- Written by Daniel Sandground
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This weeks sedra therefore starts with Hashem telling Moshe to go to Pharaoh and pre-warn him about the next plague to come his way, locust. In his commands to Moshe, Hashem introduces a new factor in His reasoning for unleashing the plagues on Egypt stating that through His signs we shall “know that I am Hashem” and more interestingly “so that you may relate in the ears of your son and your son’s son that I made a mockery of Egypt” [both 10:2], which was successfully achieved with the Egyptians not only losing the Jewish people as slaves but having to endure ten painful plagues and lose all their valuable possessions due to Pharaohs stubbornness. With this new warning from Moshe, Pharaoh would have been expected to give in to the demands as he had just endured six plagues which proved the existence of G-d and at this point, even his servants were advising him to let the whole Jewish nation go. This was not what was seen however and instead Pharaoh offered an unreasonable compromise whereby he permitted the elders and leaders to go, and according to Ramban, eventually extended this offer to allow the adult males but not the women and children. According to the Or HaChaim, this compromise was a plan in order to keep the women and children as hostages in order to guarantee the return of the men. What is next described by the Torah is a new angle on Pharaoh’s responses with what seems to be a sarcastic comeback at Moshe’s counter-requests of letting the whole nation, including the women and children. Pharaoh sarcastically tells Moshe to, “go and serve Hashem” [10:8], adding that the nation should “be with Hashem as I will send you forth with your children!”. Pharaoh then furthers this unusual reaction with an angry accusation whereby he informs Moshe and Aaron that, “evil intent is opposite your faces” [both 10:10]. On this the mefarshim ask, what is the reason for this sarcastic and angry response from Pharaoh which was caused by Moshe requesting that the women and children join them in service, surely this was not an unreasonable request or even out of context with the demands? According to Onkelos, through Moshe’s request for the whole nation to go and serve Hashem and Pharaoh’s subsequent sarcastic and angry rejection we can enunciate a key principle which sets Judaism apart from other religions. We learn that the Torah requires the same of every boy and girl once they come of age as it does of the patriarchs and matriarchs. All commandments are equally binding on everyone, and when the nation is bidden to bring offerings to Hashem, everyone (and not merely just the elders or males) must participate. From this we can begin to see why Pharaoh was so accusatory of Moshe’s plans naming them 'evil', as in Egypt it was merely the priests who offered up sacrifices to their idols, he therefore could not fathom how the women or children could have any use in a so called festival to Hashem. Onkelos even goes on to confirm this point by stating that Pharaoh chastised Moshe by saying that, 'your evil intent is to leave and not return, that is obvious because there is no other reason to take your children along, thus your evil intent is rebounding against you, for it has exposed your treachery'.
The Midrash teaches that the plague of locust was measure for measure because the Egyptians forced the Jews to grow crops for them and therefore the locust devoured these crops which were planted by slave labour. The locust came in their millions and the actual word the Torah uses for the locust, 'ארבה/arbe', sound almost identical to the common Hebrew word for many, 'הרבה/harbe'. So we see in the Torah that with Pharaoh thinking he had outsmarted Hashem once again, along came the locust in swarms which amounted to 100,000,000,000 according to sources brought down in Rabbi Louis's sefer, 'מטעמי השולחן'. He also calculates that this would have amounted to an incredible consumption of 100,000 tonnes of leaves, crops, grass, trees etc everyday! Needless to say, there wasn't any food left in Egypt but it is also taught that the locusts didn't merely diet on 'greens' but also entered homes, consuming jewellery and small possessions and even poked out the eyes of the Egyptians. Regardless of this horrific scene, the Torah describes how Pharaoh did not learn his lesson and next up on the menu of plagues was darkness. This plague was the final in a set of three and therefore, just like the the third and sixth plagues, it was not preceded with a warning. Rashi informs us that the darkness, which lasted three days, was so intense towards the end of the plague that the Egyptians couldn’t even move. It is described by other mefarshim as tangible, like extremely thick smoke but we obviously have no real comparable experiences to this phenomenon which was created especially for the purpose of this plague. Other commentators quote a source in Kabbalah by stating that it was the darkness of Gehinom which teaches that in Gehinom there is a procedure whereby one sits in darkness alone for their allotted time of teshuvah which is taught to come from the idea that measure for measure people commit sins when other people don’t see and are therefore punished with this parallel method. Rabbi Yochanan ben Zakkai famously gave a blessing to one of his students that he should fear G-d as much as he fears man, because if he were to do this then he wouldn’t sin on his own like he does when others aren’t watching. Regarding the plague of darkness it asks in Midrash Shemos Rabba; how thick was the darkness? To which it answers, 'as thick as a dinar', which was an ancient coin. From this reply by the Midrash we learn an important piece of mussar. The darkness which occurred during this plague in Egypt was the thickest ever and by the Midrash likening this to money it is implying that money is as blinding as darkness can be. It is unfortunately a very common negative character trait to put money above all else in life to which the source of many falling-outs is found. What we must learn from this is that we must not be blinded by this resource which is provided by Hashem and instead we must see the importance of peace with our fellow men as the key to wealth, not machlokes.
Following on from the plague of darkness the Torah gives over an account of the last occasion when Pharaoh tried to bargain with Moshe, with his new offer including the whole nation except the livestock. Ramban points out that by doing this, since the main wealth of the Jews was their livestock, Pharaoh was technically forcing them to eventually return to Egypt and if not then Pharaoh would be able to keep the animals for himself, which was a scarce commodity following the thrashing the animals took during the plagues. Moshe refuses however, claiming that, “we will not know with what we are to serve Hashem until our arrival there” [10:26]. On the surface this seems to be a logical reason as to why the Jews would need the livestock to go with them, as they would not know how many sacrifices would be necessary when they were to have this ‘festival for Hashem’. A deeper meaning is brought down, however, whereby this possuk can be read to give over a more personal message. According to this alternative reading, ‘we will not know with what we are to serve Hashem until our arrival’ is taught to mean that, until we reach the afterlife we will not know what our mission was in this world. We therefore have to fully exert ourselves with every mitzvah and to act as righteous people according to Torah values, but until we reach the world to come we will not know which aspect of our lives was the one which we were put in this world to fix. An important mussar lesson is therefore hidden within this seemingly innocent explanation to Pharaoh. With the final plague in progress the Torah describes how there was “a great outcry in Egypt” [12:30]. The Midrash describes how there was not a single house that didn’t have a dead corpse in it and this loud eruption of sound was the reaction of the Egyptian people. So why does such an outcry have to be described? The Torah is teaching us that this was a measure for measure punishment for the Egyptians, because they kept silent during all the years when they should have been yelling about the way the Jews were being treated but didn’t, so instead now they would have to yell over their own dead. I hope everyone has a restful and enjoyable Shabbos and successful week ahead. Daniel Sandground, (student at Ohr Somayach Yeshiva, Jerusalem)