While recounting the plagues in Egypt during the Passover Seder, Jews customarily spill out some of their wine. Often people explain that this practice is to show some remorse for the horrors of the plagues. We ritually mourn and blunt the harshness of the terror invoked to bring about our salvation.
However, one plague sticks out in my mind as odd: Frogs.
Blood, boils, darkness and the killing of the firstborn strike horror in the hearts of those who hear about them. But “Frogs”? God had many afflictions in His toolkit, why utilize such a strange one? This plague even became a popular children’s song written by Shirley Cohen-Steinberg:
One morning King Pharaoh woke in his bed
There were frogs in his bed and frogs on his head
Frogs on his nose and frogs on his toes
Frogs here, frogs there, frogs just jumping everywhere!
Hardly the stuff of Divine retribution. So why did God use frogs?
Explaining the reasons for the plagues, the Midrash Tanna Debe Eliyahu Rabba (Chapt. 7) suggests that all 10 harshly punished the Egyptians “measure for measure.” Examining the actions of the Egyptians can illuminate the reasoning for this plague.
We recite in the Haggada, “’And [God] looked upon our affliction’ (Dev. 26:7) this refers to separation [of husbands and wives] as it is said,’And God saw the children of Israel, and God knew’ (Shemot 2:25) According to the Haggada, destroying family bonds stands out as one of the cruelest aspects of slavery.
If we read the verses regarding the plague of Frogs, we see that they invade everywhere. The creatures burst into the home and leap into every nook and cranny,
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 your people and all your courtiers. (Exodus 7:27-29)
Indeed, there is a deep psychological power to this action. A common theme runs through some of the critical dystopian novels of the twentieth century. In Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World, there is no family. Babies are not born but grown in jars and marriage and creating a home are alien. Similarly, in 1984, George Orwell paints a world where children are raised to turn on their parents and where developing a family is a dangerous undertaking.
The frogs pierced the very heart of the Egyptian home: “measure for measure.”
The records of the horrors of slavery in the United States highlight the breakup of families as one of the cruelest cuts. By breaking up families, slave owners, despotic rulers, and even the Soviet Communists saw a way to exercise control over individuals by destroying personal connections. One has no escape – no control over one’s life.
In certain ways, the frog invasion which ruined the comfort of the Egyptian home may have been one of the most horrible of all the plagues.
Pharaoh attempted to destroy the Jewish family and Jewish home. There is nothing worse than having no escape, no rest, nowhere to join with your loved ones and feel safe and at home. One can withstand innumerable pressures if one knows that he can rest in the embrace of family and friends. Destroying the family and home crushes the will beyond any torture. Pharaoh tried to ruin the Jewish home and family; therefore, God took away the Egyptians’ safety of home and hearth.
During the Exodus from Egypt, God put the family front and center. Rashi, based on the Mekhilta, understands that the Jews in Egypt placed the blood of the Korban Pesach on their doorposts and lintels facing inside: “‘the blood will be for you a symbol’ for you a symbol and not for Me, from here we see that [the Jews] placed the blood on the inside [of their homes.] ” From this idea, Rav Samson Raphael Hirsch develops the theme that the building of the family is the cornerstone of the exodus.
The center of this noble structure, the blessed soil on which the seed of all national life was to be developed…was not the Temple nor was it the State…but the home…From the words, ‘they shall take the blood and put it on the two side-posts and on the lintel’ we learn that our ancestors had three altars in Egypt: the lintel and the two side-posts…the lintel, indicates the roof that isolates the space occupied by man from the elements without, the doorposts, indicate the walls which mark off the space belonging to the individual from that of society; both together make up the idea of the house….all other altars have fallen into decay, all our sanctuaries have been lost to us. But the home which Pesach brought back to us…the mutual affection of children and parents and husband and wife, … the Jewish home has remained our eternal possession. (Collected Writings I pp. 11-12)
As Rav Hirsch writes, throughout the generations, the Jewish home, the location where we have celebrated Passover nights for millennia, has served as the ultimate testimony of Jewish perseverance in the face of adversity. Pharaoh tried to steal our home-sanctuary. God punished the Egyptians and by so doing restored the home as the symbol of the Jewish people.