Friday, January 27, 2006

Vaera (Midrash)

What are Frogs Good For?

Philosophically oriented commentators on this week’s parsha tend to focus on the theological problem implied in the revelation to Moses of God’s Name “by which I did not make myself known to the patriarchs,” on the related announcement of the imminent redemption, and on the quandaries of freewill and determinism involved in God’s hardening Pharaoh’s heart. Yet the midrashic authors drew some interesting lessons from the specific details of the individual plagues. Thus, for example, in Exodus Rabbah 10.1:

“And God said to Moses, go to Pharaoh… For if you refuse to send [my people] I will strike…” [Exodus 7:26-29] It is written there, “The profit of the land is in all of them” [Eccles 5:8]… [Here the midrash gives an internal cross reference to Leviticus Rabbah 22.2, where the midrash on this verse is presented at greater length] Even those things that seem to you to be superfluous in the world, such as flies and fleas and gnats, were included in the creation of the world, as is written: “And God saw all that He had made, and it was very good” [Gen 1:31].

This passage, which does not originally relate specifically to the plague chapter, invokes the vast diversity of God’s Creation. We often forget the ubiquity and sheer number of the insect kingdom; the overall number of species of insects, not to mention their individual members, far outnumber all other forms of life on this planet; the generic “bug” with which many of us are wont to dismiss this realm of life in fact includes many millions of highly diverse and unique species; even the humble “beetle” and “cockroach” encompass a dazzling variety of kinds. (Pessimists have been known to remark that insects are likely to be the hardiest and most adaptable survivors of a nuclear holocaust.)

R. Ahha b. R. Haninna said: Even those things that you see as superfluous in the world, such as serpents and scorpions, were included in the Creation of the world. The Holy One blessed be He said to his prophets: Do you think that if you do not go on My mission, that I have no other messengers? “The profit of the land is in all of them.” I can perform my mission even by means of a serpent, even by means of a scorpion, even by means of a frog. Know that this is so, for were it not for the hornets, how would the Holy One blessed be He take recompense against the Amorites? And were it not for the frog, how would He take recompense against the Egyptians? Of this it is written: “Behold, I shall strike you in all your borders with frogs” [ibid.]

Here the midrash turns to the historical function of these lowly creatures. I don’t know if the midrashic Sages were aware of the essential role played by all of the many diverse creatures in maintaining the delicate balance of the world as an ecosystem, as a modern reader might; their orientation was more towards the sometimes dramatic role played in history by the “dumb” animals, such as the hornets (whom, according to Deut 7:20, will chase out of the Land those of the Canaanite peoples who “remain and are hidden from you”), or the frogs of the second plague, who play a prominent role in this week’s reading. Also important here, of course, is the ethical message directed against human arrogance; would-be prophets should not think that God is totally dependent upon their cooperation to accomplish His ends; if need be, “the Omnipresent has many emissaries.”

Breaking the Boundaries of Heaven and Earth

Another midrash, taking off from the verses surrounding the plague of hail, comments on the ambivalent and oft-times broken nature of the division between heaven and earth: Exodus Rabbah 12.3:

“And the Lord said to Moses, stretch your hand to the heavens…” [Ex 9:22]. Of this is it written: “Whatever the Lord wishes, He does” [Ps 135:6]. David said: Even though the Holy One blessed be He decreed that “the heavens are the heavens of the Lord, and the earth He gave to the sons of man” [Ps 115:16]. To what may this be compared? To a king who made an edict and said: The Romans shall not descend to Syria, and the Syrians shall not ascend to Rome. Thus ,when the Holy One blessed be He created the word He issued a decree and said: “the heavens are the heavens of the Lord, and the earth He gave to the sons of man” [ibid.].

The opening section of this midrash describes the paradox, through means of two contrasting verses in Psalms. On the one hand, God’s Will is boundless and not subject to any limitations (presumably, not even the natural law which He Himself sets up); on the other hand, there is a clear set of divisions in the universe, in which humankind was given dominion over the earth (what the medieval philosophers, with their concentric spherical model of the universe, called the “sub-lunar sphere”).

But when He gave the Torah he nullified this decree for the first time, and said: The lower ones shall ascend and the upper ones shall go down to meet the lower ones. And I shall begin, as is said: “And the Lord descended upon Mount Sinai” [Exod 19:20], and it is written: “and to Moses he said, ascend to the Lord” [Exod 24:1]. This is: “Whatever the Lord wishes, He does.”

Revelation, by its very nature, is a breaking through of the seemingly immutable boundary between heaven and earth: a meeting between the transcendent, cosmic God and the earthbound human being. That is perhaps why, in terms of symbolism, its locale must be a mountain—a place somehow between heaven and earth, to which man ascends and God lowers Himself. (This, notwithstanding the other midrashim about the relative lowness and humility of Sinai.)

Similarly, when He wished He said: “Let the waters gather together” [Gen 1:9] and when He wished, He made the dry land into sea and depths, as is said, “He who calls to the waters of the sea and spills them upon the face of the earth” [Amos 5:8; 9:6]. And it says: “On that day there burst forth all the founts of the great deep” [Gen 7:11].

The separation of water and dry land is a similar eternal cosmic division, analogous to that of heaven and earth; hence, the Flood in the days of Noah is an equally dramatic breaking through of boundaries, in which water—specifically, the cosmic, heavenly reservoir of water—trespasses upon the realm of the dry land. And when He wished, He made the sea and the depths into dry land, as is said: “and the children of Israel walked on dry land through the sea” [Exod 14:29]. And it says, “and he led them through the depths as in a desert” [Ps 106:9]. The splitting of the Red Sea was a manifestation of the same breaking down of boundaries, but in the opposite direction.

So too in Egypt, Moses, who was in the earth, was given permission to control the acts of heaven, as is said: “And the Lord said to Moses, stretch your hand to the heavens…”

This final case returns us to the particular context of our weekly Torah portion. Unlike the previous examples, here a single individual (albeit a prophet, acting as God’s messenger) breaks through ordinary human limitations, and is given dominion over cosmic forces of nature—in this case, bringing down hail.

Thus, the central conclusion of this midrash is the malleability of boundaries and the concept of God as Sovereign Will: hence, the flexibility of natural law and the constant possibility of changes. (We have discussed elsewhere the problems this poses for some rationalistic Jewish philosophers, as for modern, scientifically educated people, regarding the tension between God as author of the immutable laws of nature vs. God as maker of miracles, in which those same laws are broken. Thus, Maimonides, in his Treatise on Resurrection, is forced to countenance at least the possibility of seemingly far-fetched miracles in order to allow for belief in the Creation. And see David Hartman’s discussion of this problem in his edition of the epistles, Crisis and Leadership.)


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