While reading the Haggadah, we learn from Rabbi Yossi HaGalili (of Galilee) that if the Egyptians faced 10 Plagues in Egypt, then they were struck with 50 at the Reed Sea. Rabbi Eliezer says, furthermore, that in reality the Egyptians were not struck with merely 10 Plagues. Each one consisted of four plagues, and therefore there were 40 Plagues in Egypt, and 200 at the Sea. Rabbi Akiva disagrees, saying that there were 50 in Egypt, and 250 at the Sea.
Perhaps one opinion is right, perhaps the other — perhaps, just as they count the words differently, these great Rabbis might have counted the various sub-elements of each plague differently, and they are both right. But why do we need to know this in the Haggadah? What great impact does this have, such that the Rabbis later decided to include this discussion within the Haggadah itself?
Rabbi Yechezkel Levenstein, spiritual guide of the Mir Yeshiva in Poland before the War, and then in Ponevitzch in Israel, points to the line which follows this discussion: “how many great things did the Holy One bestow upon us.” The Haggadah specifies that each favor G-d showed us at that time was wonderful unto itself. Taking us out of Egypt was enough by itself. Judging the Egyptians for years of tremendous cruelty was enough by itself. All the more so, when these favors are all added together, do we recognize HaShem’s kindness. And therefore, he says, even though all of the various “plagues within plagues” are not explained separately, we must recognize that each one was a separate act, a separate benefit for us, and even a benefit for the Egyptians themselves — teaching them their mistake, and that He is King, before they died.
If we look carefully into the story of the Egyptians, we see that it is this concern which caused Pharoah’s downfall. “Come, let us be wise against [the Israelites], lest they become numerous…” [Ex. 1:10] The Israelites were living in Egypt, and Pharoah enjoyed good relations with them. One of them had even saved his country from starvation. Was there any cause for concern? Of course not.
Pharoah needed something to worry about. At the time there was no danger, but he thought about what might happen, and truly went out on a limb to find a distant possibility of trouble. “Perhaps they will become numerous” was the first question — perhaps they would, but perhaps they would not. “And it will be, if a war will happen” was the second — who said there would be a war? “And it [the Nation of Israel] will join our enemies” was the third. “And go up from the land” was the final possibility. None of these were certain — it is as if he said “perhaps they will become numerous, and perhaps a war will occur, and perhaps they will join our enemies, and perhaps they will leave the land!”
Thus worrying about the future, in such an unreasonable fashion, was the first of Pharoah’s sins. The fact that he “did not know of Yosef” was his second — according to some, the same Pharoah simply acted as if he did not know Yosef, but even according to the others, the new Pharoah certainly had an obligation to find out before throwing the great help Israel had been back in its face. Then Pharoah afflicted the Israelites physically, his third sin, and spiritually, by denying them the opportunity to worship G-d, his fourth.
Thus as a result of worrying about four questions within questions, he committed four sins — and thus, concludes Rav Waldshein, he was repaid with four plagues within each of the ten.
This is but one message of the Haggadah. As it says later on, “not merely one has stood up against us to destroy us.” There was Pharoah. There was Haman. There was Hitler. “In every generation” there are Hitlers waiting to happen, but “G-d saves us from their hands.” He is watching, and caring, and helping. Let us do what is right and appropriate today, and G-d will help us to deal with tomorrow — that which we can see and worry about, and even that which we cannot.
Wishing everyone a joyous Passover,
Rabbi Yaakov Menken
Dedicated l’zecher ul’ilui nishmas (in memory of, and for the benefit of the soul of) Mr. Ian Ostroff — Yehudah Yitzchock Aharon ben Simcha