D’Var Torah By: Jonathan K. Crane

Magicians are masters of distraction. They pull our attention over here while they meddle with something over there, and when we turn back over there, lo and behold, we don’t see what we expect. For example, the magician makes a mess over here, distracts us over there, and when we look back, the mess is no longer there. How did that happen? It’s as if a miracle occurred!

There are many magical moments in this week’s parashah. One is when Aaron cast his rod down in front of Pharaoh and his courtiers and… behold! It turned into a serpent (Exodus 7:10). The Egyptian sages and sorcerers were unimpressed: they could do the same (Exodus 7:11-12). Aaron again used his rod, this time to turn the Nile into blood; again, the Egyptians were able to do the same (Exodus 7:20-22). A third time, Aaron stretched out his arm with his rod and, lo, frogs bounced throughout Egypt (Exodus 8:2). But again, Egyptian priests did the same, and even more frogs bobbed and floated across the land (Exodus 8:3). When Pharaoh begged for relief from these annoying amphibians and promised to let the enslaved Israelites free, Moses agreed and asked Adonai to do the deed. Adonai did, killing the frogs in the houses, courtyards, and fields until their carcasses piled up in stinking heaps (Exodus 8:9-10). Yet just as Adonai had foretold, Pharaoh again refused to let the Israelites go (Exodus 8:11).

Once again, Aaron used his rod to strike the earth, transforming the dust into vermin or lice that came upon humans and animals alike (Exodus 8:12). This time, however, the Egyptians could not replicate the trick (Exodus 8:14). They did not even try to echo the next one, the plague of arov (variously translated as wild animals or swarms of insects), perhaps because it was Adonai who brought it about (Exodus 8:20). Once again, Pharaoh begged for relief and Moses relayed his request to Adonai. It is here that perhaps the most stunning magic trick of all occurred:

And Adonai did as Moses asked – removing (vayasar) the arov from Pharaoh, from his courtiers, and from his people; not one remained. (Exodus 8:29)

Lo and behold! Not one remained. How amazing is that?! Imagine you had the task of removing from a terrain as vast and varied as Egypt every insect (or beast), and I mean removing them all. It is difficult enough to rid our house of the pests that I can see. I cannot imagine finding and eradicating them all, including the very last one hidden in a dank crevice somewhere. But Adonai did. Several times, in fact: Adonai thoroughly cleaned up all the locusts (Exodus 10:19) and left no Egyptian soldier alive in the Sea of Reeds (Exodus 14:28). Not one remained. Why?

Rashi, citing Shemot Rabbah 11.3, explains that Adonai had to dispose of these arov, pests, differently than the frogs. Frogs could be killed and left to rot because, frankly, you can’t do much with dead frogs. Their stinking corpses give no benefit. Dead beasts, on the other hand, have skins that could have been used for a variety of things: clothes, satchels, blankets, parchment, and more. Lest the Egyptians turn this plague of beasts to their advantage, Adonai removed (vayasar) the creatures altogether. Every last one of them. The midrash logically concludes that arov must mean beasts and not gnats or hornets, because they would have been left to putrefy like the useless frogs.

Something similar happened with the locusts.

Why were locusts inflicted upon the Egyptians? Because they had compelled the Israelites to sow wheat and grain. For that reason, the Holy One brought locusts upon them to consume everything that the Israelites had sown. Rabbi Yohanan said: “When the locusts came, the Egyptians rejoiced, saying: ‘We will collect them, boil them, and fill our barrels with them.’ The Holy One said: ‘Wicked ones, would you obtain an advantage from a plague that I have brought upon you?’ Whereupon the Holy One brought a very strong west wind that drove the locusts into the Sea of Reeds. There remained not one locust in all the borders of Egypt (Exodus 10:19). Even those that were pickled in jars and barrels sprouted wings and flew away (Midrash Tanḥuma, Va’era 14:12; see also Shemot Rabbah 13:7).

Rich in protein and delightfully crunchy, pickled locusts were delicacies. They were so irresistible you couldn’t just have one. Adonai made sure of that: not one remained in the whole of Egypt.

The logic appears to be that no one should benefit from these messy plagues, even after they have served their purpose. Whatever residue exists, it is – or should be – useless. But we should be careful. Not all plagues that were cleaned up were cleaned up so thoroughly. There is still some magic for us to observe.

Consider the case of the soldiers swept away in the Sea of Reeds. The phrase, “lo nishar bahem ad echad” (Exodus 14:28) could mean “not one remained.” It could also mean “none remained except one.” Who could be that last one standing? According to commentators and midrashim, it was none other than Pharoah. He was left alive so that he could reflect upon and talk about Adonai’s amazing power and glory (see, for example, Midrash Aggadah, Shemot 14:28; Daat Zekenim on Exodus 14:28). By leaving a remnant, one last one, Adonai ensured that the memory of the punishing severity of the plagues would endure in Egypt.

Moreover, this last remaining one could inspire others to better appreciate Adonai. Leaving just one behind could, in fact, serve a profound purpose.

Cleaning up a mess is often a tricky, even magical, enterprise. Sometimes we aim to clean it all up and leave no trace whatsoever that something happened. Lo and behold! Not one crumb remains, be it physical or digital. Such thorough cleaning allows us to continue on as if nothing has changed. Of course, we know the truth: a messy situation happened, and we had to clean it up. In this way, complete cleanliness can lead us to act as if nothing happened. We make chunks of our messy history disappear, like magic.

But if nothing remains, what lessons could we extract from those situations? If we always clean up all our messes and whitewash our own histories, how can we trust the stories we tell about ourselves to others or even to ourselves?

There may be situations, then, that it would be advantageous to leave some evidence that a mess occurred. In these instances, residue may serve as a reminder of what happened or a warning of what could happen again. It could also be an inspiration pointing toward something better.

The temptation to clean a mess up completely so that not one bit remains is understandably strong. Yet perhaps our challenge is to discern in our lives which messes should not be so thoroughly scrubbed out and away. A scar, a broken lamp shade, a hurtful letter – keeping these around instead of erasing them altogether could serve greater purposes. Like a charm, they could help us remember important lessons, and orient us toward that ever-elusive (non-frog-infested) territory called “better.” In a profound way, some painful residue can be magical.