Parashat Vaeirah

by Michael Pitkowsky

“And the Lord spoke to Moses: Say to Aaron, ‘Stretch out your hand with your rod over the streams, over the rivers, over the ponds, and raise up (ve-ha’al) frogs upon (al) the land of Egypt. And Aaron stretched out his hand over the waters of Egypt; and the frog came up (va-ta’al) and covered the land of Egypt.” (Exodus 8:1-2)

When some people think about the plague of frogs in Egypt they have trouble seeing this plague on the same level as let’s say boils or pestilence. Frogs all over Egypt? OK, not something that any of us would want, but I’ll take that over the killing of the first born any day. Despite the possible comical vision of what this plague may have been like, it was treated with utmost seriousness by our sages.

One Talmudic interpretation recognized a grammatical anomaly in the text describing this plague.

“‘And the frog came up (va-ta’al, singular), and covered (va-tekhas, singular) the land of Egypt.’ (Exodus 8:2) Rabbi Eleazar said that it was one frog that bred prolifically and filled the land. This is a matter disputed by Tannaim. Rabbi Akiba said: There was one frog which filled the whole of Egypt [by breeding]. But Rabbi Eleazar ben Azariah said to him, ‘Akiba, What are you doing with Haggadah [non-legal portions of the Talmud]? Cease your words and devote yourself to “Nega’im” (skin diseases) and “Ohalot” (impurities of tents). One frog croaked for the others and they came.” (Sanhedrin 67b, modified Soncino trans.)

Rabbi Akiba understood the use of the singular “came up/va-ta’al” and “covered/va-tekhas” to imply that there originally was one frog which gave birth to many other frogs. On the other hand, Rabbi Eleazar ben Azariah rejected the super-procreating frog and envisioned a scenario in which a sort of Pied Piper frog led the frog masses on their march.

Another interpretation found in the Talmud is in a bit of a more serious tone.

“The scholars asked: Was Todos of Rome a great man or a powerful man? Come and hear: This Todos of Rome also taught — For what reason did Hananiah, Mishael, and Azariah see that they delivered themselves, for the sanctification of the [Divine] Name, to the fiery furnace? (see Daniel 3) They argued a minori (kal ve-homer) for themselves: if frogs which are not commanded concerning the sanctification of the [Divine] Name, yet it is written of them, ‘and they shall come up and go into your house…and into your ovens, and into your kneading troughs.’ (Exodus 7:28) Are the kneading troughs to be found near the oven? When the oven is hot. We who are commanded concerning the sanctification of the Name, how much the more so.” (Pesahim 53b, modified Soncino trans.)

According to this interpretation, the behavior of the frogs, “they shall come up and go into your house…and into your ovens,” served as the paradigm for one of the most well-known episodes of martyrdom in Jewish history, that of Hananiah, Mishael, and Azariah described in the Book of Daniel.

This interpretive tradition that saw the frogs as the inspiration if not for martyrdom, at least for devotion to God, mesirut nefesh, continued after the Talmud as we can see in the following interepretation.

“We find the word ‘and raise up’ (va-ha’al) only one other time in the Torah, in the case of Aaron’s death. There it is said, ‘Take Aaron and his son Eleazar, and bring them up (ve-ha’al otam) Mount Hor.’ (Numbers 20:25). For just as here the frogs exhibited devotion (mesirut nefesh) for the sake of the Creator’s command when they went to their certain deaths, so too did Aaron go up to Mount Hor in order to die and he gave over his soul (ve-masar et nafsho) for the sake of the Creator’s commandment.” (Likutei Sefat Emet, quoted by Alexander Zusha Friedman in Ma’ayanah shel Torah)

Today many people are asking how they can take a stand, how they can show devotion, mesirut nefesh, for the ideals and values that they hold dear. My recommendation is to look around us, to search for inspiration in the places that may seem to be the least likely sources of inspiration. Who knows, maybe some of us will be able to find their own frog to inspire them towards action, their own frog that will lead the way not towards destruction, but towards growth, renewal, and ultimately redemption.