When Shall I Pray?
This week's parsha begins the story of the ten plagues. Pharaoh refused to acknowledge Hashem's existence and would therefore not consent to free his Hebrew slaves, as Moses had requested. The plagues had symbolic meaning and their ultimate message is all material for the Torah commentators to delve into. We will look at the plague of frogs and Moses' prayer to Hashem to remove them, as Pharaoh requested. Let us see what we can learn from it.
"And Moses said to Pharaoh 'Glorify yourself with me – for when shall I pray for you, for your servants and for your people, to destroy the frogs from you and from your house? Only in the river will they remain.' "
For when shall I pray for you? - RASHI: With reference to the prayer which I shall pray for you today to destroy the frogs, when do you want them to be destroyed, and you will see whether I can carry out my promise by the time that you set for me. If it had said (in Hebrew) "mati a'ateir" without the letter "lamed," it would mean "when shall I pray?" but now that it says (in Hebrew) "l'mati" it means, "I will pray today that the frogs be destroyed for the time you set for me. Tell me, then, by what day do you wish that they be destroyed?"
WHAT IS RASHI SAYING?
Rashi is quite clear here as to the point of his comment. He wants to clarify the meaning of the word "when" (Hebrew "l'mati"). Since the addition of the letter "lamed" at the beginning of the word is unusual, Rashi shows us its special meaning here. Moses will pray now to have the frogs destroyed at whatever time in the future Pharaoh designates. So the word means "for when" and not just "when."
The Ramban (Nachmanides) differs with Rashi on the meaning of this word. He says it means simply "when."
FINDING SUPPORT FOR RASHI'S INTERPRETATION
Can you find support for Rashi's interpretation of the meaning of this word elsewhere in the text?
Hint: Look further regarding other plagues.
SUPPORT FOR RASHI
Rabbeinu Bachaya, in his commentary on the Torah, finds support for Rashi in Exodus 8:25. There, referring to the plague of mixed wild beasts, it says
"And Moses said: Behold I leave you and I shall entreat Hashem and the mixture of wild beasts will depart from Pharaoh, from his servants and from his people tomorrow etc."
Here it does not say "I shall entreat Hashem tomorrow" even though the wild beasts were to be removed only on the morrow. This, says Rabbeinu Bachaya, indicates that Moses would pray immediately for the cessation of a plague to take effect on the morrow.
A CLOSER LOOK AT A PATTERN IN THE PLAGUES
Rabbeinu Bachaya points out an interesting pattern, not usually noticed in the plagues.
Why would Pharaoh ask for the plagues' cessation on the next day, when immediate relief would seem to be the desired objective? Commentaries suggest that Pharaoh was skeptical of Moses and the miraculous nature of the plagues. He assumed that Moses had some insight into natural events and thus predicted these "miracles" which he knew would happen naturally in any event. Thus, Pharaoh thought that since Moses asked him when he wanted the plague stopped, Moses expected Pharaoh to say "right now" and Moses was ready for that, because he knew it would stop soon due to natural causes. So Pharaoh thought to outsmart Moses and made the unusual request to stop the frogs only on the morrow, even though this would cause him and his people additional discomfort.
Now notice the pattern that Rabbeinu Bachaya points out. See Exodus 8:19 regarding the plague of mixed animals:
"And I will put a separation between my people and your people, tomorrow will be this sign."
See Exodus 9:5 regarding the plague of pestilence:
"And Hashem set an appointed time, saying: Tomorrow Hashem will do this thing in the land."
See Exodus 9:18 regarding the plague of hail:
"Behold I will rain at this time tomorrow very heavy hail, etc."
See Exodus 10:4 regarding the plagues of locusts:
"For if you refuse to let My people go, behold, tomorrow I will bring the locusts in all your boundaries."
It is as if Moses is mocking Pharaoh, "You asked me to remove the frogs 'tomorrow' to test me and my God; well, then, you will have your tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrows! You'll wait anxiously and expectantly for each plague, until ... tomorrow."