisrael". Why does it not say by the earlier plagues "I will distinguish between the Egyptians and Yisrael" like it says here?
But it seems to me that we can explain it according to what the Alshich wrote, that the reason why the plague of the firstborns had to be carried out by Hashem Himself was because when Hashem gives permission to the destroyer to destroy, it does not distinguish between good and evil. This rule implies all agents of destruction, whether it be frogs, lice, hail or noxious beasts - once the destroyer is sent as an emissary of punishment from Hashem it does not distinguish between good and evil and destroys everything it encounters.
Therefore during all the other plagues Hashem had to make sure that the plague had no effect at all in the land of Goshen, because the other plagues were not carried out by Hashem Himself but by an agent of destruction. Thus, even though there were some Egyptians in that place the plague did not affect them, because if the plague would affect also the Egyptians in the land of Goshen it would also affect Yisrael since the destroyer does not distinguish between good and evil.
According to this the posuk in Shemos 8:19 concerning the plague of noxious beasts “I will make a redemption (save) בין עמי ובין עמך” means “I will make a redemption whether My people or whether your people”. Because, as we explained, the previous posuk “I will distinguish on that day the land of Goshen” means that in the land of Goshem the plague could not affect even the Egyptians who were there, and thus Hashem said that since He will distinguish the land of Goshen He will thereby “make a redemption for both My people and your people”.
But this differentiation of the land of Goshen was only possible with those plagues that affected all of Egypt, because there was no concern that all the Egyptians would flee to the land of Goshen when the plague was in force - since Egypt was 400 square parsas (about 1600 square kilometers) the land of Goshen could not hold all of them. But since the plague of the firstborns only affected the firstborns, if the plague did not affect the land of Goshen all the firstborns could escape to there. In fact the Midrash says that some of them actually did this because they thought that it would be like all the other plagues. And Pharaoh would also have gone to Goshen to be safe from the plague and thus he would not have wanted to send out Yisrael from Egypt.
Therefore there was no choice but to have the plague affect also the land of Goshen and thus even the firstborn Egyptians who were in the house of a Yisrael died, as it says in the Midrash. Consequently, it was necessary that the plague be carried out by Hashem Himself in order to distinguish between good and evil, between Yisrael and the Egyptians, because if it was done by an agent of destruction then Yisrael would also be in danger.
Thus, with all the other plagues the distinction was between one land and another - there was a plague in the land of Egypt but in the land of Goshen the plague did not affect even the Egyptians who were there. But with the plague of the firstborn there was no distinction between one land to the other. Instead there was a distinction between Yisrael and the Egyptians, even in the same house, and this was a much greater thing than the distinction between one land and another. Thus only here does it say “in order that you will know that Hashem will distiunguish between the Egyptians and Yisrael". Examine this well because it is very correct!