Parashat Va-Eira

Rabbi Michael Pitkowsky

There is a new satirical TV show in Israel called Ha-Yehudim Baim, the Jews are Coming. For the show there is no figure in Jewish history who is off limits. Whether it be Moshe Rabbeinu or Moshe Dayan, no one is immune. One sketch that has been broadcast on a number of episodes is the “Commentator’s Gallery.” In this segment, which is based upon raucous shows that discuss political issues, the two important Bible commentators Rashi and Umberto Cassuto debate, if one can call it that, issues related to the Bible. A host tries to keep things under control, often separating Rashi and Cassuto after they trade barbs.

One topic that was discussed on a recent episode was the Ten Plagues. The following dialogue took place between the characters. [The video in Hebrew can be viewed here.]

Host: Another hot topic this evening…the Ten Plagues.

Rashi: I’m in favor.

Cassuto: I’m opposed.

Host: Again you’re opposed. Why are you opposed, Cassuto? Pharoah made the Jew’s lives horrible, what’s the problem? God should stick it to them a little bit!

Cassuto: Let Him stick it to them a little bit, but what are the frogs guilty of? Why is there this exploitation of animals for our needs? How else are we going to exploit them, guide frogs?

Host: Listen Rashi. Cassuto says, and maybe he is right, although I really don’t think so, that the Ten Plagues are not humane. What is your approach? Let the animals be beaten?

Rashi: Definitely, I’m still in favor.

Host: Why are you in favor? Is it because the Ten Plagues in essence perpetuate the superiority of God over the natural world?

Rashi: Not necessarily. Call me conservative, call me a bearded man, but I am a sucker for abusing animals.

Cassuto: Give me a break. That’s a good enough reason to throw frogs from the heavens? Have  you ever fallen from such heights? It is both hard and it hurts.

Lurking behind all of the satire are some very serious questions about the plagues in general and specifically the plague of frogs. Were the Egyptians deserving of the plagues? Even if they were deserving of the plagues, were they punished in an appropriate manner? What about the frogs, did they deserve to be the instruments for God’s punishment against Egypt?

In Midrash Rabbah there is a midrash that also has a semi-satirical tone to it.

“And the frog [in the singular] came up and covered the land of Egypt” (Exodus 8:2). Rabbi Akiva said: It was only one frog, but it bred so rapidly that it filled the entire land of Egypt. Rabbi Eleazar ben Azariah said to him: Akiva, what business have you with Aggadah? Leave your attempts at homiletical interpretation and turn to Negaim and Ohalot [which were two difficult tractates of the Mishnah]. True, at the beginning there was only one frog, but this one croaked for the others, and they came in swarms. (Exodus Rabbah 10:4 and Sanhedrin 67b, trans. from The Book of LegendsSefer Ha-Aggadah, p. 68)
Rabbi Akiva was trying to explain why Exodus 8:2 only talks about one solitary frog that came up from the Nile, but was somehow able to cover the land of Egypt. Rabbi Eleazar ben Azariah thought that Rabbi Akiva would be better off learning other material and not homiletical Aggadah about frogs, yet he himself couldn’t hold back and not comment about the frog(s). Whether it was a very fertile frog or one that was able to assemble the frog multitudes, the frog(s) in this week’s parashah has/have drawn the attention not only of present day satirists, but also rabbis such as Akiva and Eleazer ben Azariah.

Rabbi Michael Pitkowsky is the AJR Rabbinics Curriculum Coordinator.