When Life Gives you Lemons, Eat Locusts

September 9, 2020 - 19 Elul 5780

In the story of the Exodus the Egyptians get a bad rap, and rightfully so because they are so clearly the perpetrators of evil.

However, we occasionally can attest to the attempt of even evil people to bring order into chaos, to bring some good into the equation when all they see is bad.

The Midrash Shemos Rabbah 13:7 says that the Egyptians tried to catch the locusts in barrels during the eighth plague:

...and the Lord reversed a very strong west wind, why does it say that "not one locust remained?" Rabbi Yochanan said "Because the Egyptians rejoiced when the locusts came, saying 'Let us gather and fill up barrels with them.'

וַיּהֲפֹךְ ה' רוּחַ יָם, מַהוּ לֹא נִשְׁאַר אַרְבֶּה אֶחָד, אָמַר רַבִּי יוֹחָנָן כֵּיוָן שֶׁבָּא אַרְבֶּה שָׂמְחוּ הַמִּצְרִיִּים, אָמְרוּ נִקְבֹּץ וּנְמַלֵּא מֵהֶם חָבִיּוֹת

Locusts were (and in some places are) a delicacy, and so the Egyptians saw an opportunity in the destructive onslaught of the locusts for some fine dining. And it may certainly be that this is a redeeming factor among the Egyptians, for although they brought great evil upon the Jews they at least sought to minimize their own suffering and to "turn lemons into lemonade." It attests to the human will to survive, which is part and parcel of what it means to be "made in the Image of God."

Further, we cannot completely ignore the attempts of even evil people with evil motivations to find construction within destruction, and we may even learn from them. For as we know, the Midrash says that although the people who built the Tower of Babel were, in their minds, declaring war on God, their one redeeming factor was their express unity with each other in this literally misdirected endeavor. To this end we may appreciate the attempts of the Egyptians to improve their dismal situation in any way they knew how. Contrast this with the behavior of the generation of Noach, who manipulated and cheated each other, for which God brought destruction upon the entire face of the earth in contrast to one lone edifice in the generation of Babel.

But therein lies the rub - it is not always appropriate to look for the good in the bad. This is specifically true when God is sending the bad for the purpose of inspiring repentance, which was one of the reasons for the ten plagues. So while it is generally true that one should look for whatever good he can find in whatever difficulties he experiences, sometimes the most appropriate action is to pause, think, and introspect as to what may be causing him to experience this particular set of hardships, and to plot out a plan of reconciliation and improvement.

The continutation of that Midrash is as follows:

The Holy One, Blessed is He, said, 'Evil ones! This plague that I brought upon you, and you rejoice in it,' He immediately reversed a very strong wind," this is an easterly wind. "And picked up the locusts." What does it mean that "not one locust remained?" Even those that were in their jars and barrels, which were pickled, flew away and went away, and God hardened Pharoah's heart.

אָמַר הַקָּדוֹשׁ בָּרוּךְ הוּא רְשָׁעִים בַּמַּכָּה שֶׁהֵבֵאתִי עֲלֵיכֶם בָּהּ אַתֶּם שְׂמֵחִים, מִיָּד וַיַּהֲפֹךְ ה' רוּחַ יָם חָזָק מְאֹד, זֶה רוּחַ מַעֲרָבִית. וַיִּשָֹּׂא אֶת הָאַרְבֶּה וגו', מַהוּ לֹא נִשְׁאַר אַרְבֶּה אֶחָד, אֲפִלּוּ מַה שֶּׁהָיוּ בַּקְּדֵירוֹת וּבֶחָבִיּוֹת מְלוּחוֹת פָּרְחוּ וְהָלְכוּ לָהֶם, וַיְחַזֵּק ה' אֶת לֵב פַּרְעֹה

And now the folly of the Egyptians becomes clear, as it says in Koheles (Ecclesiastes), "A time to cast stones and a time to gather stones." (Koheles 3:5) By their frenzied focus on gathering as many barrels of locusts as possible they missed the meaning of the experiences that was right in front of their faces - the call to teshuva, repentance.

The Pirkei Avos (Ethics of the Fathers) says,

"Ben Zoma says, 'Who is wise? He who learns from every man, as it says (Psalms 119:99), 'From all my teachers I gained understanding...'"

בֶּן זוֹמָא אוֹמֵר, אֵיזֶהוּ חָכָם, הַלּוֹמֵד מִכָּל אָדָם, שֶׁנֶּאֱמַר (תהלים קיט) מִכָּל מְלַמְּדַי הִשְׂכַּלְתִּי כִּי עֵדְוֹתֶיךָ שִׂיחָה לִּי

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