Question: In the Torah’s description of the ten plagues Hashem inflicted upon Egypt, we find the Hebrew preposition “beit” [meaning “in” or “with”] only in connection with the plague of locust: “Neteh yadcha al eretz Mitzrayim ba’arbeh.” Why is this so? And why do most of the commentators on Chumash ignore this question.
Answer: Your question refers to the pasuk in Parshat Bo (Exodus 10:12): “Va’yomer Hashem el Moshe: Neteh yadcha al eretz Mitzrayim ba’arbeh v’ya’al al eretz Mitzrayim v’yochal et kol esev ha’aretz et kol asher hish’ir habarad – Hashem said to Moses: Stretch out your hand over the land of Egypt for [lit. with] the locust, and it will ascend upon the land of Egypt and eat all the grass of the land, everything that the [plague of] hail has left.”
You note that, for the most part, this verse’s use of the preposition “beit” is not dealt with by the commentators. However, as we will see, the opposite is true. If we carefully dissect their words, it becomes clear that they very much did address your question.
Both Targum Onkelos and Targum Yonatan translate “ba’arbeh” into Aramaic as “bedil gova,” which assumes that the preposition “beit” in this instance means “bishvil,” as in “bishvil makkat ha’arbeh – stretch out your hand so as to bring about the plague of locust. Indeed, Rashi, based on both Targumim, offers the same exact translation: “Bishvil makkat ha’arbeh.”
Ibn Ezra quotes R. Moshe Hakohen who says that “ba’arbeh” denotes that Moses put a locust on the staff he was holding. R. Moshe Hakohen, therefore, understood the “beit” to mean “with.” Hashem was instructing Moshe to stretch out his stick with a locust on it. Ibn Ezra, however, argues that this explanation is incorrect. Instead, he suggests that “ba’arbeh” to mean “so that the locust will come.” His interpretation is thus similar to that of the Targumim and Rashi.
Or HaChayyim states (agreeing with an alternative explanation of Ibn Ezra’s) that “ba’arbeh” may indicate that Hashem wished for Moses to say the word “arbeh” when he raised his hand, and that extending his hand was for the purpose of bringing the locust. This explanation also assumes “beit” means “with,” and Hashem is instructing Moshe to stretch out his hand along with saying the word “arbeh.”
Sforno argues that “beit” is a directional preposition referring to the side from which the locusts were to come (which is generally the south). Thus Moses was to summon the locust from their natural habitat. Sforno obviously derives this from the Aramaic translation of “ve’yeitei gova – and let the locust come.” Come from where? Thus, Sforno explains: from their natural habitat.
The Noam Elimelech (R. Elimelech of Lyzhansk) is also perplexed by the word “ba’arbeh.” In order to explain it, he first discusses the plague of barad (hailstones) and refers to two verses in Parshat Va’era (Exodus 9:15-16): “Ki ata shalachti et yadi va’ach ot’cha ve’et amcha ba’daver vatikacheid min ha’aretz. Ve’ulam ba’avur zot he’emad’ticha, ba’avur har’ot’cha et kochi u’lema’an saper shemi bechol ha’aretz – For now I could have stretched out My hand and smitten you and your people with pestilence, so that you would be obliterated from the earth. However, for this I have let you endure, in order to show you My might and so that My name be proclaimed throughout the land.”
The Noam Elimelech asks why Hashem gives this explanation specifically on the occasion of the plague of barad. He answers that all the plagues meted on Egypt were due to merits that the Children of Israel possessed, or would possess, in the future. Each plague corresponded to a specific merit. And barad was due to the merit of the words that the Children of Israel constantly spoke in praise of Hashem (barad and “dibbur – speech” have the same three letters – beit, daled, resh). Doesn’t the plague of dever, however, also contain the same letters as dibbur (even containing them in the same exact sequence)? The Noam Elimelech therefore explains that since it already says “Va’ach ot’cha ve’et amcha ba’daver” in the first pasuk, the plague in merit of the Jewish people’s constant praise of Hashem was barad instead.
The Noam Elimelech now returns to the problematic word “ba’arbeh” and asks: In what merit of the Jewish people did Hashem inflict the plague of arbeh upon the Egyptians? He suggests that it was in the merit of Abraham who was ready to sacrifice his only son. We see the connection between Abraham and arbeh in the pasuk (Genesis 22:17), “V’harbah arbeh et zar’acha – I will greatly increase your offspring.” The Noam Elimelech thus understands the word “ba’arbeh” in Parshat Bo as “because I said to Abraham ‘v’harbah arbeh.’ ” In other words, Hashem is not instructing Moshe to do anything by saying “ba’arbeh.” Rather, He is explaining to him in what merit He is bringing this plague.