Shabbat Parashat Bo | 5770
Parashat Hashavuah: A Swarm of Locusts … and People
It is interesting to follow Par’oh’s responses, before, during, and after certain plagues. Certain plagues seem to have nearly broken him or at least made him give in on previous negotiating stances.
Arbeh (locusts) seems to have raised particular fear in Par’oh. When Moshe threatened that a great swarm of them would come and “cover the eye of the land ... and eat the remainder of what was leftover from the hail” (Shemot 10:5), his wise men convinced him to give in (ibid.:7-8). Par’oh said that the men could go serve Hashem, objecting only to the children taking part, for they do not do service anyway (see Ramban to 10:10). Moshe said that all must go because it was “a festival of Hashem for us” (ibid.:9), prompting Par’oh to send him away for being dishonest in his request, as Par’oh accused him (correctly) of planning to escape (see ibid.:11). When the plague actually came and ate all the remaining greenery, Par’oh hurriedly capitulated (temporarily), begging that Moshe remove “this death.” He even made a moral admission: “I have sinned to Hashem, your G-d, and to you” (ibid. 17). The sin to Moshe is easily identifiable, as Par’oh had thrown him out of the palace. However, what did Par’oh mean by sinning to Hashem, as he had already agreed to allow the sacrifices that Moshe said that Hashem wanted?
The point might be that Hashem had demanded Par’oh to capitulate to whatever demands Moshe made in His name (see ibid.:3). Not obeying was by definition disrespectful. Let us suggest, though, another possibility. Par’oh had in essence claimed that Hashem could only have been asking to receive sacrifices, thereby satiating His appetite in a pagan sense, kav’yachol. Moshe had countered that Hashem is interested in a festival with Him that is actually for the benefit of the people. Par’oh’s agreement to allow Hashem’s needs from a pagan perspective was a snub to the concept that Hashem wanted a festival that would impact on the people. The sin was, then, denying Hashem the right to define His role as G-d of the Hebrews in the manner He wanted. Indeed, the next time Par’oh made an offer (ibid.:24), he said that everyone could go and only held back taking their flocks (beyond those needed for sacrifice).
Let us end off by suggesting what about the arbeh had shaken Par’oh. After all, at the point he contacted Moshe, they had already eaten all the vegetation, and arbeh are not carnivorous. What “spooked out” Par’oh so much to make him at least temporarily give in? The key may be found in the phrase “cover the eye of the land.” This is a phrase that Balak used (Bamidbar 22:5) to describe the multitude of Bnei Yisrael that he saw and was disgusted by (similar to the Egyptian reaction to the increased number of Jews - see Shemot 1:12). The arbeh reminded him of the Hebrews who were also a swarm of annoying creatures, who, when focused on a certain goal, cover the land by their multitude and make things unlivable. This led him to allow them to get their idea of feasting with Hashem taken care of so that they would settle back to be submissive slaves. However, Par’oh was to learn later that they would become tame, but not as his slaves, but as Hashem’s servants.
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