In a number of places, Torah states clearly that the “makkot” or “plagues” did not follow “natural law.”
8:22 And I will sever in that day the land of Goshen, in which my people dwell, that no swarms of flies shall be there; to the end that you may know that I am the Lord in the midst of the earth.
9:4 And the Lord shall sever between the cattle of Israel and the cattle of Egypt: and there nothing of the B’nai Yisrael’s shall die.
25 And the hail smote throughout all the land of Egypt all that was in the field, both man and beast; and the hail smote every herb of the field, and broke every tree of the field.
26 Only in the land of Goshen, where the B’nai Yisrael were, was there no hail.
29 And Mosheh said unto [Pharaoh], ‘As soon as I am gone out of the city, I will spread abroad my hands to the Lord; and the thunder shall cease, neither shall there be any more hail; that you may know that the earth is the Lord’s.
10:22 And Mosheh stretched forth his hand toward heaven; and there was a thick darkness in all the land of Egypt three days:
23 They didn’t see one another, neither rose anyone from his place for three days: but all the B’nai Yisrael had light in their dwellings.
11:5 And all the firstborn in the land of Egypt shall die, from the firstborn of Pharaoh, who sits on his throne, even to the firstborn of the maidservant that is behind the mill; and all the firstborn of beasts.
6 And there shall be a great cry throughout all the land of Egypt, such as there was none like it, nor shall be like it any more.
7 But against any of the children of Israel shall not a dog move his tongue, against man or beast: that you may know that the Lord makes a difference between the Egyptians and Israel.
When Mosheh first threw his staff on the ground before Pharaoh, it became a snake. Then, Pharaoh’s “magicians” were able to do something that seemed, by outward appearance, to be the same thing that Mosheh had done. They thought it placed Mosheh’s demonstration in the realm of the “knowable.” It allowed Pharaoh and, by extension, the Egyptians, to deny or dismiss what Mosheh was demonstrating.
We see a similar phenomena today. Torah states some things happened that should not have happened in “nature,” and people try to come up with “reasonable” or “scientific” explanations for what Torah records.
Some explanations can be quite ingenious.
But they miss the point entirely.
God was confronting Pharaoh with events for which there could be no explanation in “nature.” The text of Torah is clear and explicit about that. The necessary inference was supposed to be that some power beyond “nature” was producing the events.
Faced with the inexplicable, we humans often think that we might be in danger. We become fearful in the face of a power over which we have no control, and which might be unpredictable. We attempt to manage the fear by psychological denial; a refusal to draw the necessary conclusion. Pharaoh was no different. The events simply “hardened his heart,” until the 10th — the death of Egypt’s first-born. In the prior plagues, “nature” was restored when Pharaoh submitted, however temporarily. But with the “makkat b’churot” — the first-borns’ deaths — there could, to Pharaoh’s understanding, be no restoration of those who had been lost. [I will venture here a radical interpretation of my own: Had Pharaoh only gone “beyond nature” and understood that God’s true power includes the giving of life, the firstborn of Egypt could have been revived! The final responsibility for their deaths, then, is with Pharaoh, not with God.]
This, I think, is how the “plagues” are meant to be read and understood — especially at our seders. They record events that did not occur in the ordinary course of “nature.” Here, God “plays with nature” as it were, in the same way that an artist “plays with” the elements of his or her art. The plagues declare: There is a Power that can do as It will, even with “nature.”
It surprises me that at least some of the verses I quoted above weren’t included in the traditional hagadah [although a commentary might refer to them]. The seder commemorates not only that God took us out of Egypt, but that God, having power over Pharaoh and nature itself, was able to take us out of Egypt.
We are awed by a young Mozart performing and composing great music. There is something mysterious about the mental maturity that allows a mere child, so inexperienced in life, to have such high skills and conceptions. We call it “genius.” But what is that, other than a name for the inexplicable? By giving it that name, we limit it to that particular person at that particular time, thereby neutralizing the inference that scares us: There was a Source to this that could be in each of us, as well.
To seek “natural” or “scientific” explanations of the plagues is to misunderstand them. We might even be able to question whether they happened literally as written, if we agree that they record events that impressed on the B’nai Yisrael that there is a Creative Power over nature that also perpetually continues to be concerned with the well-being of everything in Creation at every moment.
That Power is no less present to us today, wherever and whoever we are.
We, Israel, are meant to declare this to the world.