Parshat Bo The Objective of the Plague of Locusts

The Objective of the Plague of Locusts

And Hashem said to Moshe: Go to Paroh. For I will make his heart stubborn and the hearts of his advisors so that I may place these wonders of mine in his midst, and so that you will retell to your children and grandchildren that I played with Egypt and the wonders that I placed among them. And you will know that I am Hashem. (Shemot 10:1-2)

This pasuk introduces the plague of Locusts. Hashem tells Moshe that with this plague He will “play” with the Paroh and his nation. The apparent meaning is that Hashem will humiliate Paroh and the Egyptians. Why was this plague more degrading than those that preceded it?

There is another interesting issue raised by the plague of Locusts. The essential affect of this plague was that locusts would consume all grain and produce that had survived the plague of Hail. Egypt would experience severe famine. In order for Paroh to rescue his people from this plague, he would need Moshe’s immediate intercession. Once the crops were consumed, the devastation of the plague would be complete. As the damage of the plague was inflicted, Paroh resisted calling for Moshe and Aharon. Only after the crops had been totally destroyed, did he beseech Moshe and Aharon to pray on his behalf. Paroh had already persevered through the worst of the plague. Why break down at this point?

Rav Simcha Zissel Broida Zt”l offers an interesting approach to these problems. He posits that these two questions are interrelated. Paroh withstood the destruction of the plague without weakening. However once the locusts had ravaged the land, he was confronted with a scene of total destruction. This landscape of devastation overwhelmed Paroh. Paroh knew he could not reverse the damage of the plague. But he had to have relief from the sight of locusts. This was his reason for beseeching Moshe and Aharon to pray on his behalf. This is not the behavior of an individual who is in control. It is characteristic of an emotionally shattered person, unable to bear even a reminder of his misfortune. This approach identifies the unique element of degradation affected by the plague. The first seven plagues never broke Paroh emotionally. He was able to retain his self-respect. On occasion, the pressure of a plague forced him to promise Bnai Yisrael freedom. But with the cessation of each plague, Paroh quickly regained his confidence and sense of control. The plague of Locusts was different. The devastation of this plague shattered Paroh. He called for Moshe and Aharon even though he could no longer reverse or even suspend the damage. He needed Moshe and Aharon to relieve the pain of seeing the locusts – the reminder of his folly and demise. This is the degradation referred to in the opening pesukim.[1]

The Selection of Nisan as the First Month of the Calendar

This month is to you the beginning of months. It is the first to you of the months of the year. (Shemot 12:2)

This pasuk refers to the month of Nisan. Bnai Yisrael will leave Egypt during Nisan, and Hashem tells Moshe that this month should be regarded as the first month. This creates a paradox. Nisan is the first month. It follows that the first day of the year should be the first day of Nisan. However, the year begins on the first day of Tishrai. Tishrai is the seventh month from Nisan!

Nachmanides explains that the Hebrew names now used to identify the months are of Babylonian origin. They originate from the time of Ezra and Nechemyah. Prior to this period, the months were numerically identified. In the Torah, Nisan is referred to as Chodesh HaRishon — the First Month. Similarly, Iyar is Chodesh HaSheni — the Second Month. These numerical designations were the exclusive means used to identify the months until the time of Ezra and Nechemyah. In other words, before the time of Ezra and Nechemya, the months did not have names. Therefore, dates were not assigned to events by identifying the name of the month and the day of the month associated with the event. Instead, an event could only be assigned date relative to the first month of the calendar.

An example will help illustrate this distinction. What is the date of Sucot? We are accustomed to referring to its date as the 15th of Tishrai. However, this simple system of dating did not exist before Ezra and Nechemya. Before their time, the date of Sucot was identified relative to the first month of the calendar. Its date was identified as the 15th day of the Seventh Month.

Nachmanides explains that this numerical system used to identify dates has an obvious objective. It relates every date of the anniversary of the redemption. For example: Through referring to the date of Sucot as the 15th day of the Seventh Month, we are really saying that the festival is observed on the 15th day of the seventh month from the anniversary-month of our redemption from Egypt and bondage. This system mimics in its structure and its objective the Torah’s system for identifying the days of the week. The days of the week do not have names. Instead, they are identified relative to Shabbat. The first day of the week is identified as one day from Shabbat, the second as two days from Shabbat, and so on. The obvious objective is to relate every event associated with a day of the week to Shabbat or to the completion of the creation of the universe. In this manner, the Torah uses a common every-day practice as an opportunity to remind us of important events. When we refer to a day of the week, we recall creation. When we refer to a date in the year, we recall our redemption.

Based upon this analysis, Nachmanides resolves the paradox. How can the year begin on the first day of the Seventh Month? The year should begin on the first day of the First Month! He explains that the above pasuk does not say that the month we now call Nisan is the first month of the year. Instead, the Torah states that it is the first of the months. This does not mean that the year begins in Nisan. It means that all events should be dated by and associated with the anniversary-month of the redemption. The various months should not receive distinct names. Instead, each should be identified relative to the anniversary-month of the redemption from Egypt. The paradox is resolved. The first day of the year, is indeed, the first day of the Seventh Month. In other words, the first day of the year occurs on the month that is the seventh month from the anniversary-month of the redemption. This is the first day of the month that we now refer to as Tishrai.

This leaves one issue to be resolved. Why was the Torah’s system of dating that associates every date and event with the redemption replaced by a system that gives each month an individual name? This innovation severs the identification of the month and dates with the redemption from Egypt! Nachmanides responds by referring to a passage in Yermiyahu. The Navi tells the nation that they will be redeemed from their exile. When they return to the Land of Israel from the lands of their exile, they will no longer praise Hashem as their redeemer from Egypt. Instead, they will praise Hashem for restoring them to the Land from their more immediate exile.

Nachmanides explains that when the prophecy of their redemption was fulfilled, they adopted the names for the months that were used in the land of their exile. They replaced the dating system outlined in the Torah with these adopted names. These names would remind them of their recent exile and redemption. This was a fulfillment of Yermiyahu’s prophecy. The Torah system of dating was designed to recall the redemption from Egypt. The new system recalled the more recent exile and redemption of the nation.[2]

[1] Rav Shimon Yosef Miller, Shai LaTorah (Jerusalem 5753), volume 2, pp. 213-215.

[2] Rabbaynu Moshe ben Nachman (Ramban/Nachmanides), Commentary on Sefer Shemot 12:2.