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On the ‘night of guarding’, the locust plague, and our need for a sign

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It felt too prescient. Pesach approaching and the people huddled in their homes, hoping the destroyer would not enter (Exodus 12:23). From multiple directions they came, a mighty swarm of missiles and drones, but almost none hit their mark. It was indeed a “night of guarding” (Exodus 12:42), a glimmer in the darkness.

The event also contained as aspect of the plagues, visited this time on the Hebrews: “when morning came, the east wind had brought the locusts” (Exodus 10:13). The prophet Joel describes a similar plague, to arrive in the future, targeted at the Holy Land. These future locusts will emit fire – “Their vanguard is a consuming fire, their rear guard a devouring flame” (Joel 2:3). They will make noise – “with a clatter of chariots… with a noise like a blazing fire” (Joel 2:5). Each locust will follow its own destructive trajectory towards its target (Joel 2:7-8), and alarms will sound (Joel 2:1 and Joel 2:15).

The prophet tells us that the people will cry out – “let not the nations mock us”… “Let them not ask ‘where is their God?’” (Joel 2:17) – and God will react with compassion (Joel 2:18) (to which Rashi adds (citing TB Sota 3a) that God will restrain the locusts by divine command).

I am a rationalist. I trust in the laws of science (which seem to work) and the foibles of human beings (which explain much of what is bad in world without the need to resort to metaphysics), but there are times when it’s hard not to feel the pull of transcendence, a sense that there is something greater than us at work in the universe. And because of this, I can’t help sometimes seeing meanings in texts like the one above, which may never have been intended and knowing that this can be dangerous and foolish (because miracles are often short-lived and cannot explain the dark times and suffering). But what’s the point of prophecy if not to fire the imagination or inspire?

For me, the most powerful message of Yoel’s prophecy is in the last lines of chapter two (Joel 2:27), which read:

וִידַעְתֶּם, כִּי בְקֶרֶב יִשְׂרָאֵל אָנִי, וַאֲנִי יְהוָה אֱלֹהֵיכֶם, וְאֵין עוֹד; וְלֹא-יֵבֹשׁוּ עַמִּי, לְעוֹלָם

And you should know that I am in the midst of Israel, and that I am the LORD your God, and there is nothing else; and My people shall never be ashamed.”

Because whatever the prophet was smoking when he describes the plague of fire spitting locusts brought down by God, these last words capture a greater truth and that is, like it or not, our forebears made a covenant with the Infinite, and we’re still living it. We can run, but we can’t easily hide. The Infinite dwells in our midst.

At times, it will rise within us unbidden, and call on us when we least expect it. It will reveal paths of hope in the storm of despair, and demand that, as a people, we have faith and thrive against all odds. And there will be little we can do but react. At this very moment, are we not there?

About the Author
Dr Harris Bor is a barrister (trial advocate), author, rabbi, and research fellow at the London School of Jewish Studies. His blog Staying Human can be found at https://harrisbor.substack.com/
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