Behold – the plagues! Rivers of blood! Swarms of locusts! Darkness upon the land! Terrifying devastation, of supernatural proportions, all wrought by God’s mighty…
Wait, shouldn’t that be God’s mighty “hand”? We are familiar with the “hand of God,” or the “arm of God.” That language is all over the Exodus story. God first appears to Moses in last week’s parsha with the announcement that:
I will stretch out My hand and afflict Egypt… (Exod. 3:20)
וְשָׁלַחְתִּי אֶת–יָדִי, וְהִכֵּיתִי אֶת–מִצְרַיִם…
Then, at the beginning of this week’s parsha, God says:
I will redeem you with an outstretched arm… (Exod. 6:6)
וְגָאַלְתִּי אֶתְכֶם בִּזְרוֹעַ נְטוּיָה…
These images come to form a classic metaphor in the Jewish story, representing the power of God’s deliverance of the Children of Israel from the house of bondage. The Passover Seder, for example, opens every year with Four Questions and begins its answer with the following sentence:
We were slaves to Pharaoh in Egypt, and the Lord, our God, took us out from there with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm.
עֲבָדִים הָיִינוּ לְפַרְעֹה בְּמִצְרָיִם, וַיּוֹצִיאֵנוּ ה‘ אֱלֹהֵינוּ מִשָּׁם בְּיָד חֲזָקָה וּבִזְרֹעַ נְטוּיָה.
So, hands of God, arms of God – these we know about. But in the third plague – Lice – Pharaoh’s magicians surprise us by declaring:
This is the finger of God! (Exod. 8:15)
אֶצְבַּע אֱלֹקים הִוא
What do they mean by this? And after the hand/arm imagery been firmly established, why do they suddenly switch to the ‘finger’?
Many of the commentators just ignore the ‘finger’ and just focus on the ‘God’ part, taking the magicians to mean simply, “This is actually the work of God – not just magic – so we can’t replicate it!”
This sentiment might be especially relevant at this moment in the narrative because one of the overlooked parts of the plague story is that for the first two plagues – Blood and Frogs – as soon as Moses and Aaron unleash the plague, Pharaoh’s magicians come around and do the same with their spells. Now that is strange, because it suggests that this big, impressive wonder from God is actually just a kind of parlor trick that any magician can perform. When Pharaoh sees his own magicians replicating the plagues, he thinks Moses and Aaron must be run-of-the-mill illusionists, not agents of God – so he doesn’t have to worry about them. But now, with this plague, the magicians are stumped. And that’s why they say, “Hey – this is actually from God!!”
So that interpretation makes sense. But it still doesn’t tell us: Why do they describe it as God’s “finger”?
One major commentator who does have an answer to that question is Nachmanides, who says:
They said it to minimize the situation. ‘The finger of God,’ and not ‘The hand of God,’ as if to say, this plague from God is just a small thing.
ולהמעיט הענין אמרו אצבע אלקים ולא אמרו ”יד אלקים”, כלומר מכה קטנה מאתו
No big deal, Pharaoh! Don’t worry about it! It’s not like the hand of God is afflicting us! Just a little itty-bitty finger.
Well, at least this is an answer. But I’m not sure it’s a great one. Because it implies that the lice weren’t really bothering them that much. But the text says that “all the dust of the earth turned to lice” and that “they were all over the people and the animals.” That sounds pretty unpleasant to me.
I remember when I was a kid and lice hit my elementary school. Kids were scratching their heads, and parents were freaking out. Now what if everyone you knew, and all their cats and dogs, were covered with lice? Swarming everywhere, crawling all over everything, every inch of your body itching like crazy. That’s not just gross – that’s maddening.
On top of that, these magicians would have had to admit to their boss that their own skills were useless, and they must have been scared of his anger. So I don’t think Pharaoh’s magicians were taking this in stride. I think they were greatly alarmed.
A better explanation for ‘the finger,’ I think, comes by asking a different question: Why couldn’t Pharaoh’s magicians replicate this plague? Lice are so tiny! If they could turn water into blood, and conjure up frogs, surely they could come up with a couple of little bugs?
Rashi gives us a strange answer, taken from the Talmud:
They could not… because dark forces have no power over a creature that is smaller than a barleycorn.
ולא יכלו. שֶׁאֵין הַשֵּׁד שׁוֹלֵט עַל בִּרְיָּה פְּחוּתָה מִכִּשְׂעוֹרָה (סנהדרין ס“ז):
Well, that doesn’t make sense. Assuming magicians can tap into some kind of black magic, why would it work on big things but not on small things? It should be the opposite! The smaller something is, the easier it should be to manipulate.
The Maharal of Prague, in his brilliant supercommentary on Rashi, ׳Gur Aryeh,׳ helps us make sense of this strange law of metaphysics:
Dark forces have no power over a creature that is smaller than a barleycorn… There is a wondrous reason for this. For something which is the size of a barleycorn at least has some substance which the dark forces can latch onto. But something which is smaller than a barleycorn is nullified into the whole of the world…That is why it is called “barley” (שעורה – seora), from the same language for “measurement” (שעור –sheor) – for this size is measurable, but less than this becomes unmeasurable. And since it has no measurement, it just merges into the world.
שאין השד שולט על בריה פחות משעורה… וטעם מופלא הוא, כי דבר שהוא כשעורה יש בו ממש בעצמו והשד שולט עליו, אבל דבר שהוא יותר קטן מכשעורה הוא בטל אצל כלל העולם, ואין השד שולט על כלל העולם… ומפני זה נקרא “שעורה” מלשון שעור, שדבר זה נקרא שעור, ופחות מזה לא נקרא שעור, ומכיון דלא נקרא שעור – בטל הוא אצל כלל העולם.
The Maharal is playing on the similarity between the Hebrew words for ‘barley’ and ‘measurement,’ in order to suggest that the reason the magicians had no ability to recreate lice is that these creatures were too small for humans to take accurate measurement of, and therefore beyond the reach of human powers. “Smaller than a barleycorn” is just an ancient way of saying “quantum.”
The reference to ‘the finger,’ then, indicates that this plague demonstrated intricate, precise creation – the work of dexterous fingers, rather than the big stroke of an arm or a hand. Because lice are so small, this plague seemed to take place on a microscopic, rather than a grand, scale. In this, the first plague that the Egyptian magicians cannot replicate, we see that God’s power is demonstrated not only at the cosmic level, but also at the atomic.
And this is important, because the Children of Israel will one day need to know to look for God in the small things. The lesson of the plagues is as much for them, after all, as it is for the Egyptians. “I displayed my signs among them,” God says, “in order that you may know that I am the Lord.” (10:2) But there will not always be fire streaming down from the heavens and seas splitting in two. God will not always come down into the world so thunderously and intervene, with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm.
Elijah famously discovered God not in the wind, or the earthquake, or the fire, but in a “still, small voice.” (Kings 1:19:12) So, too, our encounters with Divinity are not only at the towering mountains and the grand canyons, but in the dew on a flower-petal, or the crystalized precision of a snowflake. Our wonder at the universe is not only at galaxies seen through telescopes, but at cells seen through microscopes. And our moments of joy and connection are not only the great ceremonies and triumphs of our lives, but those little moments of awareness – the smell of bread baking, lamplight shining through the trees, the flash of a smile from our beloved. In all these things, the finger of God is working – quietly, nimbly, perfectly.
The Children of Israel will need this awareness once the Exodus is over, the thunder has died down, and real life begins. It is fitting, then, when we recall the one other place in the Torah where the finger of God is mentioned. It is when Moses goes up on Mount Sinai to receive the Tablets, engraved with the Ten Commandments. There we read:
When God finished speaking with him on Mount Sinai, God gave Moses the two tablets of the Testament, stone tablets inscribed with the finger of God. (Exod. 31:18)
וַיִּתֵּן אֶל–מֹשֶׁה, כְּכַלֹּתוֹ לְדַבֵּר אִתּוֹ בְּהַר סִינַי, שְׁנֵי, לֻחֹת הָעֵדֻת—לֻחֹת אֶבֶן, כְּתֻבִים בְּאֶצְבַּע אֱלֹקים.
The Torah is also written with the finger of God. For it will be with you in all the little moments of your life. It will whisper to you in a still, small, voice. You will find in it great wonders and miracles, but you will also find in it tiny details, silent spaces, and hidden treasures.
God will lead you out of the house of bondage, with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm. But this book will guide you through your life, pointing the way with a finger, into the next perfect moment.