Question: When the Torah describes the 10 plagues with which Egypt was afflicted, we find the Hebrew preposition “ba” only in connection with the plague of locust: “Vayomer Hashem Moshe, ‘Neteh yad’cha al eretz Mitzrayim ba’arbeh’ – And Hashe said to Moshe, ‘Stretch out your hand over the land of Egypt with locust.” Is there a specific reason for this anomaly?
Answer: Many of the commentaries find the word “ba’arbeh – with locust” difficult. Rashi explains that “ba” in this instance stands for “bishvil makkat ha’arbeh – to bring about the plague of locust.” Targum Yonatan’s Aramaic translation is “bedil gova – for locust,” adopting Rashi’s explanation.
The Ibn Ezra quotes R. Moshe Hacohen who says that the preposition “ba” indicates that Moses put a locust on the staff he was holding. The Ibn Ezra, though, rejects this explanation. He suggests that “ba’arbeh” means “so that the locust will come,” which is similar to Rashi’s explanation.
The Or HaChayim writes that “ba’arbeh” may indicate that Moses was to attach a locust to the staff he was holding or that he was to say the word “arbeh” when he raised his hand. The Sforno explains “ba” as a directional preposition referring to the direction from which the locust was to come, which is generally the south. Thus, Moses was to summon the locust from their natural habitat.
The Noam Elimelech (Rabbi Elimelech of Lyzhansk, zt”l, and my ancestor) writes that all the plagues visited upon Egypt were due to merits the Children of Israel possessed or would possess in the future. Thus, “ba’arbeh” is a reference to the merit of Avraham to whom Hashem promised, “Ve’harbah arbeh et zar’acha – I will greatly increase your offspring” (Genesis 22:17). The Noam Elimelech understands “ba’arbeh” as because I said to Abraham, “Ve’harbah arbeh…”
Rashi, incidentally, explains the repetition of the words in the promise “Ve’harbah arbeh” as connoting two blessings, one for Abraham who was ready to follow Hashem’s order and one for Isaac who was willing to be sacrificed. Perhaps we can suggest that two (the numerical value of the letter “beit”) merits were taken into consideration when Hashem afflicted Egypt with locusts – “ba’arbeh.
The Torah Temimah notes that when Egypt was hit with the locust plague, Pharaoh asked Moses and Aaron (Exodus 10:17), “Ve’haatiru l’Hashem Elokeichem ve’yasir me’alai rak et hamavet hazeh – And entreat Hashem, your G-d, that He remove from me this death only.” Why did Pharaoh say “only”?
He suggests that the answer may be found in an incident related in Tractate Ta’anit (8b): In the days of R. Shmuel b. Nachmani there was both a famine and pestilence. Since praying for both was impossible (based on Ezra 8:23), people asked, “What should we do?” Some said, “Let us 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 does it for people who are alive” (and thus the pestilence will obviously go away as well – Rashi) as we read in Psalms (145:16), “Pote’ach et ya’decha u’masbia lechol chai ratzon – You open Your hand and satisfy the desire of every living being.”
Based on this passage in the Gemara plus a comment in the Midrash Rabbah that each one of the 10 plagues was accompanied by pestilence, the Torah Temimah explains that with the word “only” Pharaoh meant that Hashem should please remove the plague of locust (which is similar to a plague of famine) and hoped that the pestilence would then also disappear as a matter of course.
The Midrash Tanchuma points out that each plague that descended upon Egypt was midah keneged midah, measure for measure. In reference to the plague of locust, the Midrash notes that the Egyptians put the Israelites to work in the fields to plant wheat and barley. Therefore, G-d afflicted them with locust that ate up everything the Children of Israel planted for them.Rabbi Yaakov Klass