Parashat Va'era 5755
THE GROUND THAT THEY ARE ON...
If you do not send out My people, I will send among you and among your servants and among your people and in your houses vicious animals; the houses of Egypt will be full of the vicious animals, as well as the ground they are on.In this verse the extent of the plague of Arov -- vicious animals -- is described. The plague is to be extremely far-reaching; the animals will find their way into every nook and cranny of Egypt's population centers. But there is something puzzling about the description offered here. Having already said that the scourge would affect all the houses and people of Egypt, why does the Torah have to say that it will also affect "the ground they (i.e. the Egyptian people) are on?" What added aspect of the punishment of Arov is being alluded to in this seemingly superfluous phrase?
The commentators offer a number of very interesting suggestions that deal with this question. I would like to present here four of their suggestions.
Rav Shimshon of Sens (c. 1100 A.D.) explains in his commentary based on the Talmud Yerushalmi, that there used to be a creature that was identical to a human being, except that it was tethered to the ground by means of a lengthy umbilical cord. This beast -- which the Mishah calls "Adnei HaSadeh," and which was also known as the "Yiddoa" -- was extremely vicious, and would kill anybody or anything that would come within its reach. It was thus very difficult to hunt this creature. In order to overcome it, a hunter would attempt to sever the creature's cord from a safe distance by shooting arrows at it. If the cord became severed, the Adnei HaSadeh would soon die.
According to this, it is possible that the phrase "the ground they are on" is added to include this beast on the list of vicious animals that were to plague the Egyptians. Not only would lions, bears and the like come from all over the area to terrorize the populace, but also the Yiddoa, which under normal circumstances could not wander farther than the end of its cord, would participate. This was made possible because "the ground they (the *animals*) are on," the earth from which these creatures grow, would also be miraculously transported to Egypt!
[This interpretation is quoted in the name of three of
the sharpest masters of Torah interpretation -- the
Vilna Gaon (quoted in Gan Raveh); Reb Heschel of
Cracow (quoted in Chanukat HaTorah); and Rav Shimshon
of Ostropolia (quoted in Koheleth Moshe, p.12).]
The Mishnah in Sheviit (9:2) states that for purposes of determining when the season for a particular food is finished, Eretz Yisrael is divided into three geographical sectors -- Judea, Galilee and the Transjordan. When a food becomes depleted in the fields of one of these areas, that food may no longer be consumed in that area, as it is no longer available to the "animals of the field" there, although it may still be found in the fields in other areas. The Gemara in Pesachim 52b asks why it is that a food is considered to be unavailable to the "animals of the field" in, say, Judea when that food no longer grows in the field in Judea. Can't the animals of Judea still eat the produce of the neighboring areas -- Galilee or Transjordan? The Talmud answers that in fact the animals of Judea would not eat produce from the neighboring lands, because "the animals of Judea do not eat the produce of Galilee." Apparently, animals will normally eat only produce that grows in their own habitat, in their own soil.
Based on this, HaRav Yosef Rosen, the Rogatchover Gaon (d. 1936), suggests that the meaning of the phrase "the ground they (i.e. the *animals*) are on" means that not only would the wild beasts wander from far and wide to torment the Egyptians, but soil from their natural habitats would miraculously be supplied along with them. In this manner, the animals would be able to be nourished from produce grown in the soil of their natural habitat. If not for this source of nourishment, the plague would be very shortlived, as the migrating animals would soon be forced to retreat to their places of origin to find food. Now that Hashem promised to bring not only the animals, but "the ground they are on," the plague was destined to be a much more bitter and longlasting one!
[The Rogatchover Gaon, Rav Yosef Rosen, in Tzafnat Pa'aneach on the Torah]
When he presented the Elders before the Caesar, however, the Caesar did not believe that the men Rebbi Yehoshua brought before him were indeed the famed academics of Athens. These men lacked the arrogance for which the Elders were famed, and showed instead a meek and discomfited demeanor. Rebbi Yehoshua had anticipated this, knowing that the Elders would feel humbled as long as they were away from their home country. He took a handful of earth that he had brought with him from Athens and threw it in the air. The Elders, sniffing the familiar smell of their local habitat, were immediately able to regain their composure and their customary arrogance. Apparently a person feels timid when not in his natural environment.
Another Talmudic source for this idea is found in Eruvin 61a. The Gemara there tells us that even an aggressive and vicious person tends to act in a tame and humbled manner when he is not in his own land. "Even after seven years, a dog will not bark in an unfamiliar place," the Gemara explains. Both humans and animals lose their aggression when away from their home environment.
Yet another source for this observation may be found in Sotah 47a. The Gemara there discusses the episode in II Melachim 2. Hashem produced two bears who came out of a forest and attacked a group of malicious youngsters who had taunted the prophet Elisha. The Gemara explains that it was actually a double miracle that was performed, for not only were there no bears beforehand, but there was also no forest in that place before Hashem brought it forth to avenge the shaming of Elisha.
Why, asks the Gemara, was a double miracle necessary? Why did Hashem create a forest where there was none? Was it not sufficient for Him to create only the bears, without the forest? The Gemara answers that the bears without the forest would not have sufficed. Bears are not violent when they are not near their forest, and the bears would not have attacked the youths had the forest not been there. Even a bear, when it is not in its familiar surroundings, becomes timid.
Hagaon Rebbi Yehoshua Leib Diskin (Rav of Brisk and later of Jerusalem at the turn of the century) offers an interesting explanation of our Pasuk based on these Talmudic statements. The point of the plague of Arov was to cause the Egyptians suffering at the hands of ferocious animals. If the animals' natural viciousness was tamed by their lack of assertiveness in a strange environment, the purpose of the punishment would have been defeated. Thus Hashem declares here that He will bring along with each animal some of the "ground that they (the *animals*) are on," as Rebbi Yehoshua ben Chananiah did for the elders of Athens, in order to provide them with the feeling of their familiar surroundings. In this manner the wild beasts could fully exercise their naturally endowed tendencies toward viciousness and cruelty, just as we find with the bears of Elisha!
[Chiddushei Maharil Diskin on the Torah; see also
Panim Yafot; Midrash Yonatan of Rav Yonatan
(See also Rav Yakov of Eklenberg's "Hatav Vehakkabala," for a fifth, original expalanation fo this verse.)