Rabbi Dr. Darrell Ginsberg
The remarkable events of this week’s Torah portion, Vaera, surround the implementation of the various plagues by God onto Pharaoh and the Egyptians. Rather than view these events as an exercise in punishment, there are important ideas concerning our understanding of God and His relationship to the universe found in each specific plague. A clear example of this can be found in the plague of Arov, the unleashing of dangerous animal into the Egyptian public.
There was a clear shift in tone by the end of the third plague of Kinim, or lice. Pharaoh’s magicians commented that the plague reflected the “finger of God”, an allusion to some degree of control over nature never before witnesses. The Torah then records the start of the fourth plague, known as Arov (Exodus 8:16-19):
“And the Lord said to Moses, "Arise early in the morning and stand before Pharaoh, behold, he is going out to the water, and you shall say to him, 'So said the Lord, "Let My people go out and serve Me. For if you do not let My people go, behold, I will incite against you and against your servants and against your people and in your houses a mixture of noxious creatures, and the houses of Egypt will be filled with the mixture of noxious creatures, as well as the land upon which they are. And I will separate on that day the land of Goshen, upon which My people stand, that there will be no mixture of noxious creatures there, in order that you know that I am the Lord in the midst of the earth. And I will make a redemption between My people and your people; this sign will come about tomorrow. '”
The following day, the plague hit the Egyptians in full force. As indicated in the verses, the Jews living in Goshen were spared from this onslaught.
What exactly was this plague? The translation above is “noxious creatures”. This is somewhat based on Rashi’s interpretation:
“all species of wild beasts, snakes, and scorpions in a mixture, and they were destroying among them [i.e., among the Egyptians]”
The emphasis should be placed on this being a “mixture”, as the word “Arov” connotes mixing.
Rashbam, however, disagrees with Rashi’s interpretation. He explains that the plague refers to wolves, known to attack at night. Thus, the word “Arov” connotes nighttime (a play on erev), rather than the mixture indicated by Rashi.
What are they arguing about?
There is a more fundamental question that needs to be raised. Each plague unleashed on the Egyptians demonstrated an important idea about God. What was the purpose of sending these animals?
Ramban notes this very question and focuses on God’s message of separating the Jews from the Egyptians. In the first three plagues, the fact that the Jews were not affected could be explained away quite easily. The Jews were not near the Nile River, so the water turning to blood or the epidemic of frogs need not have been an issue in their lives. As well, lice can be a localized outbreak. The plague of Arov seems to be a paradigm shift in this pattern. According to Ramban, the majesty of this plague lay in the animals’ avoidance of the area of land where the Jews lived. Once the animals were in full predatory mode, for them to stop and not encroach into Goshen could not be explained away as a coincidence. He pushes this point, noting that God describes two separate delineations in the above verses. The first alludes to the land where the Egyptians and Jews lived – the animals would only attack within the boundaries occupied by the citizenry of Egypt. The second refers to a separation of the two nations. If one of these animals came across an Egyptian and Jew walking together, the animal would only attack the Egyptian, sparing the Jew any harm.
Obviously, the attention of Ramban is on the partition of Jews from Egyptians that was on full display with this plague. The question then becomes, why is this concept being expressed specifically with the hordes of wild animals? We see in future plagues repeated references to the unique phenomenon of the Jews not suffering, such as with the plagues of Dever and Barad.
As mentioned above, each of the plagues evoked a unique idea about God. The transition from the third to fourth plague represented a dramatic shift in the demonstration of God’s control over the natural world. The epicenter of this control could be found again and again in the lack of damage inflicted on the Jews. The plague of Arov, then, served as not just the forerunner of this feature, but the paradigm as well. One need only picture the scene to get a sense of the objective: hordes of animals descending onto the Egyptian cities, running through the streets. People being chased, many succumbing to the savagery of these attacks. The entire situation could have been the climactic scene of any number of disaster movies. There is one word that sums up this entire experience: chaos. God unleashed chaos onto the Egyptians. The nature of chaos is not to exist within boundaries or to make choices. Chaos explodes, erupts, moving without discretion. The defining trait of chaos is to be beyond any sense of control. It is into this very situation that God manifests His complete control over the natural world. This chaos somehow avoided the Jews, a clear demonstration of God’s power. No other plague had this quality of mass disarray. This could be the reason why this was the plague chosen to highlight the division between the Jews and Egyptians.
We can now understand the debate between Rashi and Rashbam. They both agree that the objective of Arov was to demonstrate God’s control through the use of a “well-ordered” chaos. Rashi emphasizes the mixture of the animals, highlighting the above idea. These animals in no way normally co-existed with a unified objective. They were different animals, brought together in a very unnatural manner. In other words, this was a recipe for chaos itself. At first glance, it would appear Rashbam is working with an entirely different set of facts. However, it would appear that Rashbam sees the idea of this pandemonium not limited solely to the phenomenon itself. In his understanding, a critical component of the plague was that the wolves came at night. Undoubtedly, wolves chasing Egyptians evokes similar images of chaos. Coming at night, though, adds a new element to these plagues, that of terror. The Egyptians would be gripped by an intense terror, a degree of fear not felt up to this point. Not being able to see an impending attack by an animal naturally produces complete terror. This psychological component was a critical factor in the entire scene of chaos produced by God.
As we can now see, the plague of Arov brought with it a new idea in God’s control over the natural world. In allowing chaos to erupt, and then giving it boundaries, God was demonstrating how little power and knowledge mankind has regarding the workings of the world. This idea is one that is critical in our view of God’s relationship to us and the world at large.