Arbeh The Plague… And Arbeh, The Blessing?
The Meaning Behind The Eighth Plague Of Locusts
Rabbi David Fohrman
Founder and Lead Scholar
This week, Rabbi Fohrman and Imu do a deep dive into the eighth plague in the bible – arbeh, locusts – seen in Parshat Bo. They ask, why does the Torah use language “eye” and “seeing” here? Could it connect to the word “arbeh,” used back in Genesis, which connected to the blessing of Israel?
Join their conversation as they search for the spiritual meaning behind the plague of locusts.
Imu Shalev: Hello and welcome back to a new episode of Parsha Lab. I'm Imu Shalev, your co-host and the lovely rabbi across from me is...
Rabbi Fohrman: Rabbi David Fohrman. Actually, believe it or not, guys, I am not across from Imu. It may sound like I'm across from Imu, but due to the wonders of modern technology, I am looking at Imu on my screen. He is actually just an office away. But we are choosing to look at each other on screens rather than in person. What does this say about us, Imu?
Imu Shalev: Robots have taken over the world and that we've processed even human interaction.
Rabbi Fohrman: It feels that way. Oh, my goodness. I get the chills just thinking about it. Anyway, Imu, we're talking about Parshat Bo this week, right?
Imu Shalev: That's true. Do you want to learn a little bit about Parshat Bo?
Rabbi Fohrman: I do. Can you please teach me?
Imu Shalev: No. I think you're going to be the one teaching me, but I'm going to ask you some questions. Are you ready for that?
Rabbi Fohrman: I'm totally ready.
Arbeh, the Eighth Plague of Locusts
Imu Shalev: Let's dive into the text. Last week, we talked a little bit about the significance of the plagues and just, spiritually or morally, why might God have chosen the specific plagues that He chose? I wanted to walk you through some things I noticed about the plague of arbeh (locusts).
So arbeh is a very strange name. Does it remind you of anything, Rabbi Fohrman, in reference to the Exodus?
Rabbi Fohrman: Oh, it certainly does. I'll tell you about the locusts. Can you actually give me an address and our readers, if they're following along in the Chumash (Pentateuch), which chapter and verse would we be looking at now?
Understanding the Plague of Locusts in the Bible
Imu Shalev: Sure. Shemot, Exodus 10:3, 10:4.
Rabbi Fohrman: Great. So here we have – I'll just bring everybody into the actual verse here. "Ki im ma'en atah leshalei'ach at ami" – this is Moses warning Pharaoh that if you refuse to set the people free, "hineni meivi machar arbeh bigvulecha," I'm going to bring these locusts in your borders. "V'chisah et ein ha'aretz," and they are going to cover the eye of the earth – strange language – "v' lo yuchal lirot et ha'aretz," you'll be unable to see the land, "v'achal et yeter ha'peleitah ha'nisheret lachem min ha'barad v'achal et kol ha'etz ha'tzomei'ach lachem min ha'sadeh," and they're going to devour everything in sight. And they are going to fill your homes, "asher lo ra'u avotecha," and your forefathers have not seen anything like this.
One of the things that strike me when just reading through these verses of locusts is something which seemingly has little to do with locusts, which I will talk about in a moment, and that's just the role of sight which is just odd. I don't know quite what to make of it. But if you look at how the land is described here when talking about the locusts covering over the land, they're covering over the eye of the land, making it unable for a person to see the land. It's almost like there's a face-to-face encounter between humans and land which is being interrupted by these locusts. It's like the land has an eye and you have an eye. With your eye, you see the land. I don't know what the land does with its eye.
If you look at that language, "V'chisah et ein ha'aretz," that the locusts are covering over the eye of the land almost as if the land can't see you, and then "v' lo yuchal lirot et ha'aretz," you can't see the land. Then a couple of verses later, your forefathers who have come before you, in time, they can't see; "asher lo ra'u avotecha va'avot avotecha," they've never seen anything like this. It's almost like if you extrapolate sight and space and time, almost as if there's something getting in the way in space between a human being encountering land and then something getting in the way in time, which is if you reach back all the way through the eons of time that your ancestors have never seen anything like this before.
And I don't know. I'm just kind of thinking off the top of my head here, but I wonder if this has anything to do with your question about the word "arbeh" and its meaning and what sort it evokes.
Parallels to "Arbeh" in the Bible
Rabbi Fohrman: If I were to free associate on arbeh, to me, that word means something other than locusts. As a matter of fact, if you'd hit me and said arbeh, where in the Torah? And it's one of these Family Feud games, you know, our survey says. So I suppose our survey would say arbeh, the plague, but number two would be arbeh the blessing. There's a great blessing of arbeh, "v'harbah arbeh et zaracha k'chochvei ha'shamayim," I will greatly increase your progeny like the stars of the heavens. This is sort of the signal promise that God gives to the Jewish people. And it's odd here.
Maybe this goes to something you were talking about last week, talking about how these plagues developed, the plague of blood and the plague of tzfardei'a (frogs). We were talking about them as responses to the Egyptian objectification of the Israelites and making them feel like creepy-crawlies. It almost feels like the locusts are a piece of that. In other words, arbeh, the blessing for the Jewish people was that we would increase very greatly. When you read those words, "v'harbah arbeh et zaracha," it's a wonderful thing; we're going to have all these children. But then, again, the Egyptians didn't think that was so wonderful because, again, the paranoia of Egypt comes from "v'yishretzu," and increased abundantly, that the Jews are becoming so multiplus (sic) and they're like creepy-crawlies. They're, like, these insects.
Does the Eighth Plague of Locusts Symbolize Anything?
Imu Shalev: So to some extent then, what could the locusts be symbolizing? We see that there are these creepy-crawlies and there are a lot of them and it has something to do with the blessing of Israel to some extent. I wonder if the locusts somehow are a little bit like Israel?
Take a look at how the locusts actually come. So join me in Verse 13. "Va'yeit Moshe et matei'hu al eretz Mitzrayim va'Hashem nihag ru'ach kadim ba'aretz," there was an eastern wind. So why, specifically, is this wind coming from the east? What's to the east of Egypt?
Rabbi Fohrman: Well, to the east of Egypt it would, seemingly, be the Land of Canaan and Saudi Arabia, too.
Imu Shalev: That's true. The Land of Israel is to the east of Egypt. And then, when Pharaoh asks Moses to pray and remove the locusts, look at Verse 19, "Va'yahafoch Hashem ru'ach yam chazak me'od va'yisa et ha'arbeh v'yitka'eihu Yamah Suf." How does He send the locusts home? He doesn't really send them home. He actually sends them with a wind, a seaward wind and He sends them to none other than Yam Suf (Red Sea) which, as we know, will also be the destination of the People of Israel.
Rabbi Fohrman: That is fascinating, Imu. Oh, my goodness. Look at that. That's pretty cool.
Imu Shalev: What do you make of these connections?
Why Did God Send the Plague of Locusts?
Rabbi Fohrman: Well, what you're suggesting is that the locusts seem to be connected in some way to the Jewish people. It's almost as if the Egyptians had sort of negatively, in their minds, connected the Jewish people who have this blessing of arbeh, "v'harbah arbeh et zaracha," to be very great. They've sort of interpreted in their minds that blessing as the Jews are creepy-crawlies; let's get rid of them. God then gives actual creepy-crawlies to the Egyptians but sort of keeps that connection between arbeh and the Jewish people in that the destiny of the locusts is the destiny of the Jewish people.
The thing that also comes to mind, for me, is that if you link arbeh back to the blessing of the Jewish people, of "v'harbah arbeh et zaracha," I will greatly increase your progeny – which I think it feels right – it's interesting because you sort of have to go back and look at the text. That language, when you have anochi (sic) "v'harbah arbeh et zaracha," I will greatly increase your progeny, if I'm not mistaken, the metaphor there is "k'chochvei hashamayim," as the stars in the sky. There are two metaphors. There's the dust of the ground and there are the stars of the heavens.
It's worth looking at which one is which with the language of arbeh. If I'm not mistaken, the arbeh language appears at the Akeidah (Binding of Isaac), with God speaking to Abraham after the successful test of the Binding of Isaac, that's when God comes out of the clouds. I think it is stars of the heavens there. That would be Genesis, Chapter 21, 22 or something. "Ki barech avarechecha v'harbah arbeh et zaracha," I will greatly bless you and I will greatly increase your prodigy, "k'chochvei hashamayim v'ka'chol asher al sfat hayam," both like the stars of the heavens and like the sand on the shore of the sea. Those are the two metaphors that appear here. You're going to get a dust of the ground metaphor with Jacob's blessing, and I wonder if the word arbeh appears there as well. That's going to be in...
Imu Shalev: One second. While you brought me here, just if we read Verse 16, the one right before this. "Va'yomer bi nishbati ne'um Hashem ki ya'an asher asita et ha'davar ha'zeh v'lo chasachta et bincha et yichidecha," since you did not hold back your son, but that word "chasachta" has an interesting shoresh (root), with a little bit of a double entendre that also applies here.
Rabbi Fohrman: What Imu is referring to there is there's a double entendre in the "chasachta" that just happens to be the same letters as a word that appears with the locusts which are "choshech," darkness. When the locusts are brought upon Egypt, they are brought in such a way that they darken the land. Remember that idea of being unable to see the land. The reason why they were unable to see the land is because "va'techash ha'aretz," the land became dark.
Chasachta, Imu is pointing out, is actually the same word as choshech, darkness. Chet-Sin – of course without the vowelization is going to be either a sin or a shin – and then chaf, it's going to be choshech, darkness. So fascinatingly, just like arbeh, with arbeh comes choshech, with Egypt, here too, with sort of the antecedent of arbeh at the Binding of Isaac, with arbeh, comes choshech. And to that, I would add, Imu, that this gets to that strange point about seeing which we talked about earlier, which didn't seem to have anything to do with arbeh. Imu, take that further and what about seeing in this antecedent for arbeh?
From the Plague of Locusts to the Firstborn
Imu Shalev: There's actually a little bit more. I wonder if we can extend it to not just arbeh and choshech but maybe even to makas bechoros (death of the firstborn) and even to the splitting of the sea. If you read Verse 16 and 17, way back in Genesis, together – let me show you what I mean. So what's happening here? What's happening is Abraham here is ready to sacrifice his firstborn son. He does not withhold his firstborn son back from God. So what does God say? "Va'yomer bi nishbati ne'um Hashem ki ya'an asher asita et ha'davar ha'zeh," since you did this thing, "v'lo chasachta et bincha et yechidecha," you did not hold back your firstborn son from me. And there's the double entendre of the choshech, seemingly the opposite of holding back is darkness. I'm not sure how.
"Ki varech avarech'cha," I will surely bless you, "v'harbah arbeh et zaracha," I'm going to greatly increase your children, "k'kochvei hashamayim," like the stars in the heavens, "v'cha'chol asher al sfat ha'yam," and like the dust on the shore of the sea, which we talked about last week chol al sfat ha'yam maybe sand being kind of a lice thing or maybe also a Red Sea thing because look at the very next words.
"V'yirash zaracha es sha'ar oyvav," and your children will inherit the gates of their enemies. When does that happen? When do the children prevail against their enemies? Really after I think this marathon, right after the locusts and darkness and the death of the firstborn and the splitting of the sea is when Egypt is finally defeated. What do you think of that?
Rabbi Fohrman: I think you're pointing out something I think which is correct here, which is that the "and your children will inherit the gates of their enemies," which is the end of the blessing that Abraham gets, probably comes to its fruition with the climactic triumph over Egypt that begins – that ends with the death of the firstborn and splitting of the sea.
In line with that, I remember actually doing some work on this a while ago, arguing that there was a distinction between the first six and the last three plagues. In the last three plagues, the locusts were the beginning of the last three. So it's almost as if, the argument I made was that locusts, darkness, and death of the firstborn are really just one plague that gets more and more intense. It's a destruction plague. It's a retribution plague.
It's not that, in all the other ones, there's this attempt to get Pharaoh, to educate Pharaoh. Like I argued in "The Exodus You Almost Passed Over", that attempt kind of fails right with Plague Number 6, going into Plague Number 7.
Imu Shalev: One second. Rabbi Fohrman, you wrote a book called The Exodus He Almost Passed Over? Where could I get a copy of that book?
Rabbi Fohrman: Oh, my gosh. Talk about product placement. You can get a copy of the book, "The Exodus You Almost Passed Over" from Alpha Beta itself, at our store. In that book, I argued that the process of the education of Pharaoh fails going at Plague Number 6, going into Plague Number 7. And from that point on, there is no education. There is just getting the Israelites out of the land, and the locusts are the beginning of that. It's interesting. If you go back – and somehow it's a mystery, but the beginning of this retributive process in the plagues seems to find – I think what Imu is suggesting, it seems to find its genesis in this blessing, the blessing of the Binding of Isaac.
Imu Shalev: No pun intended.
Rabbi Fohrman: Find its genesis back in Genesis, where, in Genesis, you have this promise that one day, your children, your seed, will overtake the gates of their enemies. And here you have in Egypt the seed of the Israelites; the progeny of the Israelites are disparaged. They are just seen as creepy-crawlies. But it's the revenge of the creepy-crawlies and it comes in the form of locusts that eventually overtake Egypt and leads them out to the Red Sea.
Just the other piece I wanted to mention before is that the connections are even stronger to the story of the Binding of Isaac with the yira (fear) piece. I noticed you kind of avoided getting into that, the re'iah (seeing) and the fear, but that's what I was trying to get to, which was the...
Imu Shalev: Right.
Rabbi Fohrman: You know what I was talking about now. Not only is it, as Imu points out, that you have the "arbeh" of Egypt going back to the "arbeh" of Genesis, you have the "chochesh" of Egypt going back to the "lo chasachta" of Genesis. But before that, you also have the re'iah, the seeing going back.
One of the themes which penetrate throughout the Binding of Isaac story is the theme of seeing. Over and over again, it's about seeing, it's about seeing, it's about encountering God, seeing God and the word for seeing and the word for fear end up becoming interlaced with each other. Re'iah or yira, Yud-Reish-Alef or Reish-Alef-Yud-Hei. The mountain is called the mountain of seeing. Abraham sees it from afar. He sees the lamb in the thicket. Everything is seeing, seeing, seeing leading up to fear. And here, you have exactly the same thing with the land being unable to see and you being unable to see. It really feels like we're getting the Binding of Isaac back in spades somehow in arbeh.
Is There a Symbolic Meaning of "Locusts"?
Imu Shalev: So what is the symbolism here? Are you sort of saying that this is, you know, the true reality of Egypt which is that they treated the Israelites and their population explosion like a horde of locusts consuming all the food and so that's exactly what would happen? These Israelites locusts from the east would come in and consume all their food before fleeing from the land, which is exactly what they were worried. They were worried that the Israelites would actually leave the land, and they do, and that it happens because the Egyptians can't see – because what it means to see, as described in Genesis, is to have awe and reverence of God, and the Egyptians who choose to be blind choose not to see somehow our thrust into darkness. Is that sort of what you would think?
Rabbi Fohrman: Something like that. I mean, it's a little too early. One of the things we're doing in this podcast is we're sort of letting you into an early brainstorming conversation. We almost probably should name it brainstorming through the parshah and it's meant to open up your thoughts as well. I can't say that my thoughts on this are crystallized yet, but the connection to the Binding of Isaac seems clear, what its meaning is. I think it's really open to interpretation.
I think what you're suggesting sounds solid, which is that, again, if you go back to the argument I made in The Exodus You Almost Passed Over, the argument there really was the first six plagues were a process of education – about what? It was about educating Pharaoh, as you're suggesting, that there does exist a God in the world and to some extent, that requires sort of an opening of eyes, a meeting – it's almost, can Pharaoh do the Binding? Can Pharaoh look to God face to face and look that reality in the eye? Ultimately, Pharaoh flinches and willfully blinds himself.
It's almost like if you willfully blind yourself and you won't look up high and you look down below to the ground, all of sudden there's this sort of retribution. The moment you willfully blind yourself and education is no longer possible, so then all of the unrequited labor and the 400 years and all of that, it's all going to come back now. There will retribution for that and the retributive process starts now. It starts with a kind of blindness looking at the land and with, as you put it so well, the creepy-crawlies which were the nightmare fantasy of Egypt becomes real for them with real creepy-crawlies. This is what it looks like. When you demonize humans, the humans are not demons, but your nightmares can come back to haunt you when the real locusts sets in. Somehow, that seems to be what's going on.
Imu Shalev: What's the takeaway? What are your thoughts on why this is all here and what we're meant to learn from this?
The Spiritual Meaning Behind the Locust Plague
Rabbi Fohrman: I don't know. One thing which seems to come to mind is the notion of the dangers of objectifying people. If you think about the great sin of Egypt – and this goes back to a video series that Imu and I produced a couple of years back, The Three Great Lies of the Exodus.
The thesis of The Three Great Lies of the Exodus was that the great lies of the Exodus that the Egyptians perpetrate are dehumanizing lies, are lies that take human beings and they attempt to get the populous to see them as something other than human, as just creepy-crawlies, as just objects. And if that is the fundamental great crime of Egypt from which all other crimes spring, that is a powerful notion.
Slavery springs from that; I willing to objectify you and make you into my tool. I'm willing to throw your kids in the Nile because they're not really human; they're just creepy-crawlies. It's a propensity that we, as humans, have. We normally get ourselves into cliques and groups. My yarmulke looks different from your yarmulke, and my religion looks different from your religion. It's very easy to stick to your group, but when you take that a little bit too far, you end up dehumanizing the other.
I think one takeaway is that God takes that very seriously, indeed. When you dehumanize the other, the way in which God's exquisite justice works is that your great fear is a lie, but your fear will come manifesting itself in some form of truth. Therefore, if you're willing to lie to yourself about creepy-crawlies, you're going to have to deal with real creepy-crawlies. Somehow, that's the way God runs the world. Our fears are dangerous and we can make our fears a kind of self-fulfilling prophecy in ways that we not even have imagined. Never will the people that we demonize truly become other, but the ways in which we disparage them will be things that we'll have to contend with for the rest of our lives.
Imu Shalev: It's almost like you need courage to be kind and generous.
Rabbi Fohrman: Yes. It's a Franklin D. Roosevelt kind of thing; the only thing we have to fear is fear itself. Fear is what causes us to demonize and the kind of courage that you have to surmount that fear is the courage to see others as human beings.
Imu Shalev: Wonderful. Okay. I think we fulfilled the obligation of learning Torah.
Rabbi Fohrman: We were. As you say, it's something you can say at the table. It might take you a long time to say it, but feel free to share your thoughts. If you share this around the Sabbath table, any piece of it, let us know how it goes. Send us comments.
Imu Shalev: And we'll write you a mitzvah note.
Rabbi Fohrman: That's right, we will. Anyway, guys, until next time, this Rabbi Fohrman.
Imu Shalev: And this is Imu Shalev. Thank you so much, Rabbi Fohrman, for joining in another fantastic episode of Parsha Lab. Now, we have twice as many as we had last week. I hope you all come back next week for another fantastic episode on Parshat Beshalach. So this is a new project and we would love to have your feedback. Please send us an e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org and don't forget to rate us at the iTunes Store.