The Little Lice with the Big Message by Rabbi Josh Kahn


The story of the Makkot in Mitzrayim conjures up images of amazing miracles that take place for Bnei Yisrael. Children are taught that these amazing miracles defy the very nature of the world. Water turning into blood, fire and ice together falling from the sky, and a thick darkness that paralyzes the Mitzrim while Bnei Yisrael move freely around Mitzrayim. Yet, there are subtler miracles that are perhaps even more instructive that shape our experience of redemption and our belief system.

The Makkot and accompanying dialogue between Moshe and Par’oh indicate a much more powerful, theological debate that takes place between the power of God and the perceived power of the Mitzri magicians. In this battle, the magicians provide Par’oh with ammunition to dismiss the first two Makkot sent by Hashem. So, the turning point is the third of the Makkot, that of Kinim, lice. It is during this Makkah that the Mitzri magicians first acknowledge their failure, as it is written, “Etzba Elokim Hi,” “This is the finger of God” (Shemot 8:15). Rashi, commenting on 8:14 (s.v. VeLo Yacholu), quotes the Midrash and explains that the power of the magicians works only on creatures that are at least the size of a lentil. Since lice are smaller than lentils, the magicians’ power is ineffective on them. Yet, even in this moment of weakness, the Mitzri magicians still manage to try to limit the credit they give. Ramban, commenting on 8:15, explains that by proclaiming, “This is the finger of God,” the magicians are implicitly critiquing the power of Hashem in two ways. First, this Makkah is only the finger, not the hand, of Hashem. The finger is not a daunting or amazing power; rather, it is weak and limited in comparison to what the hand can do. Would the magicians acknowledge the hand of God, it would be a greater acknowledgment of Hashem’s power. Additionally, the magicians describe this power as emanating from “Elokim,” as opposed to “Hashem.” The term Elokim is used to connote godly power, but falls short of acknowledging Hashem. In the context of this theological debate, and, specifically, the defense provided by the Mitzrim, what is the message Hashem is trying to convey to Bnei Yisrael through this plague of lice?

Chief Rabbi Jonathan Sacks suggests that the Makkah of Kinim provides a fundamental lesson in belief for Bnei Yisrael. In Bnei Yisrael’s eyes, Hashem can be viewed as the original creator of the “Bailout Plan.” Bnei Yisrael are close to falling off the “spiritual cliff.” They are desperate and despondent, and, at this point, Hashem is ready to step in and save them. This is a dangerous perspective, though, as it fails to perceive God’s involvement in the day-to-day activities, in the small details that make up the overwhelming majority of our lives. As Bnei Yisrael may be wondering if God cares about each individual, or only the communal good, Hashem uses the plague of lice to show His involvement in the world. In the words of Rabbi Sacks, “God is in the events which, seeming to defy nature, we call miracles. But He is also in nature itself. Science does not displace God; it reveals, in ever more intricate and wondrous ways, the design within nature itself.” The Makkah of Kinim teaches us how involved God is in the running of every detail of this world.

This transformative lesson for Bnei Yisrael is illustrated through an anecdote. Reuven has a meeting set up in Manhattan. He knows how difficult it can be to find a parking spot, so he arrives early enough to have time to find a spot. But after circling the area for 30 minutes, Reuven still could not find a parking spot. Finally, he proclaims, “Hashem, if You help me find a spot in the next two minutes, I will give $180 to Tzedakah.” No sooner as Reuven finishes, he sees a man get into his car and pull out of a parking spot. As Reuven pulls into the spot, he says, “Never mind, Hashem! I don’t need Your help; I just found a spot.” This is Bnei Yisrael’s attitude prior to Makkat Kinim: Hashem doesn’t involve himself in the day-to-day activities. Makkat Kinim changes that, and shows that Hashem is involved even in the minutia of the natural world.

The Kotzker Rebbe once asked his students to tell him where Hashem is. After various suggestions by his students, the Rebbe explained to his students that Hashem is wherever we let Him be. The message of the Kinim is to see God’s involvement in the big picture and the little details, in the supernatural and in nature as well.

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