The Rabbi's Study

The Finger of God

The best phrases in Torah, in my opinion, are those which seldom appear – they are so much more ripe for plumbing the depths of meaning! They also present unique opportunities to completely remove any preconceived notions of what those deeper meanings might be, especially when it is a turn of phrase which does not seem so foreign. When one reads (or hears) the phrase, “Finger of God,” there are probably images which come to mind. Perhaps you think of this one…

Painting on ceiling of the Sistine Chapel, Creation of Adam, Vatican, Rome, Italy

Or if you’re a space geek, maybe this is what you have in mind…

Finger of God Nebula

Or, if you’re like me, maybe you think of this…

Maybe you’re evolved beyond images and you can recognize the metaphor for its own sake. Whatever you personally think of when you encounter the phrase “Finger of God,” what can we make of its usage in Parashat Va’era? The phrase only appears three times throughout the Tanakh: our case, one other place in Exodus, and once in Deuteronomy.

The usage in Deuteronomy is a repeat of the second place in Exodus, and we will consider those before we look into our Torah portion:

In Moshe’s retrospective which makes up a majority of the Book of Deuteronomy, he says this:

Hashem gave me the two tablets of stone written with the Finger of God, and upon them as all of the things which Hashem spoke with you at the mountain amidst the fire on the day of the assembly. (Deuteronomy 9:10)

To what is Moshe referring? Of course to:

God gave to Moshe, as God finished speaking with him on Mount Sinai, two tablets of the testimony; tablets of stone written by the Finger of God. (Exodus 31:18)

Well, these are a) clearly referring to the same thing, and b) make a theological statement as to the significance of the tablets themselves. So let’s look at our verse:

Hashem said to Moshe: Say to Aharon, Stretch your staff and strike the dust of the earth; there will be lice throughout the land of Mitzrayim. They did so, Aharon stretched his hand with his staff and he struck the dust of the earth, and there were there lice, on person and on beast; all the dust of the earth had lice throughout the land of Mitzrayim. The magicians did so with their spells to bring out the lice, but they were not able; and the lice was still on person and on beast. The magicians said to Pharaoh: It is the Finger of God; but Pharaoh’s heart was hardened and he did not hear them, just as Hashem spoke. (Exodus 8:12-15)

When the first plague of the blood transpired, the magicians could reproduce it. They did not try to reproduce the second plague of frogs – Pharaoh wanted to get rid of the frogs, not make more of them! Now with the third plague, lice, their inability to reproduce the plague leads the magicians to claim “it is the Finger of God.” So what is the connection between the Ten Commandments and lice? (This is why I love Torah commentary, it is the only reasonable venue in which one can draw a connection between the Ten Commandments and lice.)

Nearly exclusively, the commentators are concerned with three ideas: 1) why does it say Finger of God and not Finger of Hashem? 2) Why does it say Finger of God and not Hand of God? 3) do they mean God as in the God of Israel, or is elohim here a generic term for the divine and is actually in reference to one of their own deities? Practically no one addresses the very clear and obvious connection between this phrase in reference to the plague of the lice and the two verses in reference to the Ten Commandments! Obviously readers as close as our commentators recognize the significance of this phrase being used so rarely, and it only seems natural to draw some conclusion, but no – a majority say absolutely nothing; except for Rav Moshe Alshikh, one of the prominent 16th century Kabbalists of Tsfat.

His words are best translated in full rather than my poor attempt at a synopsis, and his comment is fully in line with this style of seeking deep meaning from Torah in unlikely places:

It is possible that this is a subtle reference to the Ten Statements through which the universe was created, which was an act of God’s hands, and we make an analogy to the act of the Ten Statements to ten fingers, as we find in the midrash [rabbi’s note: I can’t find this midrash], that a student asked what holds the supernal waters, and he was told to pour water and place it in a jar, and Rabbi Meir placed his finger in it and the water was displaced, and he said to the student, if my finger, and I am flesh and blood, displaces the water, then the Finger of the Holy Blessed One all the more so can hold the water! His explanation is that the supernal waters are hung by the statement (i.e., “Let the waters…”) and we refer to each statement as a finger, and remember that one of those statements is “Let us make a human,” and also take note that it is through the acronym detz”akh [rabbi’s note: remember that weird and random part in the Passover seder after the plagues when Rabbi Yehudah tells us that he uses an acronym for the plague detz”akh ad”ash bah“av – well, maybe it’s not so weird and random after all! By the way, the first one stands for “dam tzefarde’a kinim, Blood Frogs Lice”] through which God’s existence is acknowledged, and so it is one of the three principles which Moshe uses above to inform Pharaoh of God’s existence. The acronym ad”ash proves that the Blessed One is the God of Israel. The acronym bah“av informs Pharaoh that the Jewish people are God’s and are obligated to serve God and do God’s will, so Pharaoh must send the Jewish people away, and these three things are alluded to in the verse “…Thus says Hashem, God of the Hebrews, send my people…” So it is with the first three plagues that Moshe proves God’s existence, which teaches that God is responsible for creating everything in existence from a drop of semen that is like water to having fashioned the first human from the dust at the outset. It is like that tradition that the daughter of Caesar said to her father: if you had two objects, one a vessel made of water and one a vessel made of dust, which is better? Likewise, something which is created from a drop of semen is not created from that material at the resurrection of the dead! In light of all of this, the Blessed One is teaching Pharaoh how after the plague of blood in the Nile God created frogs, so women menstruate and afterwards are able to produce offspring from a drop of water within her, and Pharaoh simply could not understand in any way how a person exists, but he realized it by extrapolation, like Caesar’s daughter, by acknowledging the verse “Let us make a human,” only after the plague of the lice which came into being from the dust! So the magicians acknowledge this by stating “this is the Finger of God,” and this is why it uses the name God and not Hashem, because it is in reference to the statement “God said: Let us make a human…”

It’s a little confusing, but the bottom line is this: God doesn’t have fingers. The whole purpose of the ten plagues is to prove that Pharaoh is not as powerful as the Creator of the Universe. The ten plagues are connected to the Ten Commandments because of the statement “Finger of God.” The Ten Commandments are frequently connected to the Ten Statements [rabbi’s note: each time it says “God said” at the beginning of Parashat Breishit], therefore the Ten Statements are connected to the ten plagues. With the first three plagues, Pharaoh learned that 1) God exists, 2) God has a plan for Israel, and 3) that plan is for the Jewish people to serve God and only God. When then magicians exclaim “it is the Finger of God,” what they’re really saying is that they can do tricks, but they cannot create something from nothing!

So the Finger of God is a euphemism for the power of Creation – I guess Michelangelo was really onto something…

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