The fifth plague to befall the Egyptian people was דֶבֶר, most often translated as pestilence, a virulent epidemic that would affect their livestock, killing them off. Although this word is often used to indicate an epidemic of sorts there is no indication how this root ד-ב-ר indicates a fatal disease. The root ד-ב-ר is the source for the word, דִיבּוּר, meaning speech, as well as for דָבָר, the word indicating ‘something’ or matter. The word יַדְבֵּר, gathering, shares this root too.
The common denominator would seem to be the notion of combining separate items into one; sounds that form words bringing forth an intelligent expression; an ‘item’, some ‘thing’ that is defined as an independent whole entity; people or articles collected together as a unit.(RSRH)
דֶבֶר, epidemic, would then seem to follow suit in its implication of an invisible disease that encompasses a large mass of people, or animals in this case.
Rabbi Avraham, the son of the Rambam suggests that this sudden occurrence of the death of their livestock was evidently decreed by the ‘will’ of G-d which is expressed as דִיבּוּר, His utterance. It is this unseen force that drives all life that when He chooses to withdraw from any ‘matter’ brings that item its immediate demise.
It is in regard to this sole plague that Moshe is instructed, ודברת אליו, and you shall speak to him (Pharaoh). Three more times the word דבר appears within these seven verses, ולא ימות מכל לבני ישראל דבר, not a thing that belongs to the Children of Israel will die; מחר יעשה את הדבר הזה, tomorrow shall G-d carry out this word; ויעש ד' את הדבר הזה, G-d carried out this word.
Adding the word used to describe the epidemic, דֶבֶר, we have a total of five references.
This plague as distinguished from all others is the only one referred to as indicative as the ‘Hand of G-d’.
In the Haggadah we recite the verse elsewhere that describes how G-d took us out of Egypt ביד חזקה, with a strong hand, going on to elucidate how this refers to the plague of pestilence specifically, quoting the verse that states:
הנה יד ד' הויה במקנך אשר בשדה בסוסים בחמורים בגמלים בבקר ובצאן דבר כבד מאד (שמות ט ג), Behold the hand of G-d is on your livestock in the fields, against the horses, the donkeys,the camels, the cattle, and the flocks,a very heavy pestilence.
The Zohar points out that just as the hand possesses five fingers, there were five different categories of animals; horses, donkeys, camels, cattle and flock that G-d smote figuratively with each of His fingers.
Clearly there is something unique about this plague of pestilence that singles it out in describing it as the hand of G-d. What distinguishes this epidemic from the other powerful displays of G-d’s might and absolute control over nature? What significance is there to relating to the five species that were afflicted independently by each finger? Did G-d use separate fingers in summoning the variety of beasts that assaulted the populace during the plague of Arov, the swarms of beasts?
The ancient Midrash, Mishnas Rebbi Eliezer, records that not only were the animals afflicted but the humans as well. The horse and its rider, the donkey and its driver, the camel and its driver, the cattle and its herder, the sheep and its shepherd were all fatally doomed when their charges suddenly dropped dead falling upon them and crushing them to death. (משנת רבי אליעזר פ"יט)
The Midrash goes on to prove this point by quoting from the Prophet Zechariah who in his prophecy regarding the war of Gog and Magog foretells how in addition to the plague that will befall the nations that rallied against Jerusalem, “similar will be the plague against the horses, mules, camels, donkeys, and all the animals that will be in those camps”. (זכריה יד טו)
Evidently in the referencing this plague against ‘animals’ similar to those afflicted during the plague in Egypt, as proof to the toll the plague took upon human life as well, the Midrash clearly understood in this prophecy of the End of Time some deeper symbolism as a reference to the human downfall not merely to animals.
In contemplating the plague of pestilence one might be be deluded into thinking that this was merely a plague that harmed their livestock. In those ancient societies the primary means of transportation was by horse and donkey. The mighty horse not only provided the ability to travel afar but it was equally associated with one’s status and office. The donkey was invaluable to anyone who sought to promote one’s personal station in life, allowing him to engage in commerce and communal life. The camel, able to travel far distances was priceless to those ambitious enough to seek the riches and opportunities in discovering new and exciting materials that awaited them in faraway lands that could not only improve their personal lot but provide greater income as well. The ox was vital to agriculture in putting its might to the yoke in the ploughing and production of the bountiful fruit of the land. Sheep and goats provided food and clothing in the form of its milk and wool.
Imagine if every car failed to start, trucks engines misfired, every plane malfunctioned, combines and tractors lacked fuel, clothing manufacturers lost electricity, commercial refrigeration suddenly all failed. We take so much for granted assuming that the necessities of life and the vehicles for all of our ambitions will always be there. But in Egypt, the entire commerce of life abruptly ceased.
Perhaps the Torah in enumerating each division of animal is seeking to teach us that there are humans whose entire endeavor in life is consumed by the quest for stature, to socialize and party, to gain of wealth, to be simply busy with a profession, or just to exist. They become identified with the arrogance of the horse; the mindlessness of a donkey; the endurance of the camel in pursuing the pot of gold at the other side of the desert; the industriousness of an ox who works hardily bereft of any conscious goal; the simplicity of the sheep who are just happy to graze.
The depiction in the Midrash of the animal and its rider falling is meant to accent how the Egyptians became one with their blind ‘animalistic’ ambitions, absent of any value for a meaningful life nor a desire to pursue it, that expressed itself in their treating their Jewish slaves no different than as if they were their ‘livestock’, free to be used to advance their purposeless dreams empty of morals.
In the end of time a plague will consume those human beasts who refuse to find higher purpose in their lives, allowing their animal instincts to stampede and trample those who seek meaning.
The lesson of this plague is that there is only one life-force that allows all of ‘matter’ to exist, the word and will of G-d. The moment it is removed everything immediately ceases from existence.
The great 19th century Kabbalist, Rabbi Yitzchak Isaac Chaver teaches that the hand of G-d that operates under the illusion of nature is called יד כהה, the weaker hand, since to all appearances it seems to be ineffective in changing the forces of nature. But when G-d chooses to reveal His true identity, as He did in the plague of pestilence, then the יד חזקה, the mighty hand becomes evident and reveals that in the absence of His input life simply disappears.
We must ask ourselves, are we just beasts of burden, living mindlessly and exerting much energy simply to survive? Or are we humans possessed of a divine spirit, who despite our need to engage in the business of life, never forget or ignore our nobler goals and aspirations?
The bottom line is that G-d ‘matters’, no success can come without His constant infusion of His will. The more we identify with that reality the more likely we will be privileged to benefit from His mighty hand.
צבי יהודה טייכמאן