CALL UP THE FROG(S)
The second of the ten plagues, frogs, commences in this week’s parasha with the words:
Vata’al HaTzefarde’a Vetchas Et Eretz Mitzrayim (Shemot 8:2)
Literally, this means: “The ‘frog’ came up and it covered the land of Egypt.”
Hebrew, like English, will sometimes use a word that can have both a singular or plural connotation. ‘Fish’ can mean one fish or many fish. The simple meaning of ‘frog’ in our verse is that it means that the frog plague came up and swarmed over the land.
Yet the rabbis of the Talmud (Sanhedrin 67b), sensitive to the fact that elsewhere in the passage the regular plural term tzefarde’im, frogs, is used, debate the significance of the singular word, ‘frog.’
“Rabbi Akiva said: There was one frog and it begat many frogs that filled the whole land.
Rabbi El’azar said: There was one frog that croaked and shrieked and behold many other frogs came out of hiding and filled the land.”
We should be aware that the rabbis of the Talmud did not engage in abstract discussion in the manner of the Greek Academy. Instead, sometimes they clothed their philosophical and political views in comments about verses of the Torah.
It may well be that Rabbi Akiva and Rabbi Elazar were debating how persecution erupts in a country previously committed to freedom. They were questioning: how could the plague of anti-Semitism break out in the land of Egypt? After all, this was a land that had allowed a Semitic foreigner, Joseph, to be second to the king. They had invited his entire family to live in Egypt, in Goshen, despite their abhorrence of their profession of sheep and cattle herders. They had tolerated Jacob’s family’s descendants moving all over the land of Egypt. This is illustrated in the final plague where the Angel of Death has to ‘skip over’ the houses of the Israelites when striking the Egyptian firstborn. Israelites were living in all the key neighbourhoods of Egypt. The Midrash speaks of their presence at the theatres and circuses. They were active in the cultural life of Egypt. How does such a land become a vicious tyranny? How does a plague envelope an entire country?
Rabbi Akiva believed that all it takes is one man. If he has the charisma and the rhetoric he can whip up the masses. He can transform them. Given time, he can spew out enough venom to poison a society. His followers model themselves on him, take up his rallying cry and turn on his designated victims.
Rabbi Elazar disagreed. No single man can do it. There needs to be a culture of prejudice that is already embedded in the society. The leader can call it out, but he cannot create it singlehandedly.
The events on Capitol Hill last week show us the enormous responsibility that leaders bear. Whether destructive forces in society are like tinder that can be ignited or like embers that can be fanned into flames, the leader’s role in creating the fire is crucial.
At the same time, the rabbinic debate alerts us that it may not be enough simply to proclaim messages of love and tolerance, brotherhood and conciliation. To Heal A Fractured World (in Rabbi Lord Sacks’ phrase) is the work of a generation, not just a presidency or a parliament. It is a task in which we all can and must play a part.