Parashat Vaeira tells of the first seven of the ten plagues that God brought upon Egypt in order to force Pharaoh to allow Benei Yisrael to leave. These plagues afflicted the Egyptians in different ways, either bodily or economically.
Intriguingly, two of the plagues struck not only the Egyptians themselves, but also their animals. The Torah writes that both the Egyptians and their animals suffered from the plague of lice (“va-tehi ha-kinam ba-adam u-va-beheima” – 8:13), and the boils likewise surfaced on the skin of even the Egyptians’ animals (“porei’ach ba-adam u-va-beheima” – 9:10). Rav Yehuda Henkin (Mahalkhim Ba-mikra) noted that this feature is unique to these two plagues. True, the plague of pestilence killed the Egyptians’ cattle (9:1-6), and the hail killed both the people and animals that remained outdoors (9:25). (Additionally, the plague of blood killed the fish in the Nile River – 7:21.) However, these plagues killed the Egyptians’ animals – a vitally important commodity – as a punishment for the Egyptians themselves, impoverishing them. The plagues of lice and boils, by contrast, did not kill any animals, but rather caused them extreme discomfort, just as it caused the Egyptians themselves.
The question thus arises as to the purpose behind this aspect of these plagues. How did the discomfort caused to the animals affect the Egyptians? Why did God find it necessary for these plagues to cause suffering even to the animals?
Rav Henkin suggests that the purpose of including the animals in these plagues was not to afflict the animals, but rather to humble the Egyptians, showing them that they were as vulnerable as animals. By unleashing plagues against both the people and the animals, God sought to break the Egyptians’ hubris and sense of invincibility. They saw themselves as a higher class of people, empowered to enslave and oppress those considered lower and less important. In response, God showed the Egyptians that they were, in truth, no stronger than the animals, that in relation to His power, they were as helpless as their cattle. He therefore sent two plagues which afflicted man and beast alike, to demonstrate that all creatures on earth are governed by, and completely dependent upon, the Almighty, to whom we are all equally subservient.