Pharaoh and Diogenes’ barrel
Our parsha gives us a glimpse at the "new" Pharaoh's monarchy, which is corrupt and utterly removed from the needs of his people. While this is especially clear from his lack of interest in the suffering his own people experience as a result of the plagues, it is also apparent in his treatment of the foreign people he rules over. This enslaved people have long since lost their basic human rights; against their will they have been turned into a tool, another way for the Egyptian empire to increase and solidify its power. And under this Pharaoh’s rule Egypt has ceased to be a homeland to her people and lost its identity as a country and a refuge. This moral degeneration undermines its might and ultimately causes Egypt’s destruction. God's plagues are not only ever increasing attacks designed to force the Egyptians into submission; they are also a mirror thrust before Pharaoh's face, reflecting the final stages of his fading supremacy.
To better understand the plagues we turn to Diogenes. There are many stories that describe the ridiculous and strange actions of this Greek philosopher. One story relates that he walked in the light of day with a candle in hand, and when people inquired about his curious actions he answered that he was looking for an honest man. In another tale he removes himself from society and chooses to live as an ascetic in a barrel. When Alexander the Great inquired if there was a favor he could do for him he answered, "Yes, stand out of my sunlight."
These stories are not merely amusing anecdotes, they tell the tale of a man who has lost his faith in the power of the state as an agent of good. Diogenes with his candle searches for an honest man but there is none to be found in the public realm, a place where justice and integrity should reign. Alexander the Great darkens the door of his barrel; he is but an expression of an unfortunate reality- the all-powerful Caesar is no more than an impediment that blocks light and truth. This great ruler invades the single, small enlightened area that remains. His inferior, immoral policies cloud any chance one has to see things in their natural light- to see innate justice and integrity, to experience the Divine- just as they corrupt the distribution of basic resources that rightly belong to all people.
The first sign Moshe performs turns his staff into a snake, symbolizing the ironic role change that Pharaoh's rule has undergone. At one point in time the staff of Pharaoh symbolized order and life, but now it has turned into a twisted animal of prey, snapping at the heels of his subjects. In a similar vein the midrash also interprets the snake as a symbol of Pharaoh's rule:
"Why did the Holy One, blessed be He, compare the monarchy of Egypt to a snake? Just as a snake is twisted, so too the monarchy in Egypt twisted (corrupted) its ways." (Shmot Rabba Vaeyra 9)
For the first plague Moshe takes water, the most essential source of life, and turns it into blood, subtly hinting at the way that Pharaoh uses people. In exchange for their right to live Pharaoh squeezes out every last ounce of their blood and life force. Pharaoh treats people like objects; he sees in them no more than machines made of flesh and blood.
The next stage is the frogs. To understand the symbolism of the frogs we look to a well-known midrash that explains why the text begins by using the singular "the frog arose" (vata’al hatzfardeya) before describing the myriad of frogs that hop amuck, invading the homes, bedrooms, ovens, and bread of the Egyptians:
"’The frog arose and covered the…’
It was taught in a baraita: Rabbi Akiva said, 'It says there was one frog and she gave birth and filled the land of Egypt;'
Rabbi Eliezer ben Azaryah said: ‘Akiva, why are you [dealing] with agadda, desist from your statements and go [back] to leprosy and tents (halachot of ritual impurity). There was one frog and she whistled to them and they came.’" (Shmot Rabba Vaeyra 10)
According to the midrash Rabbi Akiva believes that at first there was only one frog, but she bred at such a rate that her spawn rapidly filled the land of Egypt. Rabbi Elazar ben Azaryah derisively rejects Rabbi Akiva's explanation, as well as Rabbi Akiva himself. Yet what is his explanation? He explains simply that there was one frog who whistled and called for the other frogs to join.
The reader is left wondering why Rabbi Elazar ben Azaryah's explanation is any better than that of Rabbi Akiva, since neither one is all that logical and both seem like perfectly valid agaddic interpretations.
It's possible that Rabbi Elazar ben Azaryah is trying to make a point about the symbolism of the plagues and the source of their destruction. The frog here is a caricature of Pharaoh's rule- he invades the homes of his subjects and infests their private domain. He steals their food and installs himself in their bedrooms. Pharaoh acts like a mob boss, together with his "family"- his ministers and servants- he has spread his corrupt rule all over the country. All he has to do is whistle and his minions jump to do his evil bidding.
Rabbi Akiva's image of a rapidly multiplying frog lacks the sophistication necessary to express Pharaoh's corruption. Yet no matter how it started, the stench the infestation leaves behind lingers in the air long after the frogs themselves have disappeared, but not until after they proliferate and prosper at the expense of those who were not strong enough to defend themselves against the onslaught.
For the third plague the dust of the earth turns to lice, symbolizing the change in the land itself; what was once fertile ground for a thriving society has become a tool to oppress man and beast. (Shmot 8, 13) Instead of giving life it has become an unbearable burden, a cloying source of irritation.
At this point Pharaoh turns to Moshe and Aharon and tells them "Go and sacrifice to your God in the land." Moshe answers, "It is improper for us to do so, to sacrifice the abomination of Egypt to our God." (ibid 21-22) Pharaoh tells Moshe that the People of Israel can worship God in Egypt, but Moshe answers unequivocally that this is not possible. There are places where prayer is impossible, places where the source of blessing is so hidden and darkened by totalitarian rule that enlightenment and the Divine is inaccessible. Egypt is abominable; it cannot serve as a place of worship. The crisis of values, spiritual vacuum, and totalitarian rule of Pharaoh's government does not allow room for man to serve God, for the people to gather together to have their voices heard and unite with the eternal.