Weekly Torah Portion

Bo – The Plagues and The Boundaries

The first of the three plagues to feature in Parshas Bo is that of Arbeh – locusts.  HaShem instructs Moshe Rabbeinu to warn Pharaoh that if he will not release the Jewish people, then He will bring locusts into the borders of Egypt.[1] 

The Midrash notes the use of the words, “into your border” and infers, “and not into the border of the bnei Cham…because with the plague of locusts they recognized where the border of Egypt ended.”[2]  The Midrash teaches that there were border disputes between the Egyptians and the Bnei Cham[3], and that these were resolved because the locusts remained within the Egyptian boundaries.  Hence, wherever the locusts stopped travelling, signaled the true border between the nations.

However, the Torah also mentions the idea of boundaries earlier, in the plague of Frogs: “But if you refuse to send out, behold I will strike your entire boundary with frogs.”[4] 

The Midrash on this verse, states: “Our Rabbis said, the plagues that HaKadosh Baruch Hu brought upon the Egyptians caused them to make peace between them – in what way? There was a dispute between the people of Cush and the people of Egypt – the Egyptians said that the boundary ended here and the Cushites said that the boundary ended here.  When the frogs came, they made peace between them, [because past the] boundary where the frogs entered, was known that it was not his [the Egyptian’s] field.”[5]

Accordingly, the commentaries ask that if the plague of frogs already solved the boundary disputes, why does the Midrash say that they were solved through the plague of locusts?! The Maharzav[6] notes that in the plague of frogs, the Midrash says that the boundary dispute was between the Egyptians and the Cushites, whereas in the plague of locusts, the Midrash says that the dispute was between the Egyptians and the Bnei Cham. 

He suggests that the plague of frogs only resolved the dispute with the Cushites, but it did not resolve the dispute with the Bnei Cham. He brings support for this idea by noting that the word for boundaries is slightly different in the two episodes. In the plague of locusts, it is ‘gevulecha’ with a segol. 

He suggests that the segol alludes to the fact that there should really be an extra ‘yud’ in the word, which would form it into a plural usage. This would imply that the plague of locusts resolved more than one boundary dispute, hence the Midrash states that the disputes were with Bnei Cham, implying more than one nation made up of the descendants of Cham.  Whereas, in the plague of frogs, the word for boundaries is in the regular singular form, ‘gevulcha’, indicating a dispute with just one nation, hence the Midrash’s explanation that it resolved the dispute with the single nation of Cush.

However, this approach does not explain why the disputes with Bnei Cham were not also resolved in the plague of frogs, and why they were later settled during the plague of locusts.  A possible answer to this problem can be found using a novel approach of the Zera Shimshon[7]He addresses the fact that the boundary dispute was resolved by the plague of locusts and asks why the earlier plagues did not settle the issue?[8] 

He answers that in all the earlier plagues, only the land of the Egyptians was attacked, but not the land of the Jews.  Accordingly, if there were Jews located in border areas, then the fact that the plagues did not affect those places was simply because Jews were present, and thus there was no proof that the boundary ended at that point. 

However, he suggests that in the plague of locusts, the locusts actually did enter the land of the Jews.  The reason for this was not so that they would damage the Jews’ lands, but so that the locusts that are kosher for Jews to eat, would die there and be available as food for the Jewish inhabitants.  Evidently, there were places where the Jews were located which were subject to the border disputes, and since the locusts did enter the Jews’ lands, wherever they stopped spreading, indicated the end of the land of Egypt and the beginning of the land of the other nations.

However, the question remains, that if in all the earlier plagues, the plague did not affect Jewish areas, then how was the border dispute with the Cushites resolved during the plague of frogs? 

It is possible to answer that there were no Jews who lived on that entire border, accordingly, wherever the frogs stopped, revealed the true border.  In contrast, there were Jews who lived along the borders with the Bnei Cham, therefore the fact that the frogs did not go there did not show were the boundary ended, and it was only during the plague of locusts that the other boundary disputes were settled.

One lesson that can be derived from these ideas is based on the Zera Shimshon’s suggestion that the locusts affected both the Egyptians and the Jews, but for the Egyptians, they caused a great deal of harm, and for the Jews, they caused good. This reminds us of the idea that the concepts of ‘good’ and ‘bad’ are subjective in Olam hazeh. People tend to look at things like illness, suffering and pain as ‘bad’, while winning a great deal of money, or getting married, are ‘good’. 

However, for some people the seemingly ‘bad’ occurrences can eventually result in positive consequences and the apparently ‘good’ occurrences can have negative results.  Moreover, the way a person responds to external events is far more significant in defining whether an event is ultimately ‘good’ or ‘bad’, because the true definition is different from what we think.

Rabbi Shaul Rosenblatt offers a definition:
“’Good’ is something that enables you to become more G-dly.  And conversely, bad is something that makes you a less G-dly person. Torah is good.  Mitzvos, good deeds, are good.  G-d Himself is good.  And conversely, moving away from G-d – the source and root of all goodness – is bad.”[9] 

Thus, for example, if a person suffers an illness, and as a result, becomes closer to HaShem in their outlook and behaviour, then that illness was ultimately ‘good’, and if someone wins the lottery and consequently becomes more distant from Hashem then that lottery win was ultimately ‘bad’. 

In the case of the plague of locusts, the perspective of the people did not determine whether the plague was harmful or helpful, but in our daily lives, much of the time, our reactions and attitude can have a decisive effect on whether external happenings result in positive or negative consequences.

Notes and Sources

[1] Shemos 10:4
[2] Shemos Rabbah, 13:4.
[3] This refers to a number of nations, all of whom were descendants of Noach’s son, Cham. Of course, the Egyptians were also children of Cham.
[4] Shemos, 7:27.
[5] Shemos Rabbah, 10:2.
[6] One of the commentaries of the Midrash, written by Rav Zev Wold Einhorn, from Horodna.
[7] Zera Shimshon, Parshas Bo, Os 1: Written by Rav Shimshon Chaim Nachmani, an 18th century Italian Gadol. In the introduction to the Sefer he promises great blessing to those who learn his work, and there are numerous stories of salvation for people who have learnt the sefer.  In the past few years, Rav Nachman Seltzer Shlita, has written two books of English translations of his Divrei Torah..
[8] He does not address the Midrash that at least one of the border disputes was resolved during the plague of frogs. Rav Pinchas Waldman Shlita,  suggests that the Zera Shimshon would acknoweldge that the plague of frogs did resolve the border disputes, but not in a precise manner, because the frogs did not enter the Jewish areas. However, with the plague of locusts, the exact borders were delineated because the frogs did enter the Jewish areas.
[9] ‘Why bad Things don’t happen to Good People’, p.27.

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