Ethics Now & Then 78 – Avot 5:5

Pirkei Avot 5:5

Ten miracles were performed for our ancestors in Egypt and at the Sea. Ten plagues did the Holy One, Blessed is He, bring upon the Egyptians in Egypt and ten at the Sea.


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Ten miracles were performed for our ancestors in Egypt and the at the Sea. Ten plagues did the Holy One, Blessed is He, bring upon the Egyptians in Egypt and ten at the Sea.

The intriguing pattern of ten continues. Interestingly, the ten miracles performed for the israelites are not mentioned in the Scriptures. Maimonides, the great Jewish sage, philosopher and physician of the Middle Ages, deduces : “The ten miracles of our forefathers in Egypt lay in their being spared from the ten plagues.” Scripture does specifically mention that the plagues were visited upon the Egyptians and infers that they were not intended as a punishment for the Israelites. Irving Bunim agrees and recounts, “Thus, when the waters of Egypt turned to blood, the waters of Goshen remained clear. When frogs swarmed over the land of Pharaoh, none disturbed the homes of the Israelites. And so with the rest of the plagues.” *

We see this confirmed with the last and worst of the plagues when God gives Moses detailed instructions for the night of the deliverance of His people. They are to remain in ther homes, dressed and ready to journey, after smearing the blood of the lamb, which they have sacrificed and eaten together, on the doorframes of their homes. When the Angel of Death passes through the land and all the firstborn among the Egyptians die, the Israelites are spared (Exodus, chapter 12).

What about the ten miracles at the Sea? They are recorded in Scripture in the account of the dividing of the [Red / Reed] Sea, or Yam Suf in Hebrew, when Moses struck the sea with his rod and the waters parted allowing the Israelites to cross over to safety on dry land (Exodus chapter 14). The pursuing Egyptian army attempted to follow and were drowned as the waters closed over them. Avoth d’Rabbi Nathan commentary explains, in B36, that the Israleites, who had been enslaved for so long, were like frightened children and were given all these miracles to reassure them and to encourage them in their faith,  “…to make known how beloved [to the Almighty] were the Israelites.” Indeed. as we read in Exodus 14:31, “And [the people] Israel saw the great handiwork which the Lord had wrought against the Egyptians, and the people praised the Lord, and they believed in the Lord and in His servant Moses.” As they later would individually and collectively proclaim. “This is my/our God, and I/we will glorify Him!” **

The fate suffered by the Egyptian army at the Sea symbolically is linked to the ten plagues. It is, in fact, worse than the plagues. For example, Rabbi Yosei the Galilean sage points out, “In Egypt water turned to blood; at the Reed Sea their blood spilled into the water. In Egypt, the first born died; at the Sea all the pursuers were slain.”

The Talmud relates that  when the angels wanted to sing praises to Him for the overcoming of the enemy, God rebukes them saying, “My handiwork [human beings] are drowning in the sea, and you would sing praises?” *** And yet the Passover miracle, the liberation from Egypt, would become the foundation of faith in the God of Israel for all generations to come. He clearly declares at the giving of the Ten Commandments  – the bedrock of His Kingdom principles that constantly guide all His children how to live as His beloved and holy nation. “I am the Lord your God who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of bondage.” **** God  no longer was only Creator, abstract and transcendent, He now had revealed HImself as Father, Redeemer and King.

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* Irving M. Bunim, Ethics from Sinai, Vol 3; 45

** Exodus 15;2

*** Talmud Bavli, Megillah 10b; Sanhedrin 396

**** Exodus 20:2; Deuteronomy 5:6

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