The Plagues and Teshuvah
Va'eira (Exodus 6:2-9:35 )
After the wild animals attacked the Egyptians, Pharaoh summoned Moshe and Aharon. After some negotiation, we find:
Pharaoh said, "I will send you, and you may sacrifice to the Lord your God in the wilderness. Just don't go too far away - pray for me." Moshe said, "Behold, I will go out from you and pray to God to remove the wild beasts from Pharaoh, his servants, and from his people tomorrow..." (Shemos 8:24-25)
Pray for me - these words should have been said earlier. For the correct order of events was that Pharaoh wanted Moshe to pray to remove the plague, and only then would he allow them to sacrifice in the wilderness as they had requested. (Ibn Ezra HeAruch loc. cit.)
Actually, we will propose that the order of the verse has a precise function. Let us start by examining some earlier verses.
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THE PURPOSE OF THE PLAGUES
I will harden Pharaoh's heart, and I will multiply My signs and My wonders in the land of Egypt. And Pharaoh will not listen, and I will set My hand against Egypt. I will take out my hosts, My people, the Children of Yisrael, from the land of Egypt with great judgments. And Egypt will know that I am God when I raise My hand against Egypt, and I will bring out the Children of Yisrael from among them. (Shemos 7:3-5)
It is perfectly clear that the Exodus did not actually require any of this - once Pharaoh refused to allow klal Yisrael to leave his land, God could simply have flattened Egypt in one mighty blow, annihilating them with a bolt of lightning or something similar. But this would not have achieved the main aim of the Exodus, which was not the destruction of Egypt, but a demonstration of Divine power which left no room for doubt that God controlled the world. The more miracles wrought in Egypt, the greater and clearer the realization that the holy God of Yisrael was in charge of His world. This was the point of this continuous barter with Pharaoh: each step in the destruction of their country led Pharaoh, his necromancers, and his people closer to an appreciation of God's existence and power.
This concept is further borne out by Yisro's reaction to the miracles that God had performed on behalf of klal Yisrael:
Now I know that God is greater than any other deity... (Shemos 18:11)
Than any other deity - this teaches that he recognized every idolatry on earth, for he did not leave any idol unworshipped. (Rashi loc. cit.)
Yisro had tried every idolatry, every doctrine, every philosophy in the world. He had been convinced, however, of the veracity of the Torah after all of the miracles, when he came to greet Moshe in the wilderness. It was the awesome nature of the destruction of Egypt and the Splitting of the Sea which had persuaded Yisro beyond a doubt that God was the only true Deity.
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There is another side to the function of the ten plagues. We have seen that one great plague would not have convinced the Egyptians as thoroughly of God's existence as several smaller ones. If Egypt had been wiped out at the first moment of refusal, this would never have afforded them the possibility of teshuvah, repentance. As the Egyptians were punished for their wickedness, they had the opportunity to stop and think about their errors and repent. After any of the plagues, having experienced God's miraculous intervention in their lives, they could have withdrawn their opposition to klal Yisrael and accepted upon themselves the kingship of God, and they would have been forgiven. Alas, this did not happen and will not happen to the nations of the world until the ultimate future, but God nevertheless left the possibility of teshuvah open to the Egyptians during the plagues.
We can now understand the order in which Pharaoh presented his statements to Moshe and Aharon. Had he, as the Ibn Ezra suggests, made his demand ("pray for me") before his agreement to release klal Yisrael ("you may sacrifice") this would not have implied any teshuvah at all on the part of Pharaoh. For then he would only be making a business arrangement - you deal with the plague, and I'll let you go. This was not at all the intention of the plague, for God wanted the attack on Egypt to prompt Pharaoh to unconditional teshuvah.
Real teshuvah demands regret for one's past actions, recognition of sin, and acceptance of any punishment meted out as just and necessary, as the prophet tells us:
You are just in all that is brought upon us, for You have acted truthfully, and we have acted wickedly. (Nechemiah 9:33)
Pharaoh presented his statements to Moshe and Aharon to give the impression that his teshuvah was sincere, for he made his request for help only after agreeing to free klal Yisrael. This implies that he was prepared to release them even if Moshe would renege on his promise to remove the wild beasts. Indeed, given that Moshe was aware of the function of the plagues, he would only agree to pray for Pharaoh if his teshuvah appeared to be sincere and unconditional.
There is a great lesson to learn from this when we engage in our own teshuvah. Just as with Pharaoh and the Egyptians, proper teshuvah needs to be completely unconditional. The penitent must acknowledge the wrong that he has done and resolve to do better in the future, regardless of any external factors. Particularly, one's teshuvah should not depend on the success of one's prayer - that if one's prayers are answered, then one will remain resolute in one's teshuvah, but otherwise not. Even if one's lot worsens, God forbid, one should remain steadfast and not deviate from one's new level of commitment. If we do this, then we can be certain that our teshuvah is perfect and accepted by God and be confident that He will be there for us when we need Him.