Parshat Bo The Plague of Locusts

The Plague of Locusts

“And the locusts invaded all of the land of Egypt. And they settled within all of the boundaries of Egypt. It was a severe plague. Never before had there been a comparable infestation of locusts and never again would there be such an infestation.” (Shemot 10:14)

This pasuk describes the plague of Locusts. The locusts covered the Land of Egypt. They consumed all of the grain and vegetation that had survived the previous plagues. The Torah asserts that an infestation of this magnitude had never previously occurred. Furthermore, an infestation of such magnitude would never occur again.

Rashi raises an interesting question. The Navi tells of an infestation of locusts in the Land of Israel, during the time of the prophet Yoel. The Navi describes it as greater than any previous infestation or any that would occur in the future.[1] This seems to clearly contradict our passage. Our passage asserts that the plague in Egypt was the greatest infestation.

Rashi answers his question with a simple distinction. The plague in Egypt involved the infestation of a single species of locust. The plague of Yoel involved a combination of species. Both statements are true. The plague in Egypt was the greatest infestation by a single species. The plague described in Yoel was the greatest infestation involving a combination of species.[2]

Rabbaynu Chananel offers a different solution to Rashi’s question. Essentially, he argues that the passage is merely asserting that no equivalent plague ever occurred in Egypt. However, our pasuk does not claim that greater infestations would not occur elsewhere in the world. The plague of Yoel’s time occurred in the Land of Israel. This resolves the contradiction. Rabbaynu Chananel adds that Egypt’s climate does not favor locusts. They are rarely found in Egypt. Therefore, a major infestation is remarkably out of the ordinary.[3]

Nachmanides offers a third answer. His explanation is the simplest. He explains that our pasuk merely states that no natural infestation ever occurred that can be compared to this plague. The passage is not comparing this infestation to other miraculous plagues. The plague of Yoel’s time was a punishment. By definition, a punishment is an act of divine intervention and therefore, it is a miracle. The Chumash is not comparing the Egyptian infestation to other miraculous infestations.[4]

What is the basis for this dispute between the commentaries? It seems that each answer suggests a different approach to understanding the intended message of our passage. In order to understand the dispute, we must identify these various interpretations of the pasuk.

As mentioned above, Nachmanides offers the simplest explanation of the Torah’s claim. Also, he seems to adopt the most obvious understanding of the pasuk’s intended message. According the Nachmanides, the pasuk is providing the evidence that the plague was a miracle. The infestation can be judged as miraculous if it exceeded the norm. In other words, if no natural explanation of the infestation is plausible, it is obviously a miracle. The pasuk asserts that this infestation was of tremendous magnitude. The magnitude could not have been the result of normal causes. Therefore, it could only be a miracle!

According to Rabbaynu Chananel, the pasuk has a deeper message. The infestation was far greater than any that had ever occurred in Egypt. It was beyond the experience of the Egyptians. The Torah is telling us that the plague was specifically designed to impress the Egyptians. In order to impress the Egyptians, their experience and their assessment were essential. It was important for the Egyptians to appreciate that a miracle was occurring. Rabbaynu Chananel’s further comments confirm this interpretation. Locusts were uncommon in Egypt. Therefore, a plague of locusts had a special significance to the Egyptians.

Rashi sees a different message in the passage. The pasuk is stressing the degree of divine intervention implied by the plague. Beyond communicating that the plague was miraculous, the pasuk stresses the magnitude of the miracle. The plague in Egypt involved a single, specific species. Other similar species of locust did not participate in the plague. This demonstrates the high degree of providence involved in the event. An example will help illustrate this concept. Assume there are five locusts sitting in the grass. Suddenly, a strong wind blows. We can expect all five locusts to be snatched up by the wind and delivered to a new location. If the five locusts are members of different species, they will still share the single experience of being swept up by the wind. Imagine only one of the locusts is swept up by the wind. The other four are members of another species. They are unaffected by the wind. Such a phenomenon would clearly involve some sort of unusual intervention. This example exactly describes the plague experienced by the Egyptians. One species reacted to the stimulus and infested Egypt. Other similar species remained undisturbed. This demonstrated the high degree on providence involved in the plague.

Bnai Yisrael Left Egypt with the Wealth of Their Masters

“Speak now into the ears of the nation. And they should borrow, every man from his neighbor and every woman from her neighbor, silver vessels and gold vessels.” (Shemot 11:2)

Why did Hashem command Moshe to instruct the people to borrow from their Egyptian neighbors? Rashi explains that Hashem had promised Avraham that his descendants would experience four-hundred years of exile and affliction. At the end of this period they would be redeemed and leave the land of their exile with great wealth. The first portion of this promise had been fulfilled. Bnai Yisrael had experienced the bondage of Egypt. Now was the moment for the realization of the second portion of Avraham’s prophecy. The gold and silver that Bnai Yisrael would take from the Egyptians would fulfill the promise of great wealth.[5]

Rashi’s comments explain Hashem’s command. However, these comments raise a related question. Why, in the first instance, did Hashem promise Avraham that his descendants would amass wealth?

Rashi, in commenting on the promise made to Avraham, notes that the promise was fulfilled with the despoiling of Egypt. Rashi stresses the loss of the Egyptians, not only the gain of the Jews. This perhaps implies that the plundering of Egypt was not only intended as a repayment to Bnai Yisrael. It was also a punishment of the Egyptians. The message in Hashem’s promise was that Avraham’s descendants would be tormented but ultimately the wicked would be judged. The tormentors would be deprived of the wealth they had gained through the exploitation of Bnai Yisrael.[6]

Gershonides seems to indicate another possibility. Hashem was communicating to Avraham the miraculous nature of the promised redemption. Slaves sometimes achieve emancipation through the gradual enlightenment of their masters or through upheaval or uprising. However, the masters do not suddenly transfer their wealth to their former servants. This sudden reversal in the relative economic conditions of the masters and slaves is an expression of providence. Hashem promised Avraham that His intervention would not be subtle or hidden. Providence would be clearly revealed. It would be demonstrated through a redemption that would be remarkable and profound.[7]

Rabbaynu David Kimchi suggests that these riches were payment to Bnai Yisrael for their labor on behalf of the Egyptians. Hashem promised Avraham that although his descendants would be afflicted, they would not escape slavery in destitution. They would acquire the wealth of their masters.[8] Based on this explanation, Rav Shlomo Ephraim Luntshitz – Klee Yakar – explains an enigmatic discussion in the Talmud.

Our Sages were concerned with a second aspect of Hashem’s instruction to Moshe. Hashem tells Moshe that he should address Bnai Yisrael with this command "now." The actual word used in the pasuk is nah. Unkelus and others provide this translation for the term. However, the Talmud offers a different translation for the term nah. In Tractate Berachot, the Sages explain that the term means please. According to this translation, Hashem was asking Moshe to request that Bnai Yisrael loot Egypt.[9]

It is unusual for Hashem to express Himself in the context of a request. Instead, He commands and instructs. Why then is this strange mode of expression used here? The Talmud responds that Hashem did not want to be criticized by Avraham. If the nation did not leave with the Egyptian's wealth, Avraham could complain that Hashem had not completely fulfilled His covenant. He had subjected the nation to suffering. But He had not provided the promised reward.[10]

This entire discussion is difficult to understand. The Talmud seems concerned with the implications of the omnipotent Hashem making a request rather than a demand. Yet, the response seems inadequate. If Hashem wanted to fulfill His promise to Avraham, let Him command Bnai Yisrael to loot Egypt. Furthermore, should Hashem be preoccupied by human perceptions? He should be true to His commitments regardless of human perceptions? In other words, the important issue in fulfilling His promise is not that He meet Avraham’s expectations. The issue is that Hashem has made a promise and He must be true to His word!

The Talmud provides some assistance in answering this question. It explains that Bnai Yisrael were perfectly content to leave Egypt without these spoils. There are a number of reasons offered for their attitude. First, they were escaping bondage. A person rescued from such terrible suffering does not think about wealth; freedom is sufficient achievement. Second, the people knew that they were to travel to the Land of Israel and would be required to transport any possessions they took out of Egypt. Understandably, the people wished to minimize their burden.[11]

In order to appreciate the relevance of these comments to the above problem, these comments must be carefully analyzed. The people did not want the wealth of the Egyptians. Why was Hashem concerned with the fulfillment of His promise that Bnai Israel leave with all of Egypt’s wealth? The people’s disinterest in the wealth of their masters relieved Him of any obligation to provide them with this wealth. Klee Yakar responds that we must better understand the promise that Hashem made to Avraham. Hashem had promised that Bnai Yisrael would leave the land of their affliction with wealth. Why was this wealth necessary? Klee Yakar explains that this wealth was intended as compensation to Bnai Yisrael for their labor. This has two implications. First, it was important that Bnai Yisrael receive payment. Second, the compensation must come from those who owed the payment – the Egyptians. Both of these requirements must be met to avoid any perception of injustice.

Now our questions can be answered. The use of the term nah is designed to communicate an important message. Literally, the term means “now”. However, it also can mean “please.” Why did the Hashem use this term? He was acknowledging that the wealth of the Egyptians was intended as compensation. Therefore, the nation had the right to decline this payment. However, declining would create a perception of injustice.

Now Hashem's concern with perceptions is understood. Hashem promised Avraham that Bnai Yisrael would receive compensation. Because the spoils were intended as compensation, Avraham’s descendants had the right to refuse them. However, a perception of injustice would result. Bnai Yisrael would have worked without payment. The Egyptians would have benefited from their evil actions. In order to avoid this perception of injustice, it was essential that Bnai Yisrael confiscate the wealth of the Egyptians.[12]

Declaring the New Moon with the Appearance of Its Crescent

“This month shall be for you the head of the months. It shall be for you the first of the months of the year.” (Shemot 12:2)

There is an interesting midrash on the above pasuk. An introduction is needed to understand the midrash’s comments. The Torah calendar is lunar. The new months are declared on the basis of the appearance of the new moon. Ideally, the new month is declared on the basis of the testimony of two witnesses. These witnesses appear before the high court in Yerushalayim and declare that they have seen the crescent. It is true that the appearance of the new moon can also be calculated mathematically. However, in the ideal situation, the mathematical calculations play only a secondary role. The primary basis means for declaring the new month is through eyewitness testimony.

Today we do not have a high court. Therefore, we cannot determine the advent of a new month on the basis of testimony. Instead, we rely on mathematical calculations. The Jewish calendar is the product of these calculations.

Now, the midrash’s comments can be introduced. The midrash explains that Moshe had difficulty understanding this mitzvah. In order to solve Moshe’s problem, Hashem showed Moshe the exact crescent shape that must be seen by the witnesses. He explained to Moshe that when this specific shape is seen, the new moon is declared.[13]

The apparent meaning of the midrash is that Moshe could not visualize the amount of a crescent that the witnesses must see. He wanted to know how much of a crescent must be seen in order for the new month to be declared.

This interpretation of the midrash and Moshe’s question presents a problem. It seems from this interpretation that the new month cannot be declared on the basis of the appearance of any crescent of minimal size. Hashem instructed Moshe that the crescent must reach a required size before a new month can be declared. However, this interpretation of the midrash cannot be reconciled with actual halachah. According to halachah, any visible crescent – regardless of its size – is adequate. When the witnesses report that they have observed the crescent, the new month is declared. The court does not require the witnesses to report the dimensions of the observed crescent.[14]

In order to understand the meaning of this midrash, another question must be considered. Because there is now no court in Yerushalayim, the new month is determined through mathematical calculations. What event or phenomenon is calculated to determine the new month? In other words, mathematical calculation is used to determine the time that an event occurs and the new month is initiated by this event. What is this crucial event?

The obvious answer is that the new month is defined by the appearance of the new moon. Therefore, the new month begins on the first evening that the new moon appears. The calculations need only determine this date. However, this answer ignores an important problem. In order to understand this problem, some background information is needed.

The moon does not generate its own light. The light of the moon is actually the reflected light of the sun. When the moon and sun are in exact alignment, the illuminated side of the moon faces away from the Earth. As the moon begins to stray from its alignment with the sun and Earth, the crescent of the new moon appears. However, the crescent does not appear immediately. After the disjunction of the alignment of the Earth, sun, and moon, some amount of time is required for the crescent of the new moon to be visible. The amount of time depends on the location of the observer on Earth. In Yerushalayim, six hours are required. Therefore, if the disjunction occurs before midday, the crescent will appear immediately with nightfall. If it occurs after midday, the crescent will not appear directly after nightfall.[15]

Now we can appreciate the problem posed by mathematically calculating the date of the new month. When does the new month begin? This requires an exact definition. Is the new month initiated by the disjunction of the moon and sun’s alignment with Earth or is it determined by the actual appearance of the new crescent in the skies above Yerushalayim?

Maimonides deals with this issue. He explains that the calendar calculations determine the moment that the crescent appears. This answers our question. The new month is not defined by the disjunction of Earth’s alignment with sun and moon. It is defined by the appearance of the crescent.[16]

Rav Yitzchak Zev Soloveitchik Zt”l explains that this was Moshe’s question: How would the precise definition of the new month be determined? Hashem showed Moshe the crescent of the new moon. He told Moshe this crescent must be seen in order to sanctify the new month. Hashem explained that the disjunction of the Earth’s alignment with the sun and moon does not create a new month. The actual appearance of the new crescent creates the new month. In other words, He was not telling Moshe that a specific size or dimension was required. He was communicating to Moshe that a visible crescent is required.[17]

Why is a visible crescent required? In order to answer this question, a well-known principle of halachah must be considered. This principle is that the Torah was not given to “the ministering angels.” Loosely explained, the principle dictates that halachic standards correspond with realistic expectations, and that an unrealistic level of exactitude is not appropriate. The following example will illustrate this principle and its application.

It is prohibited to derive personal benefit from hekdesh – the property of the Bait HaMikdash. This law applies to the garments worn by the kohen. However, there is an important exception regarding these garments. The prohibition only applies once the garments are no longer fit for use in the Bait HaMikdash. As long as the garments are fit for use, the prohibition against deriving personal benefit from them does not apply.[18] This is an odd exception. We would expect to be required to treat the serviceable garments with greater deference than those no longer serviceable. Retired garments should have less sanctity than those in use!

The Talmud deals with this issue in Tractate Kiddushin. The Talmud offers an amazing explanation for this law by evoking the principle, “The Torah is not given to the ministering angels”.[19] How does the application of this principle explain why the kohens’ garments require greater deference when they are rendered unserviceable?

Rashi explains the Talmud’s comments. The garments of the kohen are initially sanctified with a qualification. This qualification is that their sanctity is not violated through inadvertent personal use. Why does this qualification accompany the initial sanctification? This is because inadvertent personal use is inevitable. The kohen cannot be expected to immediately remove his garments upon the completion of his sacred tasks. In the intervening time required to remove the garments, it is quite likely that some personal benefit may occur. In order to avoid a violation of the garments’ sanctity through such use, the initial sanctification is qualified. Inadvertent personal benefit does not violate the garments’ sanctity. Of course, once the garments are retired, this qualification does not apply. Once retired, the sanctity of the garments is violated through any personal use. This is the meaning of the Talmud’s comment that the Torah was not created for angels. The Torah was given to human beings. It must conform to reasonable standards of human behavior. The Torah does not legislate laws that are inconsistent with reasonable expectations for human behavior.[20]

This principle – that the Torah was not given to the ministering angels – seems to be a common sense notion. However, the requirement for declaring a new moon provides an important insight into this concept. As explained, the new month does not begin with the actual disjunction. The month begins with the appearance of the crescent. Why is the appearance of the crescent required?

Gershonides offers many reasons for this law, yet we will only consider one. He explains that the Torah was given to be observed at all times. The calculation of the moment of disjunction is difficult to perform. It is not reasonable for a mitzvah to depend upon such a calculation. Gershonides argues that such a dependency on complicated mathematical calculations would create an obligation that many less-educated generations would not be able to perform. Simply expressed, the term mitzvah, or commandment, implies an expectation. The directive will be observed. This expectation implies that the commandment is formulated in a manner that is realistic.[21]

We can now better understand the principle discussed by the Talmud in Tractate Kiddushin. The Torah was not given to the ministering angels. The Torah was given to people. The recipients are expected to observe the commandment of the Torah. Therefore, its mitzvot must be formulated in accordance with reasonable expectations.

[1] Sefer Yoel 2:2.

[2] Rabbaynu Shlomo ben Yitzchak (Rashi), Commentary on Sefer Shemot 10:14.

[3] Rabbaynu Moshe ben Nachman (Ramban / Nachmanides), Commentary on Sefer Shemot 10:14.

[4] Rabbaynu Moshe ben Nachman (Ramban / Nachmanides), Commentary on Sefer Shemot 10:14.

[5] Rabbaynu Shlomo ben Yitzchak (Rashi), Commentary on Sefer Shemot 11:2.

[6] Rabbaynu Shlomo ben Yitzchak (Rashi), Commentary on Sefer Beresheit 15:14.

[7] Rabbaynu Levi ben Gershon (Ralbag / Gershonides), Commentary on Sefer Beresheit, (Mosad HaRav Kook, 1994), p 116.

[8] Rabbaynu David Kimchi (Radak), Commentary on Sefer Beresheit 15:14.

[9] Mesechet Berachot 9b.

[10] Mesechet Berachot 9b.

[11] Mesechet Berachot 9b.

[12] Rav Shlomo Ephraim Luntshitz, Commentary Klee Yakar on Sefer Shemot 11:2.

[13] Michilta, Parshat Bo, Chapter 1.

[14] Rav Yechiel Michal HaLeyve Epstein, Aruch HaShulchan HaAtede, Hilchot Kidush HaChodesh 88:12.

[15] Mesechet Rosh HaShannah 20b.

[16] Rabbaynu Moshe ben Maimon (Rambam / Maimonides) Mishne Torah, Hilchot Kiddush HaChodesh 7:2. See also Rav Yechiel Michal HaLeyve Epstein, Aruch HaShulchan HaAtede, Hilchot Kidush HaChodesh 88:12.

[17] Rav Yitzchak Zev Soloveitchik, Chidushai MaRan RIZ HaLeyve on the Torah, Parshat Bo.

[18] Rabbaynu Moshe ben Maimon (Rambam / Maimonides) Mishne Torah, Hilchot Me’eilah 6:14.

[19] Mesechet Kiddushin 54a.

[20] Rabbaynu Shlomo ben Yitzchak (Rashi), Commentary on the Talmud, Mesechet Kiddushin 54a.

[21] Rabbaynu Levi ben Gershon (Ralbag / Gershonides), Commentary on Sefer Shemot, (Mosad HaRav Kook), p 45.