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ב"ה

How Many Plagues Were There? - וארא

Friday, 15 January, 2021 - 8:39 am

How Many Plagues Were There? 

You may have heard that ten plagues struck Egypt; in fact, that is the story told in the Torah in the portions of Vaera and Bo (the portions read this week and next). According to the Talmudic sages, however, it is more complicated. Rabbi Eliezer says that each plague consisted of four plagues, for a total of forty plagues, whereas Rabbi Akiva maintains that each plague consisted of five plagues, totaling fifty plagues. As we read in the Passover Haggadah:  


Rabbi Eliezer said: How do we know that each individual plague which the Holy One, blessed be He, brought upon the Egyptians in Egypt consisted of four plagues?

For it is said: "He sent against them His fierce anger, fury, and indignation, and trouble, a discharge of messengers of evil": `Fury,' is one; `Indignation,' makes two; `Trouble,' makes three; `Discharge of messengers of evil,' makes four. Thus you must now say that in Egypt, they were struck by forty plagues.

Rabbi Akiva said: How do we know that each individual plague which the Holy One, blessed be He, brought upon the Egyptians in Egypt consisted of five plagues?

For it is said: "He sent against them his fierce anger, fury, and indignation, and trouble, a discharge of messengers of evil": "His fierce anger," is one; "fury," makes two; "indignation," makes three; "trouble," makes four; "discharge of messengers of evil," makes five. Thus you must now say that in Egypt, they were struck by fifty plagues.


The ancient philosophers classified four building blocks of matter: fire, wind, water, and earth. In addition, they understood that there is a "fifth element", the quintessential {from the Latin Quintus, meaning "fifth"}, the undefined essence, the potentiality, and source of the four elements. The purpose of the plagues was to break the impurity and negativity of Egypt. Rabbi Eliezer and Rabbi Akiva debated on how deep the impurity and, consequently, the plague penetrated the physical matter of the object being smitten. Rabbi Eliezer believed that each plague consisted of four plagues, for the plague affected all four elements in which the unholiness penetrated. However, Rabbi Akiva classified each plague as consisting of five plagues, for Rabbi Akiva believed that the unholiness of Egypt penetrated the essence of the matter as well. 


The abstract philosophical dispute, whether Egypt's unholiness penetrated only as far as the four elements or whether it reached the quintessential core, has practical and mystical ramifications. 


The Mishnah records a dispute regarding the obligation to obliterate Chametz (leavened bread) from our possession before Passover: 


Rabbi Yehuda says: The removal of leavened bread is to be accomplished only through burning. And the Rabbis say: Burning is not required, as one may even crumble it and throw it into the wind or cast it into the sea.


The Rabbis believed that the prohibition of leavened bread (which, on Passover, represents Egypt's unholiness) does not penetrate the bread's essence. Therefore one can destroy the Chametz by altering its form to the point where it can no longer provide a benefit ("crumble it and throw it into the wind or cast it into the sea"). Rabbi Yehuda, however, believed that the prohibition of Chametz penetrates down to its essence; thus, the only way to destroy the Chametz is by burning it, obliterating not only its form but its essence as well. 


The debate is relevant to each one of us in our quest to liberate our spiritual selves from negativity and destructive energy. The liberation must reach as deep as the negativity. Rabbi Eliezer maintained that the spiritual freedom and purification must extend to each of the four elements of our soul (1) the external "garments" of the soul; thought, speech, and action (2) Emotion (3) Intelligence (4) commitment and devotion. Rabbi Akiva, who was a descendant of converts, possessed an intense passion for serving G-d, he therefore maintained that the exodus must reach an even deeper level. Our deepest core must also experience the spiritual liberation from the shackles of the ego. True spiritual freedom is the ability to be subsumed in the oneness of G-d, losing any sense of being a distinct entity, separate and detached from the infinite source of reality.    


Adapted from the teachings of the Rebbe, Likutei Sichos Vaera 16:5



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