Worst Locusts Ever: Commentary on Parashat Bo 5783
By Rabbi Jonah Rank, President and Rosh Yeshivah of Hebrew Seminary
Locusts plagued the lands of our ancestors. But a few books in our TaNaKh (תַּנַ״ךְ)—the Hebrew Bible—debate what the greatest horror was that locusts ever inflicted.
Jews in the diaspora, many of whom read the Passover haggadah (הַגָּדָה) on the first nights of Passover, become most acquainted with locusts as the eighth of the ten plagues God had cast upon the Egyptians to move Pharaoh to annul his enslavement of the Israelites. The larger story we tell at the Passover seder (סֵדֶר) has its roots in the opening stories in the Book of Exodus. Locusts make their biblical debut in this week’s Torah portion, Bo (בֹּא). Their effect was unprecedented and disorienting:
וַיַּ֣עַל הָֽאַרְבֶּ֗ה עַ֚ל כׇּל־אֶ֣רֶץ מִצְרַ֔יִם וַיָּ֕נַח בְּכֹ֖ל גְּב֣וּל מִצְרָ֑יִם כָּבֵ֣ד מְאֹ֔ד לְ֠פָנָ֠יו לֹא־הָ֨יָה כֵ֤ן אַרְבֶּה֙ כָּמֹ֔הוּ וְאַחֲרָ֖יו לֹ֥א יִֽהְיֶה־כֵּֽן׃ וַיְכַ֞ס אֶת־עֵ֣ין כׇּל־הָאָ֘רֶץ֮ וַתֶּחְשַׁ֣ךְ הָאָ֒רֶץ֒ וַיֹּ֜אכַל אֶת־כׇּל־עֵ֣שֶׂב הָאָ֗רֶץ וְאֵת֙ כׇּל־פְּרִ֣י הָעֵ֔ץ אֲשֶׁ֥ר הוֹתִ֖יר הַבָּרָ֑ד וְלֹא־נוֹתַ֨ר כׇּל־יֶ֧רֶק בָּעֵ֛ץ וּבְעֵ֥שֶׂב הַשָּׂדֶ֖ה בְּכׇל־אֶ֥רֶץ מִצְרָֽיִם׃
The locusts arose over all of the land of Egypt and settled very heavily in every boundary of Egypt. Beforehand, this—locusts of this sort—had never been! And afterwards there will never be [such a happening]! That [horde] covered the eye of the whole land, and it darkened the land. It ate all of the grass of the earth and all fruit of the vegetation that the [previous plague of] hail had left behind. There remained no greenery amidst the vegetation and no grass among the fields in all of the land of Egypt. (Exodus 10:14–15).
The Torah paints an image of utter devastation—one that hit home for the Israelites in ways that no future plague against Egypt would. Utter darkness, the second-to-last plague, affected only the Egyptians, “וּֽלְכׇל־בְּנֵ֧י יִשְׂרָאֵ֛ל הָ֥יָה א֖וֹר בְּמוֹשְׁבֹתָֽם” (“but, for all of the children of Israel, there was light in their residences”) (Exodus 10:23). The final plague—the divine smiting of Egyptian firstborn sons—exempted Israelite families who heeded the order to mark their doorposts with blood and hyssop, distinguishing Israelite homes from those of other Egyptians (Exodus 12:12–13 and 12:21–23). For the land-devouring locusts attack, the Torah reports no Israelite loophole. Just like the Egyptians, our ancestors lost sustenance and clarity in the plague of locusts.
Had the TaNaKh informed us that this plague of locusts against the Egyptians was the most damaging case of locusts ever past or present, dayyenu (דַּיֵּנוּ)—that would have been “enough for us” as bearers of our sacred stories. But, in the relatively short Book of Joel, the TaNaKh reports a separate moment in Jewish history when locusts conquered all. At some point after the destruction in 587 B.C.E. of the first Temple in Jerusalem, the prophet Joel recalled, locusts being joined by at least three other kinds of pests (presumably all of whom were insects) who depleted the vegetation in and around the holy city:
יֶ֤תֶר הַגָּזָם֙ אָכַ֣ל הָאַרְבֶּ֔ה וְיֶ֥תֶר הָאַרְבֶּ֖ה אָכַ֣ל הַיָּ֑לֶק וְיֶ֣תֶר הַיֶּ֔לֶק אָכַ֖ל הֶחָסִֽיל׃
Whatever was left over by the cutter the locusts ate. But whatever was left over by the locusts the yelek ate. But whatever the yelek left over the chasil ate.
We cannot know what sorts of animals Joel imagined when he described the “cutter,” the yelek, and the chasil. Nonetheless, the French commentator Rashi, in his 11th–12th century biblical commentary on Joel 1:4, subsumed the locusts and each of these devourers under the category (of presumably bugs) that rabbinic texts in Aramaic knew as “גּוֹבָּאֵי” (gobba’ey). These awful ingurgitators merited a harsh enough reputation that, when the prophet Joel shared with the Israelites the voice of God, the Divine word immediately promised new produce in the land (2:19–2:27) and namechecked the locusts and the chasil (Joel 2:25). Amidst the calamity, Joel, certain that there was nothing worse than this locust episode in Jerusalem (even though Exodus claimed that ancient Egypt had seen the worst of them), wrote his own despairing summary of the locusts of his day:
כָּמֹ֗הוּ לֹ֤א נִֽהְיָה֙ מִן־הָ֣עוֹלָ֔ם וְאַֽחֲרָיו֙ לֹ֣א יוֹסֵ֔ף עַד־שְׁנֵ֖י דּ֥וֹר וָדֽוֹר׃
There was nothing like it ever, and, afterwards, there will never be a repetition of it for all years and generations to come. (Joel 2:2.)
Doubting a sacred text is rarely a comfortable position, but reading these passages side by side begs the question: Which locusts were worse? The locusts of Jerusalem or the locusts of Egypt?
In his comments to Exodus 10:14, Rashi attempted an answer to the question. He proposed that the case of locusts in Egypt was the worst case ever of locusts acting alone while Jerusalem witnessed the severest instance of locusts partnering with other animals. But his response was challenged relatively quickly—as evident in the comments on this verse in the anonymously anthologized Torah commentary Hadar Zekenim (הֲדַר זְקֵנִים, “The Beauty of the Elders”), from 13th century France. These unnamed French sages criticized Rashi for having ignored that, when the Book of Psalms narrativized the plagues of Egypt, the chasil and some other destructive force called chanamal (חֲנָמַל) are listed alongside the locusts—as if they had all conspired against Egypt (Psalm 78:46–47). (The Book of Psalms and the Book of Exodus disagreed with each other on just how effective the locusts were in the Egyptian plague!)
Responding to the same verse and produced in the same land and time as Hadar Zekenim, Pa’ane’ach Raza (פַּעֲנֵחַ רָזָא, “Decoding of the Secret”), written by Rabbi Yitzchak ben Yehudah HaLevi, suggested a far simpler answer to explain which locust ruckus was the worst wreckage locus:
וי”מ ואחריו לא יהי’ כן במצרים דוקא קאמר ודיואל בא”י הי’ ושם לא הי’ כמוהו
And there are those who respond: The author said, “and afterwards there will never be [such a case of locusts]” (Exodus 10:14) specifically in Egypt. And, with regards to Joel, [the case of locusts all] was in the Land of Israel, and there [in Israel] there never had been “like it” (Joel 2:4) [and never would again].
Before considering yet another approach to this question, we should revisit a concise Jewish joke that highlights the futility of asking “Which was worse?”
A Jewish patient says, “My foot is in pain.”
The doctor replies, “Your foot? My back!”
All pain is real, and different kinds of pain are difficult to compare. Multiple kinds of pain can be the worst kind of pain ever experienced—just different from one another. I believe that Pa’ane’ach Raza was on target in understanding that what separated the intensity of the locusts of Egypt and the locusts of Jerusalem was geography, but there was more than that too. While the locusts in Jerusalem were directed against the Israelites themselves, the plague of locusts in Egypt was sent against an oppressor but harmed the victims too. The locusts in Jerusalem were a localized and national affliction accompanying the end of Jewish autonomy in the holy city; meanwhile, the locusts in Egypt produced an indiscriminate cross-cultural agony in a kingdom that would one day thrive again. When the Jerusalemites suffered from locusts, the Israelites were tortured alone. But, when the locusts of Egypt tormented all of Egypt’s inhabitants, the Israelites ached terribly but empathized with all Egyptians, many of whom had nothing to do with the enslavement of the Israelites.
Both in Jerusalem and in Egypt, the locusts led to utter ruination. But the locusts in Jerusalem were a pain that nobody else knew and one that Jewish history and Jewish ritual rarely recall nowadays. Perhaps we have largely forgotten these locusts because our ancestors got to witness the rebuilding of Jerusalem both in the time of the Second Temple, and many of us have even visited or lived in a rebuilt Jerusalem. On the other hand, the act of dipping our fingers into wine or grape juice on Passover as we name each of the ten plagues against Egypt memorializes each plague without a sense of victory but with regret and sorrow. We were there for Egypt’s destruction, but we left Egypt before it could again flourish. Forming little bloodlike drops along the edges of our seder plates bespeaks that we affirm the reality of the pain that the Egyptians felt. At times, we felt it too. The wounds formed by empathy are long-lasting and profound; they help us grow.
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