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Ari Sacher
Ari Sacher

‘Unprecedented’ Parashat Bo 5782

Parashat Bo begins with the eighth plague, the plague of locusts. An enormous swarm of locusts envelopes Egypt and destroys all of the crops that had survived the previous plague of fiery hail, leaving the Egyptian agriculture in ruins. The swarm was incomprehensibly huge, containing billions of locusts. It was unprecedented in its sheer size [Shemot 10:14]: “A thick mass – never before had there been so many, nor will there ever be so many again”.

The Torah rarely dares man to test it. The Talmud in Tractate Ta’anit [8b] teaches that one who tithes his crops will be rewarded with great wealth. The Talmud, quoting from a verse in Malachi [3:10], encourages man to “test” G-d by tithing his crops and measuring its beneficial effect on his wealth. The Talmud stresses that this is the one and only instance in which it is not prohibited to test G-d. That said, it seems that one more permitted test can be added to the list: the Torah promises that the world will never again witness a swarm of locusts the size of the swarm that G-d inflicted upon the Egyptians. The problem is that such a swarm did in fact occur. The prophet Joel [1:4] describes a swarm of locusts that envelopes the land of Israel in punishment for her evil behaviour: “What the shearing locust (gazam) left over, the increasing locust (arbeh) devoured, and what the increasing locust left over the nibbling locust (yelek) devoured, and what the nibbling locust left over the finishing locust devoured (chassil).” Joel [2:2] informs us that the size of this swarm of locusts was also unprecedented: “A day of darkness and gloom, a day of densest cloud spread like soot over the hills. A vast, enormous horde – Nothing like it has ever happened, and it shall never happen again through the years and ages.” If Joel’s swarm was unprecedented in size, it must mean that it was larger than the Egyptian swarm, placing the Torah’s promise “nor will there ever be so many again” in jeopardy.

Rashi, the most eminent of the medieval commentators, who lived in France in the eleventh century, resolves the contradiction by differentiating between Egyptian swarm and Joel’s swarm. Whereas Joel’s swarm was comprised of four different types of locusts – “gazam”, “arbeh”, “yelek” and “chassil” – the Egyptian swarm was comprised of only one type of locust – “arbeh”. While Joel’s swarm was numerically the largest swarm of locusts in history, the Egyptian swarm was the largest swarm that was comprised of only one type of locust.

With all due respect, Rashi’s explanation is in certain ways, well, unsatisfying. First and foremost, it seems like Rashi is getting off with a technicality. When it comes to swarms, size matters. Asserting that a smaller swarm was actually the largest swarm that consisted of only one type of locust seems almost intellectually dishonest. Further, not everyone translates the terms “gazam”, “arbeh”, “yelek” and “chassil” as different species of locusts. The JPS [1985] translation of Joel notes “The Heb. [sic] terms translated ‘cutter, locust, grub, and hopper’ are of uncertain meaning; they probably designate stages in the development of the locust.” In other words, both Joel’s swarm and the Egyptian swarm were comprised of only one type of locust. Even if we stick with Rashi’s explanation, we are still not out of the woods. The seventy-eighth chapter of Psalms contains a concise review of Jewish history. In its description of the Egyptian plague of locusts, it writes [78:46] “He gave their produce to the finishing locusts (chassil) and their toil to the increasing locusts (arbeh).” If we translate this verse as we translated the verse in Joel, it means that the Egyptian swarm was also comprised of multiple species. While some commentators assert that the verse in Psalms should be understood poetically, meaning that there was really only one species of locusts in the Egyptian swarm, Rashi’s explanation still leaves one feeling, well, unsatisfied[1].

Rabbi Moshe ben Nachman, known as the Ramban, who lived in Spain and in Israel in the twelfth century, offers another way ahead. Because locust swarms occur frequently in the Middle East, and since this particular swarm occurred in a natural way, via the east wind[2], there was reason to believe that such a plague would again come upon Egypt in a natural way. Scripture therefore states that this swarm was the greatest swarm that ever occurred naturally. Via the sheer magnitude of the plague, the Egyptians knew that it was a special act of G-d, since such a swarm had never happened before. The swarm that occurred in the days of Joel, on the other hand, was an overt miracle and so while it might have been numerically larger than the Egyptian swarm, it cannot be considered to have eclipsed the Egyptian swarm.

We will continue a little further down the Ramban’s path. The truth is that we have been slightly disingenuous. What we translated above as “a thick mass” comes from the Hebrew “kaved me’od”. The word “kaved” has many meanings. It can mean “heavy”, “large”, “difficult” or even “liver”. The fifth plague of pestilence is described also described as “kaved me’od”. Perhaps for this reason, the Chabad Tanach on the internet translates “kaved” as “severe” for the plagues of pestilence and locusts. The question we must answer is if the Egyptian swarm was not the numerically largest swarm of locusts in recorded history, in what way was it the most “severe” swarm in recorded history?

When Moshe first warns Pharaoh that a swarm of locusts is imminent, he tells him [Shemot 10:4] “I will bring locusts within your borders (gevul’echa)”. When the plague hits, we are told [Shemot 10:9] “Locusts invaded all the land of Egypt and settled within all the borders (gevulot) of Egypt”. Finally, when the plague concludes, scripture tells us [Shemot 10:19] “Not a single locust remained in all the borders (gevul) of Egypt”. The word “border” is mentioned in only one other instance in the context of the ten plagues, that being in the plague of frogs [Shemot 7:27] “I will plague all of your borders (gevul’echa) with frogs”. Samuel David Luzzatto, known by his acronym “ShaDaL”, who lived in Padua in the nineteenth century, teaches that in the plague of frogs, the phrase “in all of your borders” comes to exclude the land of Goshen, where the Jewish People lived. According to our Sages in the Midrash, the extensive use of the word “border” in the plague of locusts comes to teach something else entirely: The border between modern Egypt and Libya is not determined by a land mass or a river[3]. It was arbitrarily agreed upon in a treaty signed by Egypt and Italy, who had invaded Libya, in 1925. It is safe to say that the borders between Pharaonic Egypt and her neighbours, Kush and Put, were determined similarly. And yet, teaches the Midrash, the swarm of locusts miraculously landed only within the geopolitical borders of Egypt. Wherever there was a border dispute with one of her neighbours, the locusts adjudicated as to the actual location of the border[4]. The swarm of locusts was “severe” in that it involved unprecedented Divine involvement global geopolitics. G-d did this in order to show Pharaoh that there was nothing in which He was not intimately concerned, not even the petty affairs of human beings.

Not only was G-d’s involvement in geopolitics unprecedented, it will never be repeated. For the past three thousand years, G-d has left the determination of borders to the politicians and to the generals. For the past fifty five years, Israel has been in a state of limbo in determining the status of the land captured in the Six Day War. G-d has not adjudicated in these matters since the swarm of locusts. It looks like it’s up to us.

Shabbat Shalom,

Ari Sacher, Moreshet, 5782

Please daven for a Refu’a Shelema for Yechiel ben Shprintza, Eli bat Ilana, and Geisha bat Sara.

[1] Rabbi Yitzchak Abarbanel, who lived in Spain in the fourteenth century, interprets Joel allegorically, asserting that “swarm of locusts” is a metaphor for the various armies that have invaded Israel over the years. Obviously, with this interpretation the contradiction disappears.

[2] See Shemot [10:13]

[3] The southern 80% of the border lies on the 25th meridian. The upper 20% is made up of irregular lines.

[4] Rabbi Moshe Sofer, known as the “Hatam Sofer”, who lived in Pressburg (Bratislava) Slovakia at the turn of the nineteenth century, asks why specifically the plague of locusts was the instrument for which the political borders were determined. While he leaves his question unanswered, one could suggest that while the other plagues occurred at discrete locations, the swarm of locusts was a continuous mass. A satellite image taken during the plague would have clearly shown the location of the Egyptian border.

About the Author
Ari Sacher is a Rocket Scientist, and has worked in the design and development of missiles for over thirty years. He has briefed hundreds of US Congressmen on Israeli Missile Defense, including three briefings on Capitol Hill at the invitation of House Majority Leader. Ari is a highly requested speaker, enabling even the layman to understand the "rocket science". Ari has also been a scholar in residence in numerous synagogues in the USA, Canada, UK, South Africa, and Australia. He is a riveting speaker, using his experience in the defense industry to explain the Torah in a way that is simultaneously enlightening and entertaining. Ari came on aliya from the USA in 1982. He studied at Yeshivat Kerem B’Yavneh, and then spent seven years studying at the Technion. Since 2001 he has published a weekly parasha shiur that is read around the world. Ari lives in Moreshet in the Western Galil along with his wife and eight children.
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