There are very few things which bother me more than stinging insects. Mosquitoes lead the pack; they don’t just suck your blood (while injecting the itchy poison), they drive me crazy with that high pitched buzzing. It’s biological warfare accompanied by psychological warfare. But wasps (which we always called ‘yellowjackets’) are right behind. Besides their very nasty sting, they ruin our Sukkot joy. I remember my first wasp sting. I was watching a baseball game in a field near our house, and I put my hand down on a railing, which was previously occupied. My scream interrupted play, which added to my embarrassment. My hand started swelling almost immediately, and stayed that way for the better part of a week. My one consolation: I killed the bugger.
So, it’s with mixed feelings that I mention one of the prophecies about the Jews’ entry into Eretz Yisrael. God initially tells our ancestors that an angel will precede them (Shemot 23:23). Then God says that there will be terror (EIMATI) and panic (HAMOTI, verse 27). Finally, God will send HaTZIRA, which most people translate as ‘wasp’, and is the modern Hebrew word for this swarming bug. Please, disregard those who say ‘hornet’, because as nasty as those are, they don’t swarm. However, others (like the Ibn Ezra) suggest that it was a disease, perhaps TZARA’AT. We’ll ignore them, too.
The term, TZIRA, appears three times in Tanach (Shmot 23:28, Devarim 7:20 and Yehoshua 24:12), and each time it is concerning the conquest of Eretz Yisrael. But here’s my problem: When did it happen? When did TZIRA afflict the indigenous population and aid in the conquest?
The MALACH appeared to Yehoshua before the battle for Jericho, and announces, ‘I am captain of the Lord’s host, and now I have come (Yeshoshua 5:13-15). The AIMA (dread or terror) is described to the spies by Rachav, as she explains why she is helping them (2:9). But when was the TZIRA?
The mention of TZIRA in Yehoshua says: And I sent a TZIRA before you and it drove them out from before you just like the two Amorite kings, not by your sword and your bow (24:12).
The Malbim explains that this reference is a metaphor. It means that the news that the Jews had defeated the dynamic duo of Sichon and Og hit the inhabitants of Eretz Yisrael like a wasp attack. In other words, the defeat of these powerful warlords without normal weapons (swords and arrows) meant that the Jews had the secret weapon of Divine power. This instilled the fear of the Lord, and many Canaanites fled to Africa.
The Radak, on the other hand, says that there is a tradition that there were two cases of TZIRA, one for Moshe and one for Yehoshua. The defeat of these enemies was partially accomplished by TZIRA, whose poison blinded our enemies and allowed us to defeat them in miraculous fashion. The TZIRA rendered out enemies unable to fight effectively.
In these two approaches, the TZIRA happened, just like the other two predictions, the angel and the fear, even though during the events of the conquest they are never mentioned. But why not?
I think that it’s Rabbeiu Bechaye in Devarim (7:20) who will help us understand the nature of the TZIRA. He suggests that the conquest of Eretz Yisrael had both ‘great miracles that you saw with your own eyes, ‘and signs and wonders, the mighty hand and the outstretched arm (verse 19)’, and less obvious, hidden miracles. Then, Rabbeinu Bechaye says, ‘And here is mentioned the plague of the TZIRA, which was amongst the hidden miracles which appear to the observer as a natural phenomenon, like rain.’ The great commentary never takes a position on the type of natural phenomenon. What’s important is that most observers will consider the event as a normal occurrence.
I agree that ultimately, it’s not significant what kind of nasty stuff the TZIRA is, bugs, disease, bogeymen. What’s really important is that against all odds the Jewish invaders were able to subdue the much stronger and numerous local population.
Maybe we can extend the position of the Radak, that there were more than one occurrence of TZIRA. Perhaps, the Israelis of today have their TZIRA, too. Add that to the idea of Rabbeinu Bechaye, that TZIRA represents explainable phenomena, and we have a description of many exploits of the IDF.
We Jews must always remember that God is with us and guiding us even without our awareness. We Jews have our own fighting motto: Float like a butterfly; sting like a swarm of wasps.