By HaRav Shlomo Aviner
In the accounting of the Exodus story we find that there were exactly ten plagues, as it says in Sefer Yetzira, “Ten and not nine, ten and not eleven.”²³ What is the significance of the number ten? It signifies a whole unit, including within it all of the individual parts, as well as all of the possible variations on a theme.
The number ten is used in many different instances in the Torah to reflect this idea:
- “The world was created with ten sayings,” which embody all the inherent possibilities of Divine revelation in each creation.
- “There were ten generations between Adam and Noach,” which include within them every possible portrayal of the species of mankind.
- “Avraham was tested with ten tests,” each of which revealed another aspect of his unique personality and brought to the fore his diverse spiritual strengths.
- “Our forefathers tested God with ten tests in the wilderness,” which include within them every type of provocation which distances a Jew from the Divine light.
And here we have the same idea:
- “God smote the Egyptians with ten plagues,” which include every form of attack on a nation which defied the idea of Divine Providence in the world.²⁴
The plagues did not all appear simultaneously as a sudden and immediate act. Rather, they took place gradually, over an extended period of time.
The world was also created piece by piece with ten sayings, even though it could easily have been created with just one. From the perspective of Divine power, there was nothing to prevent the world from being created with one utterance. But there is a universal human inability to absorb a creation of that sort on a cognitive, emotional and practical level. Abrupt changes can sometimes breed unendurable crises. For this reason, the plagues in Egypt did not come all at once. Nor did they begin with the most severe – the Plague of the Firstborn. Instead, step by step, the destruction of Egypt and the creation of Am Yisrael became increasingly apparent to Egyptians and Israelites alike. This psychological upheaval did not happen in a single day, or even in a month. Rather, Jewish and Egyptian hearts gradually absorbed this fundamental change in the course of world history.
It takes time to get used to a new manifestation of God in the world. As God rhetorically asks through Yeshayahu, “Can the earth be made to bring forth in one day; can a nation be conceived in a moment?”²⁵ The course of creation proceeds slowly but surely, as Yeshayahu continues, “Will I induce labor and not bring about birth? Will I, who brings about birth, then stop it?”²⁶ The fact that the process is gradual aids in human acceptance of the phenomenon. So, too, the development of Am Yisrael today is gradual, and does not come about through miraculous leaps: that is the way God redeems His people. Just as the process of childbirth has its stages – beginning slowly and progressing with ever-increasing labor pains – so it is with the birth of Am Yisrael.