Perashat Vaera – Power of Sorcery
If G-d took away Pharaoh’s freedom of choice how could he be punished? What was the purpose of the ten plagues which destroyed Egypt which was the largest empire of the time?
In the Gemarah (Menahot) Two of the magicians of Egypt asked Moshe why he was bringing grain to the city of Ofaraim which was a city which had abundant stocks of grain. This was a reference to his bringing magic tricks to Egypt which had an abundant stock of sorcery. Moshe answered them “In a place with a large vegetable market vegetables sell.” Rashi informs us that the answer given by Moshe was just a wise guy remark given to the wise guy questioners. So it is clear that G-d did not want Moshe just to do magic tricks.
On closer examination we see that the real reason for the plagues was to demonstrate the weakness of sorcery and the Omnipotence of G-d. By the end of the plagues it was clear that all of the Egyptian gods and forces were totally powerless against the G-d of the Jews. We will examine several of the plagues to demonstrate.
The Nile river itself was a very powerful deity which sustained all of Egypt. The plague of blood which was wrought against it rendered this powerful god totally helpless. Additionally, It was demonstrated to Pharaoh that G-d’s power is in every place even in the desert while the Nile was limited to a small place.
The plague of frogs also rendered a blow to an Egyptian fertility goddess. Egyptologists have uncovered remains of this goddess who always appears with a head of a frog. This probably symbolized that people should be as fruitful as frogs who have many offspring. By having frogs jump all over the place it was a satire on this goddess.
The plague of lice was mostly aimed at the Egyptian priests. These priest succeeded in copying all of the previous plagues but lice they could not make. Our Rabbis of blessed memory said that from here we learn that a spirit can not create anything smaller than a piece of barley.(Sanhedrin 57) As a mockery of there supposed powers G-d created billions of lice to bite them. Plagues of lice were common in Egypt, however, they never attacked the priests. This is because they always had there entire body shaved. This plague was so bad that it even attacked their shaved bodies. Additionally, there is an Egyptian myth which portrays a deity which wanted to destroy the land disguised himself as a hog and went over to his enemy and with his finger poked the enemy’s eye out. Hence you have the “finger of g-d.”
From all of this we can answer the second question by saying that a reason for the plagues was to demonstrate the omnipotence of the G-d of the Jews. We see this explicitly in the Pasuk.
And Egypt will know that I am G-d when I outstretch my hand against Egypt….
To answer the first Question: If Pharaoh’s freedom of choice was removed how can he be punished? The Raavad says that the first time Moshe appeared to him he had the choice to let the Jews go. After he refused he was punished. In order to make the punishment hurt more G-d removed his freedom of choice. (Halachot Teshuvah)