So go the lyrics to a truly infectious children’s song for Passover, which focuses comically on the plague of frogs, found in our Torah portion this Shabbat, Va’eira. A close reading of the beginning of Exodus 8 will point out a linguistic anomaly. The threat made to Pharaoh if he continues to refuse to “Let my people go” is that his entire land will be covered with frogs. However, when the plague actually occurs, the text tells us “Vata’al hatzfarde’a — and the frog (singular) rose up.”
So, which is it, many frogs or one?
In what I will say is one of the best cases for an animated edition of the midrash, several sources reconcile the plural/singular discrepancy this way: Imagine Aaron stretching out his staff over the Nile and a singular, enormous frog emerging from the water. The panicked Egyptians grab sticks and rush toward the giant frog, beginning to beat it. Suddenly, the frog bursts open, spilling countless little frogs that proceed to cover every surface in all of the land of Egypt, yielding the “plague of frogs.”
If there are any animators reading this dvar Torah, send me a copy of your interpretation of this one. While many commentators make note of this midrash, as the commentator Rashi explains, it also can be interpreted by pointing out that when we talk about a swarm of something, we may refer to the swarming objects in the singular.
Still, there is a deep and important lesson to be learned from this creative interpretation of how the Egyptians reacted to the giant frog. Confronted with some significant problem in our lives, something that looks like it is just so large that we have no idea how we will ever approach it, let alone overcome it, we often react with an irrational and impulsive response. And the result is as counterproductive as the Egyptians beating the giant frog with their sticks: What was a singular (but defined) problem now becomes a myriad of little problems of which we can’t keep track.
In our personal lives, our political arguments, our institutions and professions, we are tempted to rush in to solve a large and complex problem before we even stand back and assess the issue. Our impulsivity and (sometimes) aggression often lead us to complicate the difficulty further, rather than work calmly toward resolving it. In the Torah’s account of this plague, it is worth noting that the response of the Egyptian magicians to the appearance of so many frogs was to use their magic to do the same thing. In an effort to prove the Pharaoh’s power over God, the magicians actually double the problem by bringing forth even more frogs from the Nile. A sensible demonstration of power might have been to make the frogs disappear.
When next confronted with a significant problem or challenge, take the negative response imagined by the midrash into consideration. Rather than rushing in to attack the problem, take a step back, think and strategize before you approach the “giant frog” and wind up swarmed with even more difficulties.
Rabbi Craig Axler is spiritual leader of Temple Isaiah in Fulton.