Hopping Mad in Mitzrayim: Va’Era 5781

Here come the plagues: blood, frogs, vermin…. The first triad relates to the Nile, whose “bloody” waters (reddened perhaps from sediment and algae washed down by heavy rains from the Ethiopian highlands) kill off the fish and drive the frogs up on the land. The rotten flesh produces kinnim, maybe a type of fly or mosquito, that torments the population. Swarming mosquitos are surely loathsome, but frogs remain the most charismatic creatures in the plague narrative.

Ancient Egyptians venerated a frog-headed goddess named Heqet, who was associated with fertility. But the river had been used to kill off the Israelite boys. As such these first plagues may have been intended as “measure for measure” for Pharaoh’s genocidal attack. Since the plagues rise vertically from ground to sky, they teach both Egyptians and Israelites that the LORD is sovereign over heaven and earth.

Frogs are unusual messengers for such an exalted theological lesson. They may not be cute, but neither are they terrifying. As the fetching “Frog Song” puts it, “One morning when Pharaoh awoke in his bed there were frogs in his bed and frogs on his head, frogs on his nose, frogs on his toes, frogs here, frogs there, frogs were jumping everywhere!” The comical potential of this reptilian plague was not lost on our ancient sages. Rabbi Akiva notices a shift from plural to singular in Exodus 8:2: “Aaron reached his hand out over the Egyptian waters and the frog rose and covered the land of Egypt.” Can you imagine Akiva’s Godzilla scale amphibian? Apparently this was too much for some of his peers.

Rabbi Elazar ben Azariah dismisses the Akivan monster frog, instead suggesting that the singular frog was a scout, the first out of the water, who whistled and summoned the green horde. Sort of a mirror image to Nahshon, who according to the Midrash led Israel by plunging into the sea before it had split. This theory of the scout frog seems more rational than Akiva’s monster reptile, but sixteenth century Turkish commentator Moshe al-Sheikh associates this “lead frog” with the Kabbalistic concept that every life form on earth has a heavenly patron. The frog patron (perhaps Heqet again?) summoned all the amphibians in the Nile to swarm Pharaoh at the divine bidding.

The idea of heavenly patrons of terrestrial earth forms is employed by the Zohar to explain the Torah’s ban on cross-breeding plants and animals (kilayim, see Levit. 19:19). The new life forms will be unsupported by heaven, and will lead to disaster. While this medieval mystical concept seems far from contemporary science, it aligns with our concern with invasive species. When a plant or animal is introduced (often by humans) into a new eco-system, it may out-compete local flora and fauna, throwing the entire system out of balance. And with this, we return to frogs, or actually to toads.

The cane toad (Rhinella marina) is a modern plague in much of the planet. It is an enormous toad (up to six pounds) that spews toxic venom and ravenously devours anything that moves and can fit inside. May the Creator forgive me, but it is also exceptionally ugly! These toads, shipped by people from the Caribbean to Hawaii to Australia, have been running (or hopping) amok as Elizabeth Kolbert describes in a recent New Yorker essay, “Life Hacks.” Humans created the cane toad plague, and humans have been ineffective at putting a stop to it. We lack a Moses who can cry out to God to make the toads go away. Bounty hunters have only made the problem worse. Can biologists solve the problem?

Kolbert, who is one of the great environmental journalists of our time, suggests that despite all the obvious risks, it may be necessary to use CRISPR, the novel gene editing technology, to put an end to the cane toads. CRISPR could modify the toad’s genome, and drive that change through the generations. An edit could reduce the toxicity of their venom, or perhaps be used to force all offspring to be male, as has been suggested with malarial mosquitos, which would put a quick end to the toads. It is somewhat surprising for the author of “The Sixth Extinction,” who decries the role of humanity in causing mass species extinction, to endorse using gene editing to destroy a species. But then, fears over the wrong sort of reproduction have justified some of the most violent, and even genocidal campaigns in history. Pharaoh’s fear of the multiplying Israelites, and his decision to destroy their babies, is one expression of this trend. No, I am not equating the culling of toads with human genocide. I am comfortable privileging human life, unlike Peter Singer, but the idea of a balanced ecosystem remains cogent.

When we read Parashat Va’era we may apply to it many different lenses, from theology (what is the significance of God’s name change for Moses?), to politics (how best to confront a tyrant and liberate an oppressed population?), to philosophy (is personal agency an illusion?). One additional lens is that of ecology—how to achieve balance between populations and species so that all can flourish, and the earth can teem with diverse and healthy life? What human interventions have been calamitous, what have been beneficial, and how can we play a more consistently positive role as the dominant life form on earth? This week we learn to pay attention to seemingly insignificant developments underfoot; they may indicate changes more momentous than even the deeds of kings, prophets, and presidents.  

שמות פרשת וארא פרק ח פסוק א – יא, א-יא

א) וַיֹּאמֶר יְקֹוָק אֶל מֹשֶׁה אֱמֹר אֶל אַהֲרֹן נְטֵה אֶת יָדְךָ בְּמַטֶּךָ עַל הַנְּהָרֹת עַל הַיְאֹרִים וְעַל הָאֲגַמִּים וְהַעַל אֶת הַצְפַרְדְּעִים עַל אֶרֶץ מִצְרָיִם: (ב) וַיֵּט אַהֲרֹן אֶת יָדוֹ עַל מֵימֵי מִצְרָיִם וַתַּעַל הַצְּפַרְדֵּעַ וַתְּכַס אֶת אֶרֶץ מִצְרָיִם: (ג) וַיַּעֲשׂוּ כֵן הַחַרְטֻמִּים בְּלָטֵיהֶם וַיַּעֲלוּ אֶת הַצְפַרְדְּעִים עַל אֶרֶץ מִצְרָיִם: (ד) וַיִּקְרָא פַרְעֹה לְמֹשֶׁה וּלְאַהֲרֹן וַיֹּאמֶר הַעְתִּירוּ אֶל יְקֹוָק וְיָסֵר הַצְפַרְדְּעִים מִמֶּנִּי וּמֵעַמִּי וַאֲשַׁלְּחָה אֶת הָעָם וְיִזְבְּחוּ לַיקֹוָק: (ה) וַיֹּאמֶר מֹשֶׁה לְפַרְעֹה הִתְפָּאֵר עָלַי לְמָתַי אַעְתִּיר לְךָ וְלַעֲבָדֶיךָ וּלְעַמְּךָ לְהַכְרִית הַצְפַרְדְּעִים מִמְּךָ וּמִבָּתֶּיךָ רַק בַּיְאֹר תִּשָּׁאַרְנָה: (ו) וַיֹּאמֶר לְמָחָר וַיֹּאמֶר כִּדְבָרְךָ לְמַעַן תֵּדַע כִּי אֵין כַּיקֹוָק אֱלֹהֵינוּ: (ז) וְסָרוּ הַצְפַרְדְּעִים מִמְּךָ וּמִבָּתֶּיךָ וּמֵעֲבָדֶיךָ וּמֵעַמֶּךָ רַק בַּיְאֹר תִּשָּׁאַרְנָה: (ח) וַיֵּצֵא מֹשֶׁה וְאַהֲרֹן מֵעִם פַּרְעֹה וַיִּצְעַק מֹשֶׁה אֶל יְקֹוָק עַל דְּבַר הַצְפַרְדְּעִים אֲשֶׁר שָׂם לְפַרְעֹה: (ט) וַיַּעַשׂ יְקֹוָק כִּדְבַר מֹשֶׁה וַיָּמֻתוּ הַצְפַרְדְּעִים מִן הַבָּתִּים מִן הַחֲצֵרֹת וּמִן הַשָּׂדֹת: (י) וַיִּצְבְּרוּ אֹתָם חֳמָרִם חֳמָרִם וַתִּבְאַשׁ הָאָרֶץ: (יא) וַיַּרְא פַּרְעֹה כִּי הָיְתָה הָרְוָחָה וְהַכְבֵּד אֶת לִבּוֹ וְלֹא שָׁמַע אֲלֵהֶם כַּאֲשֶׁר דִּבֶּר יְקֹוָק:

תלמוד בבלי מסכת סנהדרין דף סז עמוד ב

ותעל הצפרדע ותכס את ארץ מצרים, אמר רבי אלעזר: צפרדע אחת היתה, השריצה ומלאה כל ארץ מצרים. כתנאי, רבי עקיבא אומר: צפרדע אחת היתה, ומלאה כל ארץ מצרים. אמר לו רבי אלעזר בן עזריה: עקיבא, מה לך אצל הגדה? כלה מדברותיך ולך אצל נגעים ואהלות, צפרדע אחת היתה, שרקה להם והם באו.

שמות רבה (שנאן) פרשת וארא פרשה י ד”ה י, ד ותעל

י, ד ותעל הצפרדע [ותכס את ארץ מצרים] (/שמות/ ח’). תני: ר’ עקיבא אומר – צפרדע אחת היתה, השריצה ומלאה כל ארץ מצרים. אמר לו ר’ אלעזר בן עזריה: עקיבא, מה לך אצל הגדה? כלה מדברותיך ולך אצל נגעים ואהלות! צפרדע אחת היתה, שרקה להם והם באו.

אלשיך שמות פרשת וארא פרק ח ד”ה ויאמר יי

(ב) ויעש כן אהרן, העלה הצפרדעים. ואמר ותעל הצפרדע ותכס, ואמרו רבותינו ז”ל (שמות רבה י ה) כי אומרו צפרדע אחת היתה, ושרקה את כלן ובאו. ויהיה הענין, כי אין לך מין מכל המינים, אשר רוח חיים באפם, שאין לו מזל מלמעלה שנשפע חיותן על ידו. קל וחומר מהעשבים, שאין לך כל עשב ועשב למטה, שאין לו מזל מלמעלה (בראשית רבה י ז). ואותו המזל, הוא הנקרא צפרדע גם היא, והיא השמיעה קול וקבצתן:

זוהר כרך ג (ויקרא) פרשת קדושים דף פו עמוד ב

ועל דא כתיב את חקותי תשמרו בגין דכל חד וחד ממנא על מלה ידיעא בעלמא בההוא חק, בגין כך אסיר למחלף זינין ולאעלא זינא בזינא אחרא בגין דאעקר לכל חילא וחילא מאתרייהו (ואכחיש פמליא של מעלה) ואכחיש פומבי דמלכא,