Vaera: The Inner Frog. . . .

Copyright 2010 Neal Joseph Loevinger

Torah Portion: Va’era

Good afternoon!

Our last commentary for the Gregorian year 2011 is Va’era, in which Moshe calls a whole bunch of plagues down on Pharaoh and the land of Egypt, including, of course, frogs:

“If you refuse to let them go, then I will plague your whole country with frogs.The Nile shall swarm with frogs, and they shall come up and enter your palace, your bedchamber and your bed, the houses of your courtiers and your people, and your ovens and your kneading bowls. The frogs shall come up on you and on your people and on all your courtiers.'” (Shmot/ Exodus 7:27-29)

Now, in the translation above, there’s a distinction made between the frogs going “in” to the palace, the bed, the houses, and even the ovens and kneading bowls, and “up on you” [Pharaoh] and “your courtiers.” In Hebrew, however, it’s all the same preposition, the letter bet, which can mean “in,” or “on,” among other meanings, depending on context. Our friend Rashi chooses to understand the latter part of the sentence as conveying the same meaning as the first part: e.g., the frogs are “in” Pharoah and his courtiers. In fact, Rashi takes this to mean that the frogs would enter into the innards of Pharoah and his court and croak there!

Here’s a perfect example of things being less ridiculous than they seem- as opposed to many other phenomena, most of which appear on cable news, which are far more ridiculous than we general acknowledge. The frogs being “in” Pharoah is not, I think, to be taken literally, but is instead a metaphor within a metaphor, since the plagues themselves can be seen as a narrative assertion that no man, least of all Pharaoh, is a god. Nature will not be controlled by humankind; we are, instead, humbled by it.

The image of the frogs entering into Pharaoh and croaking from within him is at once playful, even comic – reminding us that ridicule is the ultimate weapon against tyrants- and also a visual metaphor for an inchoate awareness that the status quo of Egypt will not stand. I think Rashi means to suggest that with the plague of frogs, something is beginning to rumble and croak, as it were, within Pharaoh- not within his body, but within his conscience, perhaps, or at least consciousness.

Thus the force of verse 8:11, in which Pharaoh’s heart is hardened as soon as the frogs are lifted; it’s quite amazing the extent to which human beings can shut out awareness of things which discomfort or disturb a carefully constructed view of self and surroundings. Pharaoh is not stupid: the awareness of his precarious position can enter him, but the work of reevaluating his relationship to the world is perhaps too hard, perhaps too scary, perhaps too humbling, perhaps too unsettling.

Yet to be introspective is to be human: if you hear a frog croaking within you, or any other sign that the world is calling you to see it anew, listen and reflect, learn and grow! Pharaoh could not, but we can.

Shabbat Shalom, and happy solar New Year,


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