Va’era–An Amphibian’s Song

The Second Plague (Frogs)

The Torah will not admit one answer – not for anything.  Every part of the biblical scripture before us is filled with questions, metaphors, double meanings.  The name Yitzhak means laughter in one verb form.  But it can suggest mocking in an intensified form.  When Sarah looks out and sees Ishmael and Yitzhak playing in Genesis 21:9, she calls it just as she sees it, overlapping and punning on her own son’s name.  Ishmael, Sarah says, is “Isaacing.”  He is not only mocking my son, she says, he is impersonating him, he is usurping his place.

A generation later, just after Ya’akov has stolen his twin brother’s blessing, Esav queries his father, resentment and rage permeating his every word: Did you know that Ya’akov was going to grow up to be a trickster and a deceiver?  Is that why you named him Yaakov, sneak thief?  Esav is punning, albeit bitterly.  For indeed, the etymology of Ya’akov’s name can suggest that the boy is what his name seems to suggest: A trickster and a deceiver.

What hidden meanings are found in Va’era?  Among them, one is the matter of the frogs.

Why frogs in the first place?

The writer is assuming we are familiar with the mythologies of neighboring cultures – after all, the ancient Israelites were.  They would have known that the Egyptian pantheon included the frog-headed goddess Hepat, who was believed to assist women at childbirth. 

Let’s take a moment to recall the opening of Shemot, of Exodus?  Pharaoh, appalled at Israelites’ prolific birthrate, summoned the midwives to him.  Then he decreed that those whose business it is to help children come into the world assist not in the creation of life but in its very opposite: Pharaoh demands that the midwives kill male Israelite babies at birth. 

Is the appearance of the frogs designed to make Pharaoh face what he himself has tried to do to the forces of creativity and life?  Frogs, for Egyptians, symbolize fertility and birth.  Here the scripture tells us, they become the frightening specter of death and destruction.  No wonder some rabbis say the frogs were the worst plague.  The world has been turned upside down.  Lightness is darkness, love is hate, birth is death.

More conundrums.  God threatens a plague of frogs.  They shall sharatz, teem and swarm over the country, God says.  Frogs will swarm in the bedchambers, in the ovens and in the kneading bowls.  But when Aharon raises his arm, scripture announces the arrival of one: both noun and verb are singular.  God threatens a plague of frogs.  But only one stands on the banks of the Nile; only one covers the land.

The sages explain, of course.  Rabbi Eleazar says that this one frog bred prolifically and filled the land. The original frog called upon its brethren to join him (Babylonian Talmud Sanhedrin 67b.)

Are there other explanations?  Let’s reconsider: One frog, one representative of what was, for the Egyptians, the symbol of fertility, the symbol of birth.  This one frog arrives, symbolizing the opposite, the destructive potential.

When we represent the positive, we are unified, joined together in common purpose.  When we become resentful and destructive, we split apart.  The land teems and swarms with hatred, ill-feeling is everywhere.  Our multiplying resentments crowd us at night, sit down with us at our meals, give us neither rest nor relief.  The creature representing hope becomes the spreading specter of terror.

Scientists tell us that this little creature is the very sign of the survival of ecosystems – if frogs disappear, beware.

Interestingly enough, our ancient commentaries and legends suggest that even the sages knew that the frog was a very particular gift from God.  Indeed, the “beautiful singing” of the frog silenced the psalmist, King David himself.  The story goes that when King David finished the book of Psalms, he became boastful, saying to The Holy One: Master of the universe, is there any other creature You created in Your world that utters more songs and paeans of praise than I?  In that instant, so the tale tells us, a frog happened upon the king: “David,” the frog said, “don’t be so boastful.  I utter far more songs and praises than you.”

According to Perek Shira, an ancient text which lists eighty-four elements of the natural world, the song of that selfsame frog was then revealed to David.  What song does the frog sing?  Baruch Shem K’vod Malchuto L’Olam Va’ed.   Blessed is the glorious Name of God, God’s is forever.  This line appears between the first sentence of Sh’ma, which declares the unity of God, and the first paragraph which reminds us to love God with all one’s heart, soul, and resources. 

The frog, we know, sings twice daily, morning and night.  It knows just when to begin its chant, and it sings that which we whisper during our recitation of God’s oneness, God’s is-ness.  The frog knows creation and knows to praise it. 

The frog makes each sound deep in its throat.  The Hebrew word nefesh, the word so often translated as soul, life force, means, originally: throat.  Our is-ness comes from our throat.  In the first cry of each child born into the world we hear the raw sound of life.

One last mystery; one last possibility.  In verse eight, the text reads that Moses cried out “in the matter of the fogs”.  But the text reads vayitzak Moshe el Adonai al d’var hatzfard’im.  Read this literally, and you will read these words: Moses cried out to the Lord upon the word of the frogs.  The frogs spoke, says Exodus Rabbah 25:27.

What did they say?

With one voice, they reminded us: Blessed is God.  God is forever.  Sing with purpose, with one voice, with the hopeful force that leads you to create life, not destroy it.

Keyn y’hi ratzon.

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