The beginning of the Ten Plagues is described in Parashat Va’iera (Ex.6:2-9:35). These Plagues or Strikes are alluded to in the previous Torah portion of Shemot when Moses is at the Burning Bush and HaShem provides evidence that would convince the elders of Israel that he was sent by God. Moses is given three proofs: The first was the turning of his staff into a snake. This miraculous transformation revealed God's power and authority over nature. Then God told Moses to place his hand into his cloak and withdraw it--the hand was pale and leprous--but when Moses placed his hand into his cloak, once again and pulled it out, it was healed, foreshadowing the plagues that would affect the skin of the Egyptians. This demonstrated God's ability to inflict and heal diseases. It was also a clear indication that Moses was sent by God. The third proof, turning water from the Nile River into blood, confirmed God’s control of the elements. It was also was a warning that the plagues would begin with a strike against Pharaoh and the Egyptians should they refuse to release Israel. God had told Moses, “You shall take water from the river, pour it on the dry ground and it shall turn to blood.” In the ancient parchment known as the Ippuwer Papyrus, an Egyptian eyewitness wrote, ‘Forsooth the River is blood…He who poured water on the ground has captured the strong man in misery.”
The Malbim, in his commentary says these three proofs were a pattern for the coming ten plagues unleashed by God to demonstrate His dominance over the gods of Egypt—especially pharaoh whose crown was adorned with a serpent.
In Ezekiel 29:3, the prophet characterizes Pharaoh as a great serpent:
"Thus said the Sovereign GOD:I am going to deal with you, O Pharaoh king of Egypt, Mighty monster, sprawling in your channels, Who said, My Nile is my own; I made it for myself."
It is the serpent, the nachash, referenced in God’s promise of the future redemption after the expulsion of Adam and Eve from Gan Eden. It was there that the serpent deceived Eve, as read in Genesis 3:1:
“Now the serpent was the shrewdest of all the wild beasts that God had made. It said to the woman, “Did God really say: You shall not eat of any tree of the garden?”
Because the nachash used its mouth to plant doubt, he was cursed with a mouth filled with dust (from the sands of Egypt?). And, the serpent was only allowed to strike the heel (akev = Ya’akov) of Eve’s descendants and they, in turn would strike the serpent’s head. This monumental take down of the old serpent was a crushing defeat of pharaoh's imagined powers. It led to the creation of a holy nation whose heads are adorned—not by serpent-topped crowns—but simple phylacteries-- a sign that the Creator brought them out of Egypt and that their mouths would be filled Torah wisdom and their hands, wrapped in tefillim, will build a House of Prayer for All Nations.
Parashat Vaa'eira records the first seven plagues:
Water turned into blood: causing the fish to die and making the water undrinkable.
Frogs swarmed the land of Egypt, covering every inch of the country, including people's homes and beds.
Dust from the ground turned into lice, infesting both humans and animals.
Swarms of wildlife, as well as flies, mosquitoes, and other biting insects, plagued the Egyptians, causing great discomfort and harm.
Pestilence: A severe disease struck the livestock of Egypt, resulting in the death of their cattle, horses, donkeys, camels, and sheep.
Boils: Painful skin conditions broke out on both humans and animals.
Hail: accompanied by thunder and lightning, destroyed crops, trees, and anything left outside.
Contemporary scholars will say that these things didn't happen, yet in the epic tale called the Book of the Heavenly Cow, inscribed on the walls of Pharaoh Seti's tomb in the Valley of the Kings, the text tells of a time in Egypt's past, when the nation suffered divine punishment. The calamities included:
A massive revolt by non-Egyptians
The Nile running red with blood
Pharaoh’s magicians attempting to replicate the disaster by dumping red pigment into the Nile.
Amazingly, the same inscription also speaks of a Deity that the Egyptians understood to mean, "I Am Who I Am".
The plagues were a vivid demonstration that the God of Israel created and controls the physical realm while Egypt's gods were an illusion. This narrative speaks to us today as God exposes those in power whose leadership skills are an illusion. They profess unity while tearing us apart and pretend to possess wisdom as they reject God and His Torah’s moral principles. The good news is that all of this is a sign that the process of redemption is underway.
The Plagues paradoxically strengthen the resolve of both Moses and pharaoh.
Moses began his mission full of doubt but seeing God’s majestic command of nature encourages him to fully embrace his mission and demand Israel’s release. Pharaoh, his heart strengthened by God, blatantly rejects that request. Has their Free Will been nullified? How can it be when the Creator has simply granted both Moses & pharaoh the sincere desire of their hearts. To his core, Moses wanted to serve God but, pharaoh, to the depths of his being—did not. God granted the prayers of each man because it fulfills His plan. In this Torah portion, the Exodus epic is fully underway, but more importantly, the Creator announces He will create a nation—something never done before or since.