MeAm Loez on

Parashat Bo

 


The Eighth Plague: Locusts

Shemot 10:1 Hashem said to Moshe, "Come to Pharaoh, for I have made his heart and the heart of his servants stubborn so that I can put these signs of Mine in his midst; 2 and so that you may relate in the ears of your son and your son's son that I made a mockery of Egypt and My signs that I placed among them - that you may know that I am Hashem."

After the plague of hail, Pharaoh had said, "G-d is just, and I and my people are guilty" (9:27). Moshe assumed that Pharaoh had repented, and that there would not be the need to bring any more plagues on Egypt. (Mizrachi)

"Come to Pharaoh," said G-d. "Warn him that I am bringing another plague upon him. (Rashi; Ramban) I have made his heart like a liver; the more it is burned, the tougher it becomes. (Shemot Rabbah. This is a play on the word kaved, which means "hard," but also means "liver.") I will thus perform yet more miracles in Egypt, so that you will be able to tell your children and grandchildren how I made fools of the Egyptians. Seeing all the miracles that I have done in Egypt, you will all realize that I am G-d. You will know for sure that this voice that you hear is nothing other than the voice of G-d." (Targum)

It is true that Pharaoh had said, "G-d is just and I and my people are guilty." But he had not actually confessed his wrong. There was enough ambiguity in his words for it to be just the opposite of a confession of guilt. What Pharaoh had really meant was, "G-d is just and [so am] I - and my people are guilty." In his stubbornness, Pharaoh was claiming to be just as righteous as G-d Himself, placing all the blame on his people. (Sifetei Kohen)

Earlier, G-d had also told Moshe, "I will harden Pharaoh's heart" (7:3). This being true, it may seem very difficult to understand why G-d then punished him for his stubbornness. How could G-d make Pharaoh stubborn, and then punish him for this very stubbornness?

The concept is explained by the RaMBaM (Rabbi Moshe Maimonides, 1135-1204). Pharaoh had initially been punished for treating the Yisraelim much worse than G-d had ordained in his decree to Avraham. "Your offspring will be foreigners in a land that is not theirs" (Bereishit 15:13). Pharaoh's punishment was that he should be made stubborn and thus be prevented from repenting.

G-d warned Pharaoh each time, but this was only to show people how wicked he was, and how much he deserved to lose the opportunity to repent. His sins were so extraordinary that G-d decreed that it be made next to impossible for him to repent. He had openly spited G-d, and now he would die for his crimes. (Yad, Teshuva 6:3; Bachya. What Yad Yosef writes in VaEra is hence somewhat difficult to understand)

Obviously, G-d could have made the first plague so severe that Pharaoh would have freed the Yisraelim immediately. But G-d allowed each plague to continue until Pharaoh agreed to release them, only to have him change his mind as soon as the plague was gone.

Regarding this, it is written, "[G-d] makes nations great and destroys them" (Iyov 12:23). If a nation commits terrible sins, G-d makes them great, repaying them for any good they may have done. He then destroys them as they deserve.

G-d also lightened the plague each time so that Pharaoh would think that the catastrophe was over. He then became stubborn once again, so that he would receive the punishment he deserved. (Yeffeh Toar, p. 81c)

When a person does a wrong, G-d warns him many times. The person may lose things, his children may become sick and die, or other calamities may befall him. Each mishap is a warning, urging the person to repent and change his ways before worse catastrophes occur.

Many people try to take such calamities philosophically. They rationalized that people are always dying and being born. If some people make money, others must lose. They thus do not see their troubles as a signal to repent.

The punishment for such a person is that he is made stubborn and his heart is hardened, so that it becomes very difficult for him to repent and change his ways. He is then fully punished for all his past sins.

This was true of Pharaoh. He had been warned five times, but had not even thought of himself as doing wrong and needing improvement. G-d then said, "Until now you have made yourself stubborn. From now I will be the one to make you stubborn." (Ibid. 74c)

Some authorities, however, dispute the opinion of Rabbi Moshe [Maimonides]. They say that there is never a case whereby a person can repent and not be accepted. Pharaoh was an exception, because his crimes against an entire people were so great. Therefore, even if he had repented, it would have been to no avail. (Ibid.; Akedat Yitzchak; Maharit; Rabbi Moshe of Trani, Bet G-d 2:16)

There are, however, a number of situations when it becomes very difficult to repent; (Yeffeh Toar 74b. This is discussed at length in Yeffeh Eynayim)

1. When a person has committed many serious sins.
2. When a sin has been purposely repeated many times.
3. When one wishes to repent, but stubbornly refuses to.
4. When one sins against his fellow man.
(Ibid.; Maharimat)

In these cases, a person's heart is often closed so that he never even things of repenting and improving his ways.

All of these reasons existed in the case of Pharaoh. He was intrinsically a very evil person. Even when he agreed to free the Yisraelim, it was not because he had repented, but because he feared the plagues. When a master beats his slave, the slave will naturally submit. (Ibid., Ramban, VaEra. See Shnei Luchot HaB'rit)

Even when a person repents under duress, the repentance is accepted. But if a person returns to his old ways after the duress is gone, it is a clear sign that the initial repentance was meaningless. Even if Pharaoh had repented, it was not with his heart and soul. (Bet G-d, loc. cit.; Kesef Nivchar; Olat Shabbat, BeShalach; Sefer Halkkarim 4:24)

It was for this reason that G-d hardened Pharaoh's heart. The whole world would know what a sinner he was. Seeing his end, everyone would agree that G-d had acted justly. Therefore, even though G-d knew how wicked Pharaoh was, He warned him again and again. Since Pharaoh had ignored these warnings, no one could say that G-d had dealt unfairly with him. (Yeffeh Toar, loc. cit)

Pharaoh had obviously sinned against fellow human beings. He had issued many monstrous decrees agains the Yisraelim. He had killed infants and had bathed in their blood. He had also blasphemed G-d by saying, "Who is Hashem that I should listen to His voice?" (5:2). Even if he had repented when he said, "Hashem is righteous, and I and my people are wicked" (9:27), he did not deserve his repentence to be accepted, so great were his sins. (Kli Chemdah)

Pharaoh was a murderer. The sin of murder is not atoned unless the murderer himself is killed. Pharaoh had exceeded all limits. G-d may have decreed that the Yisra'elis be foreigners in a strange land, but He did not decree that they be tortured and killed. (Ramban; Maharimat; Abarbanel; Akedat Yitzchak; Olat Shabbat)

Not only that, but the Egyptians caused the Yisraelim to sin, making them bad. It is thus written, "The Egyptians made us bad and tormented us" (Devarim 26:6). (See Pesach Haggadah [Sephardic], p. 49) Their intention was to make the Yisraelim sin so much that G-d would no longer protect them. The Egyptians knew that as long as the Yisraelim kept G-d's laws, they were invincible. (Kli Chemdah, Bo; Kli Yekar, Shemot; Rabbi Shimon [ben Yehudah] Chabillo] Chevel Benei Yehudah - Benice, 1695) We have a firm tradition that when a person causes another to sin, his repentance is not accepted. (See Yeffeh Toar, beginning of Yitro 27:2)

In general, one who sins purposely should not be able to repent. The only reason G-d allows him to repent is because He is loving and merciful. But if a person commits ten crimes and then repents for only one, there is no reason for his repentance to be accepted. He is like a person who bathes while holding filth in his hand.

This was true of Pharaoh. Pharaoh constantly committed many heinous acts, blaspheming, killing, debauching, and committing other crimes for which he deserved to die. Besides all these, he did much evil to Yisrael. Therefore, when he eventually said, "G-d is righteous" (9:27), it was not enough. He might have been ready to release the Yisraelim, but he was still committing all his other crimes. When a person repents truly, he must abandon all his sins. (Original. See Rashi, Yitro; Olat Shabbat, BeShalach)

Actually, we do not find any other case in the Bible where G-d hardened a person's heart. It is true that Sichon and Og were stubborn, but only against Yisrael, not against G-d. It was obvious that G-d had given Pharaoh every opportunity to repent, but he did not take advantage. (Zohar, BeShalach, p. 52)


Shemot 10:3 Moshe and Aharon came to Pharaoh and said to him, "So said Hashem, G-d of the Hebrews: Until when will you refuse to be humbled before Me? Send out My people that they may serve Me! 4 For if you refuse to send forth My people, behold, tomorrow I shall bring a locust-swarm into your border. 5 It will cover the surface of the earth so that one will not be able to see the earth; and it will consume the remaining residue that was left to you by the hail, and it will consume all the trees that grow for you from the field. 6 They will fill your houses, the houses of all your servants, and the houses of all Egypt, such as your fathers and your grandfathers have not seen from the day they came onto the earth until this day." And he turned and left Pharaoh's presence.

Moshe and Aharon came to Pharaoh, and they said to him, "This is what G-d, Master of the Hebrews, says: 'How long will you continue to refuse to submit to Me? Let My people go and let them serve Me. If you refuse to let My people go, I will bring locusts into your borders tomorrow. They will cover every visible speck of land, so that you will not be able to see the ground. They will eat all that was spared for you by the hail, and will devour all your trees sprouting in the field. They will fill your houses, all your servants' houses, and the houses of all Egypt. It will be something that your fathers and father's fathers have never seen since the day they were on the land until this day.'" [Moshe then] turned and left Pharaoh.

G-d literally said, "The eye of the land will be covered" (Vechisah et-ein ha-aretz). The eyes of all the Egyptian occultists would be covered, and they would cease to have any power. Even if they had been able to use their preternatural powers to stop one kind of locust, there were so many different species involved in this plague, the occultists were essentially helpless. (Zohar Chadash; Yalkut Chadash, s.v. Keshafim)

As we have seen earlier, the hail did not completely destroy all crops (9:32). This was so that there would be something left for the locusts. G-d therefore said, "They will eat all that was spared for you by the hail." When the plague of hail struck, the plague of locusts was already anticipated. (Alshech; Kli Chemdah)

G-d warned Pharaoh that this would not be a normal locust attack. Locusts usually arrive one by one, only then attacking in number. Even then, they usually attack only one field at a time, devouring one and then moving on to another. In this case, however, the locusts would attack the entire land at once, covering all visible ground. Although Egypt was a fairly large country, it would be covered in its entirety.

Although the locusts would denude Egypt of all vegetation, they would not attack any Israelite fields, even when they were in close proximity to Egyptian land.

Whenever Moshe came to Pharaoh to present him with a divine warning, he would leave immediately without taking leave or saying goodbye. (Ramban) Here the Torah states this explicitly, "He turned and left Pharaoh's presence." This means that as soon as Moshe finished speaking, he turned his back on Pharaoh and left. He was careful not to back away in obeisance, as people usually do when leaving a king. This was an important symbolic gesture, to show that as G-d's ambassador, Moshe was at least the equal of Pharaoh. (Rabbi Moshe Chefetz [ben Gershon) Gentili. Melechet Machashevet [Venice, 1710])

Shemot 10:7 Pharaoh's servants said to him, "How long will this be a snare for us? Send out the men that they may serve Hashem, their G-d! Do you not yet know that Egypt is lost?"

"How long will you allow this man to continue to be a threat to us? Hasn't he already brought enough catastrophes to our land? Isn't it time already that we had peace? Don't you realize that Egypt is being destroyed by all this?" (Bachya; Abarbanel; Olat Shabbat)

The words of Pharaoh's advisors may seem somewhat surprising. G-d had told Moshe, "I will harden the hearts of Pharaoh and of his officials" (10:1). But here it seems that Pharaoh's officials were on the verge of repenting. If G-d had hardened their hearts, how is this possible?

If one looks carefully at their words, it becomes obvious that their hearts had been made stubborn. As fearful as they were of the plagues, they were still not ready to give in to Moshe's demands. Each time that Moshe appeared, he demanded in G-d's name, "Let My people go and let them serve Me." His words obviously indicated that G-d was demanding the entire nation, men, women and children. But when Pharaoh's advisors spoke up, they merely said, "Let the men folk go." They were still seeking to compromise with Moshe.

Furthermore, they were still not ready to admit that G-d was the source of their misfortune. They still thought that Moshe was most probably a great sorcerer - much greater than any of them, of course - and that he had brought the catastrophes through his own occult powers. They therefore said, "How long must this man be a menace to us?" They were still not ready to admit that they were being singled out for punishment by the Creator of the universe. (Kesef Nivchar; Imrey Noam. In the Izmir edition there is a marginal note that in mispar katan, the word zeh has the same numerical value (gematria) as Moshe. The numerical value of zeh is 12. That of Moshe is 345. Adding the digits, one has 3+4+5=12)

Shemot 10:8 So Moshe and Aharon were returned to Pharaoh and he said to them, "Go and serve Hashem, your G-d; which ones are going?"

After deliberating the matter with his officials, it was decided that the leaders and elders would be allowed to go. Pharaoh related this to Moshe, and then asked, "Exactly who among your elders and leaders will be going?"

Shemot 10:9 Moshe said, "With our youngsters and with our elders shall we go; with our sons and with our daughters, with our flock and with our cattle shall we go, because it is a festival of Hashem for us."

Moshe was planning to bring the Yisraelim to Har Sinai to celebrate the festival of Shavuot, which would be the day upon which G-d would give them the Torah. G-d had thus told Moshe, "When you bring the people out of Egypt, you will become G-d's servants on this mountain" (3:12) Every one of Yisrael would therefore have to be present. (Bachya)

Shemot 10:10 He said to them, "So be Hashem with you as I will send you forth with your children! Look - the evil intent is opposite your faces. 11 Not so; let the men go now. Serve Hashem, for that is what you see!" And he drove them out from Pharaoh's presence.

Pharaoh cursed Moshe, just as people sometimes say, "G-d help you just as you are now telling the truth!" Pharaoh similarly said, "May G-d be with you just as I am going to let you leave with your children." (Ralbag)

The arch-angel Michael, Yisrael's protector, annulled Pharaoh's curse. Then Pharaoh said, "Beware, for evil confronts you. The evil that you are planning to do to me will eventually confront you too." (Yalkut Reuveni)

The word that Pharaoh used for evil was ra. He was alluding to an astrological force known as Ra, which can be highly dangerous. "Beware," he said, "for you will be confronted by Ra. Ra will go before you in the desert, and this will be a sign that many of your people will die there." (Targum. Cf. Ramban)

The maleficent forces of Ra were channeled through the planet Mars. This is the "red planet," which in Hebrew is known as Maadim [literally "the red maker," from the word adom meaning red]. Esav derived strength from this planet, and therefore called himself Edom. Pharaoh, however, saw it as a manifestation of Ra.

Mars is always a portent of blood. Pharaoh saw that the entire generation that left Egypt would die in the desert, which the exception of Yehoshua and Kalev (BaMidbar 14:30). He said, "Ra will be confronting you when you go into the desert. Are you taking an entire nation there merely to have them die?" (Bachya; Abarbanel)

Pharaoh assumed that Moshe was merely haggling with him, and that he would be willing to lower his demands. Merchants often ask a higher price than they are willing to accept, expecting to be bargained down.

"I know your game," said Pharaoh. "You are demanding that I let men, women and children go in order to give yourself a good bargaining position. Your fallback position will be that I let the men go. you feel that if your initial demand only included men, you would not have any fallback position at all. Without any bargaining power, you are concerned that I will let no one go. But I know what you want, and I am willing to let you have it. Go, and let the men go with you." (Toledot Yitzchak)

Instead of translating Pharaoh's statement as "evil confronts you," some authorities translate it as, "you are confronting [me] with evil."

Pharaoh said, "You are looking forward to do something bad. I know something about religious festivals. Normally only the elders and adult males attend. This is what is required. But why do you want to bring along the women and children? This seems to be clear evidence that you wish to flee. I will therefore not even let the men go. (Rabbi Moshe ibn Chabib; Akedat Yitzchak; Abarbanel; Yeffeh Eynayim)

"I can see evil on your faces. It is obvious that you are up to no good. There is no way I will accede to your demands. Only adult males will be allowed to go, if that's what you want."

"If you had only asked for the men to go, I would have felt that I could trust you. But since you are asking for so much, I am sure that you do not intend to come back. Therefore, I will not let any of you go. Now leave my presence immediately."

With that, Pharaoh gave a signal to his guards, and they summarily ejected Moshe. Pharaoh's intention was to humiliate him. (Shemot Rabbah)



The Coming of the Plague

Shemot 10:12 Hashem said to Moshe, "Stretch out your hand over the land of Eypt for the locust-swarm, and it will ascend upon the land of Egypt and eat all the grass of the land, everything that the hail had left."

The Forces responsible for hail were not given authority to destroy everything that was growing, so that there would be something left for the locusts to eat. G-d therefore did not say, "all that had been spared by the hail," but "all that the hail had spared." The hail had deliberately spared some plants. (Alshech)

As we saw earlier, all Ten Plagues were engraved on Moshe's staff. G-d therefore literally told Moshe, "Stretch out your hand over Egypt with 'Locusts'." G-d was telling Moshe to grasp the staff in the place where it was inscribed with the word "Locusts." [The same was true when Moshe used his staff for the other plagues.] (Derashot Yeshenim, Shemot)

Shemot 10:13 Moshe stretched his staff over the land of Egypt, and Hashem guided an east wind through the land all that day and all the night. It became morning and the east wind carried the locust-swarm.

G-d had taken counsel with His heavenly tribunal before bringing the locusts. (This is alluded to by the expression, "and G-d," which always denotes G-d and His tribunal. Yerushalmi, Sanhedrin 1:1; Bereishit Rabbah 51:3; Tanchuma, VaEra 16) He did not want any members of His tribunal to complain that Pharaoh had given at least partial compliance, and therefore did not deserve to be punished. He therefore deliberated the case with his tribunal, so that they would all realize that Pharaoh's offer was not sincere. (Yeffeh Toar, p. 71 and original interpretation)

Shemot 10:14 The locust-swarm ascended over the entire land of Egypt and it rested in the entire border of Egypt, very severely; before it there was never a locust-swarm like it and after it there will not be its equal.
There are seven types of locusts mentioned in the Scriptures:


All these destructive species of locusts attacked Egypt at once. For this reason, the word "locusts" (arbeh) is mentioned seven times in this section. The Torah refers to the plague in general as arbeh, since this species was by far the most numerous. (Bachya; Zera Berakh, Part 2; Kli Chemdah)

The Torah says that "never again" would there be such a plague, referring specifically to arbeh. Never again would there be so many arbeh all at once. There might be plagues of other types of locusts, and altogether they might outnumber the arbeh of Egypt. No single species, however, would ever outnumber these arbeh. (Ibid. Cf. Sifetey Cohen; Olat Shabbat)

There would also never again be a plague of locusts that would enter the houses and even eat the food that was stored indoors. Normally, locusts only eat soft vegetation, and not the hard, dry produce that is in storage. although a terrible plague of locusts would attack in the time of Yoel (Yoel 1:4), it would not be the same as this.

The plague came as Moshe had warned: "The [locusts] will fill your houses, the houses of your officials, and the houses of all the Egyptians" (10:6). Although sometimes locusts do get into houses, they are usually the weaker ones that cannot fly any more. Here, however, they literally filled the houses. Not only that, but the locusts were selective, first attacking the royal palaces, then the houses of the officials, and finally, the homes of the commoners. This was a phenomenon that had never been seen before, and would never be seen again. (Kesef Nivchar; Kli Chemdah; Melechet Machashevet)

Shemot 10:15 It covered the surface of the entire land and the land was darkened; it ate all the grass of the land and all the fruit of the tree that the hail left over. No greenery remained on the trees or the grass of the field in the entire land of Egypt.
Since the huge swarm of locusts could not go anywhere but Egypt, they piled up, one on top of the other. when they flew, the sun was completely covered, blackening the skies. (Sifetei Kohen)

According to some authorities, there was only a short interval between the plague of hail and that of locusts. The hail came in Adar (March), and then in Nissan (April) the grain that had escaped the hail began to grow. The trees that had been denuded by the hail also began to sprout. The locusts then came and devoured everything. (Ramban. Cf. Bachya; Etz HaChaim, p. 60)

Although fruit is not normally on trees in Nissan, the locusts devoured the leaves and blossoms, so that fruit would not be able to grow later.

Some authorities explain the situation somewhat differently. One reason for the plague of locusts was that the Egyptians had forced the Yisraelim to plow their fields and plant grain. (Kesef Mezukak) When the hail had destroyed the Egyptian crops, they began to confiscate Yisrael's crops in Goshen, which had not been touched by the hail. All the crops that the Egyptians had confiscated were now devoured by the locusts. (Shemot Rabbah) Even though they were in Goshen, they were attacked by the locusts. (Kesef Mezukak. Cf. Abarbanel)

This plague also served to clarify the boundary between Egypt and Cham, which had been disputed for many years. It was agreed that all land attacked by the locusts belonged to Egypt, and nothing more. (Shemot Rabbah)

The effects of the locusts were sometimes highly unusual. If an Yisrael had purchased the trees in the field of an Egyptian, the locusts would eat all the plants growing on the ground, but leave the trees untouched. If the land belonged to an Yisrael, and the trees to an Egyptian, precisely the opposite occurred.

G-d had therefore said, "They will eat all your [crops] that the hail spared, and they will eat your trees sprouting from the field" (10:5). The Psalmist said, "[The locusts] ate all the plants in their land, and ate the fruit of their soil," (Tehillim 105:35). Both these verses indicate that in some cases they ate only plants, while in others they ate only trees. Where they only ate the ground plants, the land belonged to an Egyptian and the trees to an Yisrael. Where they ate the trees, the situation was the opposite. (Etz HaChaim, VaEra and Bo)

Shemot 10:16 Pharaoh hastened to summon Moshe and Aharon and he said, "I have sinned to Hashem, your G-d, and to you. 17 And now, please forgive my sin just this time, and entreat Hashem, your G-d, that He remove from me only this death."
"I have sinned to Hashem by refusing to let Yisrael go. I have also sinned to you by having you expelled. Forgive me this once, and I will never do it again."

[Significantly, when Pharaoh said, "I have sinned to Hashem and to you (la-chem)," he used the plural form. However, when he said, "forgive my crime," he was speaking in the singular. Then again, when he said "Pray to G-d," he spoke again in plural, as if he was addressing both Moshe and Aharon.] (Bachya; Ralbag; Olat Shabbat)

Since Pharaoh had ejected both Moshe and Aharon, he admitted sinning to them both. However, Pharaoh knew that Moshe was so humble that the humiliation would be nothing to him; he therefore only asked forgiveness from Aharon. Then he asked both Moshe and Aharon to pray for him. (Kli Yekar)

"Just remove this death from me," said Pharaoh. Along with the locusts, Egypt had been invaded by deadly snakes and wasps, killing many people. The wasps stung the Egyptian's eyes, blinding them. As many Egyptians died during the plague of locusts as from the hail.

Also, the small amount of crops spared by the hail, was now being devoured by the locusts. With the locusts even attacking the food supplies stored indoors, it would not be long before the land was struck with a deadly famine.

"This is all I want," said Pharaoh. "Don't think that I will trick you and then ask for you to pray for me again. Just take this death away from me now and I won't bother you again." (Baal HaTurim; Bachya; Tzedah LaDerech; Abarbanel)

Shemot 10:18 He left Pharaoh and entreated Hashem. 19 Hashem turned back a very powerful west wind and it carried the locust-swarm and hurled it toward the Sea of Reeds; not a single locust remained within the entire border of Egypt.
Preserved locusts were a delicacy in Egypt, and many Egyptians had caught bushels of locusts and had picked them. It was something that the Egyptians ate, just as we eat sardines or anchovies. Many Egyptians were even happy about the locusts.

G-d then said, "You fiends! Here I am punishing you and you are happy about it!" With that, a powerful hurricane blew to the west, carrying away all the locusts - even those that had been preserved. (Shemot Rabbah; Tanchuma; Sefer HaYashar)

From the time that Moshe prayed that the locusts leave, there have never been locusts in Egypt. Even when there are locusts in the Holy Land, and some invade Egypt, they do not do any damage. Moshe had prayed that there be no more locusts, and his prayer had a permanent effect.

The same was true after the plague of frogs, when Moshe said, "they will only remain in the Nile" (8:7). According to some authorities, Moshe was referring to the crocodile, which now lives in the Nile. These reptiles can be highly dangerous, and some are known to be man-eaters. They have such tough hide that they can only be killed by arrows or spears plunged into their relatively soft bellies. This crocodile is also considered a type of "frog."

In the case of the locusts the Torah states, "Not a single locust remained in all of Egyptian borders." From that time on, no locusts would be able to do damage in Egypt. When Moshe said something, his words had a permanent effect. (Ramban; Bachya, quoting Rabenu Chananel; Derashot Yeshuenim)

This also explains what G-d said to Moshe when telling him of this plague. G-d said, "I have made [Pharaoh's] heart...so that you may confide it to your children and grandchildren" (10:1,2). Of all the plagues, this is the only one where G-d says it will be related to children and grandchildren. One might think that the other plagues were more miraculous, since plagues of locusts are natural events.

But after all the other plagues were over, there was no evidence that they have ever existed. However, every time locusts appeared in other lands and avoided Egypt, this plague would be remembered. People would see that the locusts invaded all other lands, but not Egypt. Children would ask their parents the reason for this, giving the parent the opportunity to tell the entire story of how G-d sent a great plague of locusts against Egypt, and then decreed that the land never again be subject to locusts. The children would tell the story to their offspring, so that all would know about G-d's miracles. (Kli Yekar)

Shemot 10:20 But Hashem strengthened the heart of Pharaoh, and he did not send out the Bnei Yisrael.
When Pharaoh saw that even the preserved locusts has vanished, he began to suspect that all the locusts had been an illusion. He could not imagine how even locusts pickled in jars could disappear. He was led to such a false conclusion because G-d had hardened his heart in order to punish him with another two plagues. (Shemot Rabbah, p. 75)


The Ninth Plague: Darkness

Shemot 10:21 Hashem said to Moshe, "Stretch forth your hand toward the heavens, and there shall be darkness upon the land of Egypt, and the darkness will be tangible."

G-d deliberated this plague with the angles, and they all agreed that Pharaoh deserved it. (Yeffeh Toar, [from the verse, "[G-d] sent darkness and it was dark; they rebelled not against his word" [Tehillim 105:28]. This means that the angels did not rebel against the decree of darkness])

The darkness was not like the darkness of night, but was something palpable. Our sages state that it could be felt, just like a coin. (Tanchuma; Shemot Rabbah. The measure of the "thickness of a coin [dinar]" is that which is considered to have substance; see Chulin 55b. Rashash on Shemot Rabbah writes that the darkness was like a thick curtain that could actually be felt with one's hands.]) It was not the mere absence of sunshine and moonlight. Rather, it was like a deep black cloud had enveloped all Egypt. Even when many lamps and torches were lit, they did not provide any light. In deed, it soon became impossible to even light a lamp or torch; as soon as they were lit they went out. It was as if the air would not support combustion, just as in some very deep mines or on high mountains. (Ramban; Abarbanel)

Rabbi Avraham ibn Ezra (1080 - 1164) writes that on the ocean there is sometimes such thick fog that one cannot distinguish between day and night. He himself experienced such a fog which lasted for five days. (Ibn Ezra on 10:22)

When G-d ordered the Forces in charge of darkness to bring this plague on Egypt, they went far beyond His instructions. This was not considered disobedience to G-d. Since the Egyptians had committed such nefarious crimes, G-d agreed that the Forces had done right. (Tanchuma; Shemot Rabbah)

Shemot 10:22 Moshe stretched forth his hand toward the heavens and there was a thick darkness throughout the land of Egypt for a three-day period.
The darkness lasted for seven days. For the last three, the darkness was total and absolute. (Ibid.; Rashi)

The darkness was such that it was virtually impossible to breathe. The fact that the Egyptians survived these seven days was in itself a miracle. (Ralbag)

During the first three days, the entire land became totally dark. There was not even enough light to see a person standing close by. (Tanchuma; Shemot Rabbah) Even the stars were not visible. (In special Pesach prayers [Piyyut])

But then, during the last three days, it became even darker. The very air became totally opaque. If a person was sitting, he could not stand up; if a person was standing, he could not sit. It was virtually impossible to move - as if the air had become like a solid wall. This situation lasted for three days. (Toledot Yitzchak; Bachya)

This darkness was the result of an alteration of the elemental nature of light itself. (The author states that it was "the element of fire." This can be interpreted as denoting the electromagnetic interaction, which is the force that allows light to exist. This interaction is also responsible for all chemical and gross physical interactions. The electromagnetic nature of air had been altered so that it would no longer transmit light. This might also have made it difficult to move.) It was the same darkness as that which existed at the very beginning of creation, regarding which it is written, "darkness was on the face of the deep" (Bereishit 1:2). (That is, the darkness that existed before light was created. In scientific terms, the creation of light denotes the creation of electromagnetic interaction, before which the world was "chaos and void" - nothing but a mass of non-interacting basic particles. The darkness in Egypt was therefore the total absence of photons) This elemental darkness precludes the very existence of light. (Shemot Rabbah; Tanchuma)

According to another opinion, the darkness that came on Egypt was the darkness of purgatory. (Ibid. According to this opinion, spiritual, rather than physical, light was withheld from Egypt. In the absence of spiritual light, there could be no physical light.) The darkness is reserved as a punishment for people who sin in darkness, hoping to conceal their acts from others. They are then punished by being placed in darkness where they cannot see one another.

The reason for this plague was that at the time there were many Yisraelim who did not want to leave Egypt. They had collaborated with the Egyptians, and gained much wealth. G-d did not want to kill these people openly, since He did not want the Egyptians to say that the Yisraelim were no better than they. G-d therefore brought the darkness upon Egypt so that the Egyptians would not be able to see how these Yisraelim died and were buried. (Shemot Rabbah p. 76; Targum Yonatan; Tanchuma; Sefer HaYashar)

Earlier we discussed how many Yisraelim deserved to be killed during the plague of wild beasts, since they had worshiped idols, but G-d had had mercy on them and spared them. This being the case, why did G-d kill so many Yisraelim now?

As discussed earlier, the main purpose of the Exodus was for Yisrael to receive the Torah. (Ibid., p. 145) If the Yisraelim had led a life of luxury, it would have been very difficult for them to have accepted the Torah and observed its many commandments. When Moshe announced to the Yisraelim that they were going to be freed of their Egyptian bondage on the condition that they accept the Torah, most of them gladly agreed. Because of this, they deserved to be redeemed, even though they had committed terrible sins. But the people who wanted to remain in Egypt were those who did not wish to accept the Torah. Not having any merit, they had to die. (Kesef Nivchar)

Four-fifths of Yisrael population died during the week of darkness. (Rashi on 13:18) In all, 600,000 men over the age of twenty left Egypt in the Exodus (12:37). Since there were at least four women and children for every man, [the total number of people leaving Egypt was approximately three million]. From this we see that some twelve million people died during the week of darkness.

The plague of darkness began about nine o'clock in the morning, when it is normally broad daylight. If it had begun at night, the Egyptians might have thought that something had happened to extend the night. But that morning, the sun rose as usual, brightly illuminating the entire land. Then, as if a lamp had been extinguished, it suddenly became dark. (Bachya; Tzedah LaDerech)

Shemot 10:23 No man could see his brother nor could anyone rise from his place for a three-day period; but for all the Bnei Yisrael there was light in their dwellings.
This is speaking of the second three days. During the first three days, there was merely "total darkness" (10:22), when people could not see each other. During the second three days, no one could even "get up from his place."

the reason for the first three days of darkness was so that the Yisraelim would be able to bury their dead, without the Egyptians seeing them. The second three days of darkness were to punish the Egyptians.

This darkness only existed for the Egyptians. For the Yisraelim, it was perfectly light. And not only in the land of Goshen, but wherever an Yisrael went, he had ample illumination. Even when an Yisrael entered the house of an Egyptian, he was able to see perfectly. (Yeffeh Toar; Alshekh. See Kesef Nivchar)

During this period, the Yisraelim were able to look into the homes of the Egyptians and see where they kept their jewelry and treasures. Of course, the Yisraelim did not touch anything that was not theirs. But this knowledge was to be to their advantage later, as we shall see.

It was for this reason that the darkness was s o intense during the last three days that the Egyptians were virtually paralyzed. The Yisraelim were therefore able to come and go freely in the Egyptian's houses without them being aware of it. (See Bachya)

During this period, Yisrael had more illumination than usual. Even at night, it was as bright as day for them. The Torah therefore states that "all the Yisraelim had light in their homes," rather than saying that they did not have darkness, as with all the other plagues. The situation of the Yisraelim was exactly the opposite of that of the Egyptians. For the Egyptian day was like night, while for Yisarel, night was like day. (Divrei Shalom; Zera Berach, Part 2; Kli Chemdah; Kli Yekar)

Even for the Yisraelim, the normal order of nature did not change. After a brilliantly illuminated day, the sun would set and it would become dark, as in an ordinary day. But then, suddenly at night, there would be bright light for the Yisraelim. It was an obvious miracle, and not a mere extension of daylight. (Sifetei Kohen)

A similar phenomenon will occur in the Messianic age, as predicted by Yeshayahu (Yeshayahu 9:1, 30:26).

Another reason for this plague was that the Egyptians worshiped the sun as a god. The plague of darkness demonstrated the impotence of the sun when G-d so willed. (Yalkut Reuveni. Ra and Aton were both Egyptian sun gods. In general, the sun god was always the head of the Egyptian pantheon.)

The Egyptians were also punished for making the Yisraelim toil day and night. When they refused them straw for the bricks (5:7), the Yisraelim had to get up before dawn to gather enough straw for their daily quota of bricks. Since the Egyptians made day and night the same for the Yisraelim, day and night were now the same for the Egyptians. (Kli Chemdah; Yad Yosef)

The Egyptians also made Yisraelim carry torches for them at night. The Egyptians had used the Yisraelim to provide illumination; now all illumination was taken from them. (Sifetei Kohen)

All the plagues lasted seven days, and it was decreed that there also be seven days of darkness. However, at this time, there were only six days of darkness. The seventh occurred after the Exodus, when the Yisraelim crossed the Red Sea.

One may raise an objection here. G-d had promised Noach, "As long as the world lasts...day and night shall never again cease" (Bereishit 8:22). This meant that there would always be a distinction between day and night. If so, how could G-d have made it dark in Egypt for six days, when day and night were the same?

The explanation is that G-d only promised that He would not eliminate the order of day and night from the entire world. He never said that He would not eliminate this order from a single nation. It is very much like His promise not to bring another flood to the world. Although the entire world would never again be threatened with a flood, this does not mean that individual areas would not be flooded. When punishment is due, it is forthcoming. (Biurei Rabbi Yisra'el Isserlein [Venice, 1519]; Tzedah LaDerech. Rabbi Isserlein [1390-1460] is best known as the author of Terumat HaDeshen)

Moreover, when G-d had first created the light, He had made a condition that it should be transformed into darkness for the sake of Yisrael.

 

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