Parashat Bo: The Plagues of Hail and Locusts
** This Week's Parasha Insight with Rabbi Eli Mansour Dedicated By Steven Levy & Chaby Orfali and Families In Loving Memory of Eliyahu Ben Sinbol **
Parashat Bo begins with the message that G-d commanded Moshe to bring to Pharaoh before the eighth plague, the plague of hail. In introducing this message, G-d told Moshe that Beneh Yisrael will one day relate to their children and grandchildren "Et Asher Hit’alalti Be’Misrayim" – "how I made a mockery of Egypt" (10:2).
A number of commentators raised the question of why this was said specifically in reference to the plague of locusts. Did not all the plagues "make a mockery of Egypt," by showing Pharaoh that he was powerless, and not the G-d-like figure which he claimed to be?
The Ben Ish Hai (Rav Yosef Haim of Baghdad, 1833-1909) explains the particular "mockery" that was brought about by the plague of locusts. The Torah tells (10:15) that the locusts consumed "all that the hail had left." The previous plague, the plague of hail, had destroyed all the produce in Egypt, except the wheat and "Kusemet," two staple grains which survived. As the Torah explains (9:32), these two species withstood the hailstorm because they ripen later, and they were thus still in their earlier stages of growth such that they were soft and capable of surviving harsh elements. The Egyptians ridiculed Moshe, noting that had he brought the hail just several weeks later, after these two species had ripened, the job would have been complete. They mocked Moshe for what they perceived as foolishness, bringing the plague of hail before it could destroy all their produce. G-d therefore responded with the plague of locusts, which "finished the job," so-to-speak, consuming all that had remained. And thus G-d made a true mockery of the Egyptians – they had ridiculed Him for failing to destroy the wheat and "Kusemet," yet in the end, He destroyed those, as well.
This explains an otherwise perplexing passage in the Haggadah, which tells of Rabbi Yehuda’s "Simanim" – the acrostic he made for the names of the ten plagues. After we list the plagues, we then mention that Rabbi Yehuda would refer to them as "Desach," "Adash" and "Be’ahab," forming three words out of the first letters of the plagues’ names, the first two words consisting of three letters each, and the final word consisting of four letters. Many commentators addressed the question of why Rabbi Yehuda made this acrostic, and why this is noteworthy. Seemingly, it does not take any special wisdom or creativity to form such an acrostic. One answer is that Rabbi Yehuda formed these words in this particular arrangement to show that the seventh and eighth plagues – hail and locusts – are integrally connected. The final word in his acrostic is "Be’ahab," which represents the final four plagues – "Barad" (hail), "Arbeh" (locusts), "Hoshech" (darkness) and "Bechorot" (the firstborn). Intuitively, we would have grouped the final three plagues separately from the previous plagues, because the final three plagues are related together in Parashat Bo, whereas the first seven are described in Parashat Vaera. Rabbi Yehuda therefore created his acrostic to teach that in truth, the seventh and eighth plagues – hail and locusts – are closely linked. Although we happen to read about them in two different Parashiyot, they are actually to be seen as two stages of a single process. The plague of hail ended with false hope for the Egyptians, which led them to ridicule G-d, but then plague of locusts came and proved them wrong. Together, these two plagues proved to the Egyptians the fallacy of their beliefs and made a mockery of their arrogant sense of power and invincibility.