“How Impactful was the Plague of Locusts?”

by Rabbi Ephraim Z. Buchwald

In this week’s parasha, parashat Bo, the Al-mighty visits the plague of locusts on Pharaoh and on the land of Egypt.

As Pharaoh has already, multiple times, broken his promise to let the People of Israel go, it was essential at this point to keep the pressure on Pharaoh.

In Exodus 10:1, G-d instructs Moses, בֹּא אֶל פַּרְעֹה, כִּי אֲנִי הִכְבַּדְתִּי אֶת לִבּוֹ וְאֶת לֵב עֲבָדָיו, לְמַעַן שִׁתִי אֹתֹתַי אֵלֶּה בְּקִרְבּוֹ, “Come to Pharaoh, for I have made his heart and the heart of his servants stubborn, so that I can put these signs of Mine in his midst.”

G-d’s instructions to Moses seem to imply that the Al-mighty hopes to transmit two important messages through the plague of locusts: 1)It is He who is responsible for hardening Pharaoh’s heart, and that 2) He intends to place His “signs” in Pharaoh’s midst.

It could very well be that Moses had not yet recognized that Pharaoh’s heart had been hardened by G-d, and still holds out hope that Pharaoh would keep his word and allow the Israelites to leave. Consequently, the Al-mighty was eager to disabuse Moses of that false hope. He, therefore, definitively informs Moses that it is He who has been hardening Pharaoh’s heart, and that to accomplish His ultimate goal it would be necessary for Him to harden the hearts of the Egyptian people as well.

If G-d’s purpose of visiting the plagues on the Egyptians was only to bring about the release of the Jewish People, the Israelites would have been redeemed long ago. But, there is an additional motive behind the Al-mighty’s actions, and that is to hold Pharaoh up to all as an example of the inability of a human being to defy G-d, even a powerful and mighty human being such as Pharaoh.

G-d also needs to harden the hearts of the Egyptian people so that they not rebel against Pharaoh and force the premature release of the Israelites. Without a display of the full ten plagues, G-d’s vital message that He is the Ultimate power on earth would not be definitively communicated.

Clearly, until this point, the plagues do not appear to have been particularly effective. After all, until the sixth plague Pharaoh had continuously hardened his own heart and stubbornly refused to release the Israelites. Had the redemption come as a result of a single extended plague rather than ten great plagues, it would not have had the powerful impact for all future generations. Since each of the ten plagues displays a particular feature of G-d’s omnipotence, the full ten plagues convey a host of powerful lessons for all humankind.

In Exodus 10:2, the Torah states that there is an additional purpose served by the ten plagues: וּלְמַעַן תְּסַפֵּר בְּאָזְנֵי בִנְךָ וּבֶן בִּנְךָ אֵת אֲשֶׁר הִתְעַלַּלְתִּי בְּמִצְרַיִם, וְאֶת אֹתֹתַי אֲשֶׁר שַׂמְתִּי בָם, וִידַעְתֶּם כִּי אֲנִי השׁם, it is particularly important that the Jewish people know what G-d has done, so that they may relate in the ears of their children and grandchildren that G-d has made a mockery of Egypt, and that through His signs that He placed among them, you [the People of Israel] may know that He is the L-rd, G-d.

The plague of locusts thus introduces a new element–G-d’s intention to “mock” Pharaoh and the Egyptians. Pharaoh and his people, who have been arrogant and contemptuous, were about to experience a great come-down, as G-d intends to show the world how powerless they really are.

The lesson of G-d’s omnipotence is not only for Egypt and for the world to see, but also for the Jews to understand as well. Upon witnessing the plague of locusts, not only will Egypt know that G-d is the L-rd, the Israelites themselves will also see how powerless the Egyptians are and gain a greater appreciation that the Al-mighty is truly the Ultimate Power.

And yet, the plague of locusts does not seem to have a transformational effect on the Israelites. It is not at all surprising that Pharaoh had resisted recognizing G-d as the source of the plagues. But, apparently, the faith of the Jews was significantly lacking as well. As the story of Israel’s exodus from Egypt unfolds, we see that, even after the locusts plague, the Children of Israel continue to frequently rebel and defy G-d.

Is it possible that the Children of Israel, who saw these great miracles before their very eyes, are unable to develop greater faith?

The attempt to “indoctrinate” the Israelites with the spirit of G-d through the impact of the locusts plague, raises a fundamental question of whether the Jews in Egypt were at all spiritually receptive at this point. It is very likely that the Israelites, who were subject to constant inhuman suffering, had little time or emotional disposition to philosophize about the existence of G-d or the proofs of G-d’s involvement in their lives. Despite the many physical miracles that they beheld, it is far more likely that they were single-mindedly focused on subsisting–getting through a day’s work without being beaten to death by an Egyptian taskmaster. It is indeed difficult to imagine that these tortured people had any inclination to consider whether the frogs, the lice or the locusts came from G-d, at a time that they were always a small step away from death, laboring under the brutal Egyptian regimen.

Surely, in the long and bitter history of Israel there have been exceptional cases of people showing fierce faith in the face of brutal torture and suffering. But such behavior cannot be expected of most. Even though scripture states that the message of the plague of locusts is directed not only to Pharaoh and the Egyptians, but to the Israelites as well, we do not find that the message actually penetrates.

Faith cannot be manufactured, especially when it is expected of people who are living under severe duress.

Apparently, the eighth plague failed to impact fully upon the Israelites. In fact, it is not until their miraculous salvation at the Red Sea, when the people actually saw the Egyptians dead on the seashore that scripture informs us (Exodus 14:31) that the people believed in G-d and had faith in Moses, His servant.

The plague of locusts confirms that the road to faith is almost always a process, one that cannot be achieved by fiat or even through omens and natural miracles. This lesson is not only for the ancient Egyptians and Israelites. It is a lesson for our times as well.

May you be blessed.