After the second plague of frogs, the Torah states: “…and the frogs died – from the houses, from the courtyards, and from the fields. They heaped them up into many piles, and the land became foul. Pharaoh saw that there had been a relief and kept hardening his heart. He did not listen to them, as G-d had spoken.” (Shemot 8:9-11)
Kli Yakar asks: Why is it only by the plague of Frogs that we have the expression “Pharaoh saw that there had been a relief”? the same was true of all the plagues? What is unique here about the frogs that the Torah needs to call to our attention that Pharaoh took note that it let up?
Kil Yakar makes an interesting point. With every other plague, when it was over, it was over. When it stopped hailing, it stopped hailing. When the plague of darkness finished, it was light outside. However, with the frogs, there was a unique situation. Even after the frogs finally died, the Egyptians now had billions of frogs sitting, rotting, and smell. The Torah testifies to the fact that the land stank! Thus, even when it was “over,” it was not really over! However, the pasuk says that Pharaoh saw that there was some “harvacha” (literally “wide open spaces” in this context meaning “relief”).
If one had a large enough territory, one could escape the smell. It is only in a confined area that a foul odour is so offensive. The wider the area, the more the scent will dissipate. Therefore, the pasuk states that when Pharaoh saw that there was “harvacha” — i.e., wide-open spaces in Egypt that did not smell so bad where he could escape to – he hardened his heart as before.
As soon as Pharaoh saw the slightest let-up, he felt, “now I can revert to my old ways.” With the other plagues, when the hail stopped, Pharaoh went back to being the wicked Pharaoh. However, over here, one would have thought that it never really stopped, and the aftermath should still give him pause from his evil ways. Nevertheless, as long as he found a little wiggle room – of “harvacha” in the wide-open spaces of Egypt – he immediately went back to being the old Pharaoh.
Human nature is such that when G-d forbid people are confronted with trials and tribulations, we pray better, act better, and do all the things we are supposed to do. Then as soon as there is somewhat of a let-up and the pressure is off, we revert to our old patterns.
Pharaoh should remind us of this lesson: With the light at the end of the tunnel of Covid beginning to shine with the rollout of vaccinations. Our challenge is to hang on to the positive things we have learned to appreciate and not taken for granted, like family, health, and deeper connection with Hashem, people and ourselves. So that when we finally come out of the pandemic, we can hang on to our newfound lessons and not just bounce back to our old selves.
Rabbi Shlomo Gabay