The Torah uses two phrases several times to indicate a longer-range prediction or association of fact. One phrase is “ad hayom hazeh,” literally translated to mean “until this day” (which can also appear without “hazeh”); the other phrase includes the word “kamohu,” which means “like it,” and is usually part of a sentence declaring that a particular phenomenon had never happened before and, in two cases, will never happen again.
I remember the first time I learned the phrase “ad hayom.” I was in third grade, and we were learning Parshat Vayishlach, when the death of Rachel is described. Yaakov buries her, and the monument he places at her grave is described as being there “until today.” The rebbe told us “that’s talking about Kever Rachel [Rachel’s Tomb, north of Bethlehem] which is still there today.”
I’ve since branched out of third grade thinking and have learned two important points that indicate the rebbe’s conclusions that day were misleading. Firstly, “until today” means “until today when the Torah is written;” in other words, until the text of the Torah is sealed in the time of Moshe. Any stone marker that may have lasted from Yaakov’s time to Moshe’s time is not automatically around now, 3,300 years later.
Secondly, I’ve learned that Kever Rachel is not where Rachel our foremother is buried. This is not to say there isn’t a woman named Rachel buried there. And this is not to say that that site is not a holy place — after all, Jews have been praying there for generations. But the evidence suggesting Rachel is buried elsewhere (further north, in an ancient Bethlehem in the area of Binyamin) is much stronger than the evidence indicating she was buried at the kever site near Bethlehem in Judea.
To summarize the first point: “ad hayom hazeh” refers to until the day the Torah’s text was sealed and presented to the Jewish people.
However, the word “kamohu” is attached to the plagues of hail, locusts, and the cry following the death of the firstborn, indicating that the natural phenomena related to these events had never happened before, and insofar as locusts and a great cry were concerned, would never happen again in Egypt on such a scale. Now that is a pretty bold claim.
What does that mean for us, beyond, as Ibn Ezra notes, that this was written prophetically?
Some of the commentaries note how these declarations were meant to prove G-d’s power to the highest degree. The hail was a unique blend of fire and ice that the world had never seen (Rabbenu Bachaye). There was never any kind of hail such as this in Egypt, where it doesn’t rain. And certainly never happened there before Egypt became a nation (Ramban).
As far as the locusts were concern, a few things made them unique. They didn’t just damage the produce and leave; they stayed put for days until they had eaten everything (Midrash Sechel Tov).
There is a debate among the commentaries about how many species of locusts came. Rashi notes a contradiction with the passage in Yoel 2:2 that describes the greatest locust storm of all time, which seemed to surpass the degree of swarm and damage of whatever took place in Egypt. There are a number of answers and responses to this. Rashi’s own answer is that in Egypt there was only one species, while in Israel there were many species at the same time. This makes the plague in Egypt greater when comparing specific species.
Ramban doesn’t accept Ra-shi’s view, based on the verses in Tehillim 78:46 and 105:34. Therefore he notes why the Egyptian locust swarm was more incredible in that locusts come during drought. But Egypt has moisture around the Nile, which is not an attraction for locusts — and yet they came. Their arrival was based on the declaration of a prophet, and along with Rabbenu Bachaye, that is the claim — that such a large locust storm does not come without a prophet (which is why Yoel’s could be bigger!)
Some commentaries note that the declaration of a locust swarm never being like that again was limited to in Egypt, but that it could happen elsewhere (R Chaim Paltiel).
Daat Zekenim suggest Moshe’s was incredible because all the locusts came at once, while in Yoel’s time, the different species came one group after the other. In other words, each swarm was smaller, but because there were multiple swarms, it was overall bigger than what happened in Egypt. (Riv’a disagrees saying the locusts in Yoel’s time all came at the same time).
Regarding the plague of the firstborn, commentaries debate what the phrases “there never was” and “there will never be” refer to. There had never been a night like that and there will never be a cry like that again (Midrash Sechel Tov, Ibn Ezra, Chizkuni). There had never been a night like that with such a plague and there will never be a night like that with such a plague (Targum Yonatan).
Alshikh focuses on the cry that will never be again, either because all the firstborns died at once, so the cry was so widespread in the same instant, or the destroying force made its way through Egypt, hitting home after home, causing the cry to extend and extend through the length of the night.
In a completely different perspective, Malbim suggests the cry was not of mourning, but of rebellion against Pharaoh, of Egyptians coming to the king saying “Enough is enough!”
The message of all of this (the second point raised above) is simple, and it is the important message of Ramban in his last comment on our parsha. G-d, through Moshe, made His presence known in Egypt and to Egyptians, in a way that was unique to that time and place, but in a manner that was meant to serve as a lesson for all time of G-d’s role in the world.
The Torah’s bold claims would be easily disproved, if plagues of Biblical proportion did happen in Egypt again, and if they were worse than the first time.
Who else could make such a claim, but the Master of the World Who knows what will be from the beginning of time to the end of time?