Latest update: May 19th, 2013
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.
Rashi (ad loc.) explains the repetition of “v’harbah arbeh” as two blessings – one for Abraham who was ready to sacrifice his son, and one for Isaac who was willing to be sacrificed. Perhaps we can say that these two merits – the numerical value of the letter “beit” is of course two – accounted for the plague of arbeh. Thus, “ba’arbeh” – the plague was brought on account of two merits.
The plague of locusts is interesting in another regard. When Egypt was hit with this plague, Pharaoh asked Moses and Aaron (Exodus 10:17), “V’ha’atiru laShem Elokeichem v’yasir me’alai rak et hamavet hazeh – Entreat Hashem your G-d that He only remove from me this death.” Why did Pharaoh limit his request with the word “only”? Why only this issue?
The Torah Temimah suggests that the answer may be found in an incident related in the Gemara (Ta’anit 8b): In the days of R. Shmuel b. Nachmani both famine and pestilence struck the land. People asked: What should we do? It is impossible to pray for deliverance from both. Let us therefore pray for deliverance from pestilence, and we will endure the famine. R. Shmuel b. Nachmani, however, said to them: Let us rather pray for deliverance from the famine, for when Hashem gives food, He gives it for the living (and thus the pestilence will automatically disappear, explains Rashi), as it is written (Psalms 145:16), “Pote’ach et ya’decha u’masbia l’chol chai ratzon – You open Your hand and satisfy the desire of every living being.”
How do we know, asks the Gemara, that it is not proper to pray for two requests at the same time? Because it is written (Ezra 8:23), “Vanatzuma va’nevaksha m’Elokeinu al zot – So we fasted and beseeched our G-d for this.” The word “this” indicates that they only prayed for one matter – “this” – but not another matter which also concerned them. Thus, Pharaoh, too, only prayed for one matter, not more.
The Torah Temimah also notes that according to Midrash Rabbah, each of the 10 plagues was accompanied by pestilence. Thus, like the people in the Talmudic story just cited, Pharaoh was faced with both pestilence and famine (locusts devouring a country’s produce is a form of famine). And like the people in the Gemara, Pharaoh ultimately decided to pray about the famine, hoping that the pestilence would disappear as a byproduct. Concerning all the other plagues, however, Pharaoh had to be less specific.
Rabbi Yaakov Klass, rav of Congregation K’hal Bnei Matisyahu in Flatbush, Brooklyn, is Torah Editor of The Jewish Press. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.
About the Author: Rabbi Yaakov Klass, rav of Congregation K’hal Bnei Matisyahu in Flatbush, Brooklyn, is Torah Editor of The Jewish Press. He can be contacted at email@example.com.
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