Vaera: Attacking the Right Problem

Copyright 2011 Neal Joseph Loevinger

Torah Portion: Vaera

Greeting from (finally) wintry Poughkeepsie! Our Torah portion this
week, Vaera, continues the story of Moshe, Pharaoh, and the plagues.
At first, Moshe isn’t the most confident fellow, but God appoints his
brother Aharon as his spokesman and they go together to demand freedom
for their people- and they bring plagues and wonders when Pharaoh
refuses. One of the more interesting plagues is that of frogs, which
are so many in number they cover the land:

“Aaron held out his arm over the waters of Egypt, and the frogs came
up and covered the land of Egypt. But the magicians did the same with
their spells, and brought frogs upon the land of Egypt” (Shmot/
Exodus 8:2-3)

The word for “frog” in Hebrew is “tzfardeah,” which is a collective
noun, like “sheep” or “fish”- it can mean one, or a whole bunch of
them. Thus, when it the Hebrew text says that “hatzfardeah” came up
and covered the land, the perfectly simple meaning is that lots of
frogs came up and hopped around. That being said, our friend Rashi
brings two interpretations to this verse, one of which follows the
simple meaning (that “frog” is a collective noun) and one of which
(from the Talmud) is more imaginative: that “hatzfardeah” [literally,
“the frog”] means one big frog came up out of the Nile, and when the
Egyptians struck it, it split up into many smaller ones.

It’s a special-effects scene that Steven Spielberg should film: a
giant frog (Frogzilla!) slowly emerges from the dark waters, sending
the Egyptians running in panic, until a few soldiers bravely rush the
giant beast, which divides itself into swarms upon swarms. This would
make a great movie scene, but when Rabbi Akiva originally suggested
that “hatzfardeah” meant one frog, the other rabbis teased him for
coming up with a ridiculous suggestion.

So if there is a simple grammatical explanation to the wording, why
would Akiva, and Rashi a thousand years later, suggest an
interpretation which seems so incredible? As silly as our “Frogzilla”
midrash is, it does suggest a certain moral truth: that attacking the
wrong problem only multiplies one’s troubles. After all, the frogs
were only brought upon Egypt as a sign that even Pharaoh was not the
ruler of heaven and earth; it was not the frogs that truly plagued
Egypt, but their own arrogance as a society, which lead them to
enslave the Israelites and benefit from their forced labor.

Thus, suggesting that the Egyptians attacked one giant frog, which
split up into swarms, may be seen as a parable of a society or
organization which is avoiding hard truths: it’s easy to attack an
obvious, external issue (like a giant frog) but unless it’s the real
problem, deep down in the hearts of the people, the difficulties will
only become more diffuse and pervasive.

For example, consider a congregation which blames its problems solely
on the rabbi or pastor, making them the problem, rather than seeking
to fully understand the tensions between conflicting dreams and
desires among the members of the community. Such a congregation can
fire its leader, but that will never solve its problems- only inner
change can do that.

Another example would be a family where one member is named by the
others as the source of its troubles- “if you would only stop [fill in
the blanks], everything would be fine!” Yet families are always
complicated webs of emotion, and no one person is ever fully to blame
for a whole system that’s in trouble.

To put it another way: change comes from within, when people look into
themselves and hold themselves to the highest standards of truth,
compassion, and justice. Seen this way, Rashi’s midrash of the giant
frog is no longer comical, but tragic, representing the human tendency
to see problems as “out there,” rather than “in here,” in the heart,
where t’shuvah, or inner redirection, really happens. One “frog” can
split into many, even to the point of covering the land, when we miss
the deeper source of our troubles. Yet therein lies the hope: that we
need not be like Pharaoh, of hardened heart and closed mind, but can
instead change at anytime- it requires only the gifts of desire and
humility.

Shabbat Shalom,

RNJL

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