Beit Midrash

  • Shabbat and Holidays
  • Passover - Pesach
To dedicate this lesson

Pesach and locusts


Rabbi Berel Wein

On Nissan 5773, a plague of locusts in a relatively minor form infested our area of the world. The locusts apparently did do great though not catastrophic damage to crops in Egypt before crossing the Sinai peninsula and turning north to invade Israel. The Israel Agricultural Ministry sprayed extensively from the air to destroy the streams of aggressive locusts and achieved success in controlling the situation without any great harm to Israeli crop fields.

Since this event happened in the season of the Pesach holiday and since the plague of locusts is listed in the Bible as being one of the ten plagues that the Lord visited on Egypt leading to the exodus of the Jews from slavery, the arrival of the locusts in Egypt and here received wide public interest and media coverage.

This led me to think about the plagues as recorded in the Bible that befell the Egyptians. Were they all miraculous completely or were they natural or at least semi-natural events that the Lord ordered to occur at that time and at that place? Rambam seems to view almost all miracles as being miraculous as to the time and place of occurrence while the event itself is part of the order of nature.

He allows only for rare exceptions. Other great rabbinic scholars took issue with this view and saw the entire matter of miracles in the Bible as being outside the purview of nature entirely. The matter of miracles thus remains miraculously mysterious until today though most Jews probably follow the latter view presented here than the Maimonidean opinion previously advanced.

What if Pharaoh would have possessed pesticides and airplanes with sprays that could overcome the plague of locusts that invaded his country? If he would have possessed an extensive electricity grid throughout his country, would the plague of darkness truly have affected him and the Egyptians? If he would have had an outstanding medical dermatological faculty, would he have been able to deal with the plagues of lice and boils? In other words, were all of those plagues that visited the Egyptians and finally broke their hold on the Jewish people effective only because they happened thousands of years ago - to a country and civilization then lacking modern technology and scientific knowledge? Or, would the plagues have been of so miraculous and supernatural a nature that they would be uncontrollable even today as well?

The answer to this intriguing question is naturally dependent upon ones view and definition of miracles. In Marl Twain’s famous book, "A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court," the Yankee wins the duel with Merlin the Magician by simply introducing more modern technology and scientific knowledge into a mainly illiterate tenth century civilization.

What was a miracle to King Arthur is electricity to the nineteenth century Connecticut Yankee. Yet, can we not view electricity as being a miracle? We are able to explain how electricity operates but not why it works that way. In halacha the great rabbinic scholars are still wrestling with achieving an halachic understanding of electricity. The mystery of electricity itself renders it to be almost miraculous in its essence.

I have felt that the mystery of God’s handiwork, in nature and our vast universe that is slowly being revealed to us through our advancing technology and scientific knowledge and research, is itself miraculous. The more we know, the more amazed we become at the complexity and beauty and order of our world and its mysteries.

Judaism views nature itself as being purely miraculous. That is really the root cause as to why it has been so difficult to define miracles to everyone’s satisfaction. If everything is miraculous then really nothing is miraculous in the popular sense of the word. That is really the basis of Rambam’s view. Only the locality and the time of the event make it extraordinary. The event itself is only one item in the continuing and ongoing miracle of nature and creation.

So, we could say that the fact that Pharaoh did not possess crop-spraying airplanes is what made his plague of locusts miraculous and dreaded to him and his society, while our experience with the locust swarms that invaded our country is merely an interesting newspaper item. However, I feel that the fact that 3325 years later the people of Israel commemorate their exodus from Egypt in the same manner and precise detail as did their ancestors is certainly to be considered miraculous.
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