By Rabbi Vernon Kurtz, Torah Columnist
First day of Passover
The writer, Ralph Waldo Emerson, found that his memory began increasingly to fail him in his later years. He would forget the names of things and had to refer to them in a manner which would jog his memory. For instance, he would say “the implement that cultivates the soil,” for plow. Worse he could not remember people’s names. At Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s funeral, he remarked to a friend, “That gentleman has a sweet, beautiful soul, but I have entirely forgotten his name.”
I have a great deal of sympathy for Emerson. As the days go by I find that my “senior moments” are more frequent. Therefore, one of my Passover heroes is Rabbi Yehudah bar Ilai. Throughout Rabbinic literature his name is mentioned so often that he is simply called Rabbi Yehudah. Why do I consider Rabbi Yehudah one of my heroes? Because Rabbi Yehudah understands “senior moments.” It was his custom, as reported to us in Rabbinic literature, to offer aids to help our memories. Toward the end of the Maggid section when we recite the ten plagues the Haggadah tells us that Rabbi Yehuda used to refer to the ten plagues by the Hebrew initials “Detzakh Adash Be-Ahav.” Each of the letters represents a different plague all in the proper order. It helps us to remember them even after a cup of wine.
I would also like to suggest that there are some significant lessons taught to us by this acronym. From a purely historical and literary point of view scholars suggest that Rabbi Yehudah wants to teach us the correct order of the plagues that descended upon the Egyptians. There are two other renditions of the plagues found in the Book of Psalms. Both Psalm 78 and Psalm 105 mentions the plagues, but they are listed in different orders. Moreover, in Psalm 78, lice, boils and darkness are omitted and in Psalm 105 omitted are pestilence and boils. Thus, Rabbi Yehudah wants us to remember them as told in the Biblical narrative.
Scholars suggest that the progression of plagues has a definite pattern attached to it. In each of the triads the first two plagues are inflicted upon Pharaoh and the Egyptians after a proper warning, the third plague comes without warning. Others suggest that the plagues through these acronyms represent different aspects of Divine mastery over nature and the world. The first set of plagues affected the ground; the second set of plagues affected those who lived upon the land; and the third involved the atmosphere. The slaying of the firstborn taught that our G-d was also lord over life and death.
Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch in his commentary states that the plagues of the first group impressed upon the Egyptians that they, themselves, were no more than aliens in their own land and had no right to treat the Children of Israel as strangers, depriving them of their rights. The second group of plagues showed the Egyptians the foolishness of their undue pride and haughtiness. Finally the last set of plagues exercised upon the Egyptians’ own body a torment similar to that which they had caused the innocent Children of Israel. The slaying of the firstborn brings the whole series of plagues to a climax leading to redemption from bondage.
In other words, Rabbi Yehudah is not only teaching us an acronym to remind us of the correct order of the plagues but has grouped them so that we understand that there is a differentiation from one group of plagues to the next. There was a pattern according to which G-d hoped to teach not only the Egyptians but the Children of Israel, as well, of His power over man and nature, over Pharaoh and history.
Later interpreters took Rabbi Yehudah’s acronym and read into it new meanings. One commentator suggests that each group of plagues seems to teach Pharaoh, and the world in general, of the three principles which, according to the 15th century Spanish philosopher Rabbi Joseph Albo, are the fundamentals of our faith. The first three plagues were designed to establish the existence of G-d. The second group of plagues was to teach G-d’s providence, what we might term Divine Revelation. The third group of plagues teaches us the concept of reward and punishment. In other words, behind the differentiation of the plagues and the acronyms of Rabbi Yehudah is a Medieval understanding of Judaism being based on three cardinal principles – creation, revelation and redemption.
Finally, there is a Midrash which states that this acronym actually pre-dated Rabbi Yehudah. The letters were engraved upon the staff of Moses, the staff that was created on the eve of the very first Shabbat. It was with this staff that Moses performed the signs and wonders in Pharaoh’s court and in the wilderness. Already initialed on the wood was the order of the plagues which were to come upon the Egyptians. The first three were initiated by Aaron with the use of Moses’ staff and involved water and land. The next three were initiated by Moses without the use of the staff and involved those dwelling upon the land. The next three initiated by Moses with the staff revealed G-d’s power to strike from the air. The slaying of the firstborn had a totally unique character.
So, my hero, Rabbi Yehudah greatly helps us. Through his use of this mnemonic device he assists our senior memory and through the interpretations upon his acronyms we learn about Biblical texts, philosophical treatises, Moses’ leadership and the divinity of G-d.
When you sit down at your Seder and recite the Ten Plagues, taking a drop of wine out of your full cup as you mention them, don’t forget to stop for a moment and think of the meaning behind the mnemonic device suggested by Rabbi Yehudah. Not only will it help our “senior moments” but it will make our understanding of the Pesach story more meaningful.
Rabbi Vernon Kurtz is rabbi of North Suburban Synagogue Beth El (Conservative).