This week’s parsha details the encounters between Moshe, Aharon, and Pharaoh during the first seven plagues that Hashem inflicted on the Egyptians. Many commentators have their own theories detailing the significance of each of the plagues, who was involved, the importance of the progression, etc. and Sforno is no exception. Sforno might be unique, though, in positing a different numbering system altogether, as he does not view the plagues as being a group of ten, but rather of nine. The first nine plagues are signs and wonders that Hashem enacts to show Hashem’s greatness. However, the plague of the first-born and the splitting of the Sea of Reeds are not counted among them, for Sforno, because their purpose is different. Killing the first-borns and drowning the Egyptian army are meant as מדה כנגד מדה punishments – punishments that fit the crime, namely the decree Pharaoh enacted to kill all male Hebrews.
Within the Nine Plagues, then, Sforno sees the following patterns (see 7:4 and 8:12): split them into three groups of three: Blood, Frogs, Lice; Swarms, Pestilence, Boils; Hail, Locusts, Darkness. The first group are plagues dealing with the “heavy elements” – earth and water; the second group deal with animals; and the last group deal with the air (and, if going by the classic system of four elements, fire as well, as the hail had fire in it). Further, the first two of every set featured a warning to Pharaoh, and the last of each did not (Lice, Boils, Darkness).
Sforno’s system is fascinating, but it raises a troubling question. If the Nine Plagues are simply meant to be signs of Hashem’s greatness, does that mean that, in a strictly just sense, the Egyptians did not deserve the punishment of living through them? If so, how can they be justified, as surely a less harmful miracle (e.g. splitting the Sea of Reeds itself, without drowning anyone) could have sufficed to prove Hashem’s greatness, without inflicting so much undeserved pain?
Nine or Ten are they
Plagues for the Egyptians
Were they deserved?