The Midrash (Shemot Rabba 10:2) makes a surprising statement about the plagues which God brought upon Egypt, noting that they were, in one sense, beneficial for the Egyptians: “The plagues which the Almighty brought upon the Egyptians caused them to make peace…” As the Midrash proceeds to relate, Egypt at this time was embroiled in a territorial dispute with a neighboring country, Kush (commonly identified as Ethiopia), and this conflict was resolved during the second plague, the plague of frogs. Moshe warned Pharaoh before the plague that frogs would strike “kol gevulkha” – literally, “all your boundary.” The plague would affect all of Egyptian territory, and thus the scope of the plague determined which land belonged to Egypt and which belonged to its neighboring countries. In this sense, the plague of frogs was beneficial for Egypt, putting to rest a conflict that had been raging between the kingdom and a neighboring nation.
What might the Midrash here seek to convey by telling of this tangential effect of the plague of frogs?
On one level, perhaps, the Midrash might be urging us to find the proverbial “silver lining” in even the most adverse situations. Even when we find ourselves beset by difficult “plagues,” by hardships and challenges, we can identify some beneficial outcome or aspect of the crisis. Rarely is a “plague” entirely bereft of benefit. Just as the Midrash found a “silver lining” to the plagues that ravaged Egypt, similarly, we can often find something beneficial in the challenging situations that we confront over the course of life.
There may, however, also be a more specific aspect of this “benefit” provided by the plague of frogs, to which Chazal here draw our attention. The Egyptians’ enslavement of Benei Yisrael stemmed from their belief in their right to encroach upon other people’s “territory,” their personal space and freedom. They felt entitled to Benei Yisrael’s time and labor. The Egyptian bondage was, in a sense, a “territorial” issue – a question of whether a powerful nation has the right to control a weaker nation. The Midrash here perhaps expresses the point that true peace is achieved when people respect each other’s boundaries, when we deny ourselves the right to control other people and encroach upon their rights and freedoms. While it might seem advantageous for us to manipulate other people and try to gain as much as we can from them, in truth, we attain the greatest blessing of all – the blessing of peace and stability – by recognizing the “boundaries” between different people and never trying to violate other people’s personal space. The plagues that descended upon Egypt brought the country peace by clarifying its boundaries with other nations – conveying the message that it would be to its benefit to respect other people’s “territory” rather than feeling entitled to it.