The Stick that Exacerbates the Plagues

Like the Egyptians devastated by the arrival of the plagues, we become concerned only when environmental degradation reaches our back door.


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“Bay Area fishermen are rejoicing,” said one friend, sitting back in his chair after our Shabbat meal of salmon and side dishes. “The ban on certain fish is being lifted.”

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“I don’t see how that’s possible. Have you been down to the bay? A month after the spill and it still stinks.”

I had been following the articles in the paper. Early last November, the container ship Cosco Busan had gouged its hull against a tower of the Bay Bridge, dumping 58,000 gallons of toxic bunker fuel into the water. This week’s parashah also describes something awful emerging from the waters–the plague of frogs.

One Big Frog

The Midrash, seizing on a grammatical irregularity, suggests that a single, enormous frog emerged from the Nile and, only when the Egyptians attacked it, did it split and split again, replicating into more and more teeming amphibians (Exodus Rabbah 10:4). By attacking the frog, the Egyptians unwittingly made the situation worse for themselves and were thus active agents in their own misery. What is the Midrash trying to teach us with this fanciful construction?

The Midrash suggests a deadly myopia, an inability to see beyond the symptom to the cause. Like the fabled rescuer of drowning victims too busy to look upstream to see what’s pushing hordes of people into the water, the Egyptians were too occupied with the existence of the enormous frog to ask what it was doing there in the first place.

We readers are lucky, for the text spells out for us no fewer than ten times the cause of the plagues–to teach us that “the earth belongs to God (Exodus 9:29).” Pharaoh and his people persisted in attacking the symptom, the challenge to his ultimate power. His misguided philosophy, mirrored by his people’s actions, is expressed in the imagination of the Midrash: when you find things you don’t like, hit them with a stick and they’ll go away.

But they don’t. The Egyptian people soon found themselves overrun, their mixing bowls, their beds, heaped with frogs. Today, months after the oil spill, the San Francisco bay continues to stink, reminding us of the 58,000 gallons of bunker fuel washed onto shore and out to sea. 

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Evan Wolkenstein is the Director of Experiential Education and a Tanach teacher at the Jewish Community High School of the Bay in San Francisco.

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