Nature in the Torah: Parashat Va’erah
|The Late Blooming Grain in Rebbetzin's Garden|
Why exactly was the wheat not affected by the plague of hail? What caused it to survive?
The Softest Survives
Rashi explains, “The [wheat] was late in growing and it was still soft and able to resist the blow of anything hard…” This softness of the wheat concurs with the attribute of Chesed, which means kindness. Perhaps it is the kindness and softness of the wheat that makes it late growing, not pushing itself forward like the tough barley and flax, the first grains to ripen. The way of the world is to think that you need to be tough to survive in a tough world, but the nature of wheat, in this week’s parasha, teaches us the very opposite. Head on confrontations usually don’t get us very far, even when we win we lose. The resentment of the one we knocked down or preceded is not worthwhile any kind of victory. When we are unassuming and pliable we can withstand hard strokes and bounce right back. With softness, we can withstand the rigid frozenness of the hail melting it into the waters of kindness. This is the lesson of the wheat, which was saved because its stems were still pliable.
Miracle of Miracles
The word used by the Torah to explain why wheat and spelt were not affected by the hail is אֲפִילֹת/afilot. This word is usually translated to mean unripe or not grown up. The Midrash makes a pun with the letters of the word, אֲפִילֹת/afilot, which can be unscrambled to spell out the word for wonder or miracle in Hebrew פלאות /p’laot. “Miracles of miracles פלאי פלאות/p’lei p’laot happened to the wheat, that it was not smitten (Rashi ibid.). In the first place, the plagues were all miracles anyway so what was the big deal about the miracle of the wheat? It seems natural that it wasn’t stricken since it hadn’t become full-grown yet. However, the hail did mite all the other soft weeds of the field (Shemot 9:25), and since the hail included fire in it, even the young wheat sprouts would naturally have been burned up (Nachalat Ya’acov). This is what made Rashi conclude that the survival of the wheat was a miracle within the miracle. It was natural that the hard barley and flax would be smitten, but it was a miracle that the soft grasses also were smitten, and it was a miracle within miracles that the wheat was spared from sharing the same fate as the rest of the soft grasses. The Torah verses about the wheat and the barley appears inside of Moshe’s speech to Pharaoh. This is because Moshe hinted to Pharaoh that he shouldn’t think that he is safe, just because nothing happened to him yet. This is only because his time had not yet come, as it is known that Hashem never punishes people until their sins have accumulated enough to make them ripe for the punishment. Pharaoh should take the hint from the wheat. Just as it had not yet ripened enough to be destroyed, the only reason why Pharaoh was still unharmed, is that his time had not yet come (The Taz on the Torah).
Firstborn among the Produce
Another reason why the hail smote only the barley, was that the Egyptians venerated all kind of ‘firstborn’ whether among plants, animals or people. Therefore, the barley and flax, the ‘firstborn’ among the produce was stricken, in order to allude to the last and hardest plague of the death of the firstborn. Perhaps this is why the Kohanim wore linen garments spun from fibers of flax, as they take the place of the firstborn. Yet, for sacrifices, wheat is preferred over the ‘firstborn’ of the plants (Chatam Sofer).
Establishing the Time of ‘Spring’
I love to watch the ripening of the green grasses turning into grain during the spring period between Pesach and Shavuot. The Torah explicit instructs us to celebrate the Exodus from Egypt during the month of אָבִיב /Aviv.
“You shall observe the Feast of Matzah; for seven days you are to eat unleavened bread, as I commanded you, at the appointed time in the month Aviv, for in it you came out of Egypt” (Shemot 23:15).
In Modern Hebrew “Aviv” means ‘spring.’ However, our Torah verse teaches us that the word more correctly refers to a stage of ripeness in grain crops – when the stalks are stiff but the heads of the grain are still green. For this reason, before we had a fixed calendar, our sages would pay great attention to the progress of the barley crop, in order to ensure that the month of Nissan would correlate with the time in the agricultural cycle of the original month of Nissan in which the plague of hail took place. We must also celebrate Pesach specifically during the season of ‘Aviv,’ when we emerge from the harsh shell of Egypt compared to barley and metamorphoses into the soft pliable wheat.
Enlightening the Dusk
Wheat is a metaphor for Israel as it states, “Your belly is a heap of wheat” (Song of Songs 7:3). Spelt (כֻּסֶּמֶת/kosemet), is a metaphor for the Kohanim as it states, “Neither shall they shave their heads, nor allow their locks to grow long; they shall only כָּסוֹם יִכְסְמוּ/kasom yiksemu – crop their heads” (Yechezkiel 44:20). The word אֲפִילֹת/afilot, which we translated as unripe can also mean dark or dusk. Metaphorically, Israel (wheat) has been darkened in exile, but in the future Hashem will illuminate their dusk as it states, “The sun shall be no more your light by day, neither for brightness shall the moon give light to you; but Hashem shall be to you an everlasting light, and your G-d your glory” (Yesha’yahu 60:19), (Tzror Hamor). It is interesting to note that the word אֲפִילֹת/afilot shares the numerical value with the word תחזק/techezek, which means to harden or become strong. We look forward to the time when the dark will turn into light, and the strength of the soft will be revealed in the world.