Recognizing the Voices

Dena Weiss

Parashat Va'Era

All of the plagues were silent, except for one. According to a number of midrashic sources, the plague of frogs, צפרדע, was terrible not only for the physical presence of the frogs in the most intimate areas of home and hearth,1 but specifically because of the sound that the frogs made. A deeper look at this detail will show that it is not about the frogs themselves, but about two different groups of human beings: the Egyptian people whom the frogs interact with and the Israelite people whom the frogs represent. Listening to the croaking of these little animals and the noise that this plague produced can actually teach us much about what it means to be human and to recognize someone else as equally so.

One of the sources which testifies to the noise of the frogs is Midrash Tanhuma:

מדרש תנחומא וארא ו
וַיֵּצֵא משֶׁה וַיִּצְעַק אֶל ה' עַל דְּבַר הַצְפַרְדְּעִים (שמות ח:ח), רַבּוֹתֵינוּ זִכְרוֹנָם לִבְרָכָה אָמְרוּ, לֹא דַי לָהֶם לַמִּצְרִיִּים הַשְׁחָתַת הַצְפַרְדְּעִים, אֶלָא שֶׁהָיָה קוֹלָן שֶׁל צְפַרְדְּעִים קָשֶׁה לָהֶם מִמַּכָּתָן, שֶׁהָיוּ נִכְנָסוֹת בְּגוּפָן וְצוֹעֲקִין בְּתוֹכָן, שֶׁנֶּאֱמַר: עַל דְּבַר הַצְפַרְדְּעִים אֲשֶׁר שָׂם לְפַרְעֹה, עַל דִּבּוּר הַצְּפַרְדְּעִים...


Midrash Tanhuma Va’Era 6
Moshe left [Pharaoh’s presence] and he cried out to God regarding the matter, devar, of the frogs (Shemot 8:8). Our teachers of blessed memory said: The destruction caused by the frogs didn’t suffice for the Egyptians. The sound of the frogs was more harsh than the plague. They would enter into their bodies and cry out from inside them, as it says, regarding the devar of the frogs, that is the dibbur, speech, of the frogs...


According to the midrash, the worst component of the plague of frogs was its sound. Interestingly, the way that it characterizes what was so terrible about the noise was that it penetrated the Egyptians, literally or figuratively, entering their bodies and emerging from them. First, the Egyptians themselves would absorb the source of the noise, the frogs themselves, and then hear the frog’s croaking coming out of their own throats, as if the voice of the frog was their own.

The midrash specifically highlights the word davar, which, in addition to meaning “matter,” also means “words” or “speech,” to anchor its claim that the frogs were, as it were, speaking. However, this is not the only significant vocal term that the midrash reflects. The sound that these ventriloquist frogs make is a tze’akah, a crying out, which is a weighted term in the larger narrative of the Exodus. For the original crying out of this story is not the crying of the frogs, but the cries of Benei Yisrael. First they cry out to God:

שמות ב:כג-כד
וַיְהִי בַיָּמִים הָרַבִּים הָהֵם וַיָּמָת מֶלֶךְ מִצְרַיִם וַיֵּאָנְחוּ בְנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל מִן הָעֲבֹדָה וַיִּזְעָקוּ2 וַתַּעַל שַׁוְעָתָם אֶל הָאֱלֹהִים מִן הָעֲבֹדָה: וַיִּשְׁמַע אֱלֹהִים אֶת נַאֲקָתָם וַיִּזְכֹּר אֱלֹהִים אֶת בְּרִיתוֹ אֶת אַבְרָהָם אֶת יִצְחָק וְאֶת יַעֲקֹב:


Shemot 2:23-24
And it was in the course of those many days that the king of Egypt died, and Benei Yisrael sighed from the labor, and they cried out, and their supplication on account of the labor rose up to God. God heard their wailing, and He remembered His covenant with Avraham, with Yitzhak, and with Ya’akov.


And God responds to the suffering of the Jewish people by stating explicitly that He has heard their crying out:

שמות ג:ז,ט
וַיֹּאמֶר ה' רָאֹה רָאִיתִי אֶת עֳנִי עַמִּי אֲשֶׁר בְּמִצְרָיִם וְאֶת צַעֲקָתָם שָׁמַעְתִּי מִפְּנֵי נֹגְשָׂיו כִּי יָדַעְתִּי אֶת מַכְאֹבָיו:... וְעַתָּה הִנֵּה צַעֲקַת בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל בָּאָה אֵלָי וְגַם רָאִיתִי אֶת הַלַּחַץ אֲשֶׁר מִצְרַיִם לֹחֲצִים אֹתָם:


Shemot 3:7,9
God said, “I have indeed seen the suffering of My people who are in Egypt and I have heard their crying out on account of their oppressors, for I have known their pain… And now, behold the crying out of the children of Israel has come to me and I have also seen the pressure with which the Egyptians pressure them.”


When Pharaoh asks Moshe and Aharon to pray this plague away, he saysהַעְתִּירוּ אֶל הֹ ,3entreat God and when Moshe asks him when he would like him to pray, Moshe uses the same verb: when should I entreat on your behalf, לְמָתַי אַעְתִּיר לְךָ ?4 But when Moshe actually prays, the verb that the text uses for prayer is וַיִּצְעַק, and Moshe cried out. And indeed, when Pharaoh asks Moshe to pray to remove the subsequent plague of wild animals, the verb used to describe Pharaoh’s request and Moshe’s response is להעתיר, to entreat.5 This is the only place throughout the plagues where Moshe’s prayer is characterized not by its content, the entreaty, but by its volume. It is a cry.

The midrash notices the use of this verb and incorporates it into its reading of the plague of frogs. The plague of frogs is a plague of vocalization, of crying out. Just as the Jews cried out on account of their suffering, the frogs cry out in carrying out the plague. By syllogism, one might see that the frogs in fact represent the Jewish people.6 And Moshe, wittingly or unwittingly, himself participates in this crying out when he prays to remove the frogs who themselves are crying.

The continuation of the midrash from Tanhuma also supports the reading that the frogs themselves might represent the people of Israel:

וַיִּצְבְּרוּ אֹתָם חֳמָרִם חֳמָרִם, מְלַמֵּד שֶׁכָּל אֶחָד מֵהֶן הָיָה עוֹשֶׂה אַרְבַּע אַשְׁפּוֹת, וְהָיְתָה הָאָרֶץ מַבְאֶשֶׁת, לְפִי שֶׁהָיוּ יִשְׂרָאֵל נִבְאָשִׁין מִמַּכּוֹת הַמִּצְרִיִּים, מִדָּה כְּנֶגֶד מִדָּה.


They piled them up in piles and piles—This teaches that one of them would generate enough for four piles of refuse. And the earth became putrid (mav’eshet) because Israel were made putrid (niv’ashin) on account of the lashes of the Egyptians, measure for measure.


The midrash highlights two aspects of the aftermath of the presence of the frogs—that they ended up in large piles, hamarim, and that they were rotting and emitted a putrid odor, mav’eshet. Both of these roots ח,מ,ר and ב,א,ש appear elsewhere in the story. The work that Benei Yisrael is doing is a work of construction through bricklaying, the piling of bricks on top of the other. And the term for the mortar used to secure these bricks to one another is homer חֹמֶר.

שמות א:יד
וַיְמָרֲרוּ אֶת חַיֵּיהֶם בַּעֲבֹדָה קָשָׁה בְּחֹמֶר וּבִלְבֵנִים וּבְכָל עֲבֹדָה בַּשָּׂדֶה אֵת כָּל עֲבֹדָתָם אֲשֶׁר עָבְדוּ בָהֶם בְּפָרֶךְ:


Shemot 1:14
They embittered their lives with harsh labor, with mortar (homer) and bricks and with all manner of field-labor. All of the labor they did was back-breaking.


The language of ב,א,ש, putrification, also appears in the story as a verb to describe how Benei Yisrael feel that the Egyptians perceive them.7 When Moshe and Aharon first encountered Pharaoh, they not only failed to emancipate the people, but they ended up inspiring Pharaoh to increase his demands. Pharaoh claims that the people are lazy and that is why they cry out asking for a holiday, כִּי נִרְפִּים הֵם עַל כֵּן הֵם צֹעֲקִים לֵאמֹר נֵלְכָה נִזְבְּחָה לֵאלֹהֵינוּ, for they are lax that is why they are crying out saying, “Let us go and sacrifice to our god” (Shemot 5:9). In response to this increased suffering, Benei Yisrael confront Moshe and Aharon on their way out of their meeting with Pharaoh:

שמות ה:כא
וַיֹּאמְרוּ אֲלֵהֶם יֵרֶא ה' עֲלֵיכֶם וְיִשְׁפֹּט אֲשֶׁר הִבְאַשְׁתֶּם אֶת רֵיחֵנוּ בְּעֵינֵי פַרְעֹה וּבְעֵינֵי עֲבָדָיו לָתֶת חֶרֶב בְּיָדָם לְהָרְגֵנוּ:


Shemot 5:21
They said to [Moshe and Aharon], “God should appear to you and should judge the fact that you have made our scent putrid (hiv’ashtem) in the eyes of Pharaoh and in the eyes of his slaves,8 to place a sword in their hands to kill us.


According to the midrash, Benei Yisrael are absolutely correct. The Egyptians do think of them as putrid and disgusting, as a plague of pests to be managed and controlled, if not completely eliminated. The reason why this plague is so horrifying to the Egyptians is that it is edifying to them. It highlights to them that they have been treating the Jews not like human beings, but like sheratzim, swarming creepy crawlies that are considered disgusting and beneath contempt.9 Just as a person usually doesn’t think twice about swatting a fly or crushing a worm, so too the Egyptians did not think of themselves as oppressing real people. What enabled them to perpetuate such evil to another group of human beings was that they didn’t think of those people as human beings but as a swarming entity, invading and putrefying the land.

Therefore what is troubling about the frogs is not their presence; their presence can be dismissed or ignored, it can be managed. What is troubling about the frogs is their vocality. And the genius of the midrash is to physically place the throat of the frogs into the throats of the Egyptians. This vocality is so threatening because it is coming out of the mouths of the Egyptians themselves, as if to say, “we frogs sound just like you” because in fact “we are just like you.” The cry of a human being pierces the heart of their fellow human. The plague of frogs was designed to make the Egyptians listen to the people who they thought of as frogs and to hear them screaming. The irony and the tragedy is that it was easier for the Egyptians to be disturbed by the noise made by frogs than it was for them to hear the cries of the actual human Israelites who were suffering at their hands.

This theme continues throughout the midrashic literature about the frogs. According to R. Akiva elsewhere in Midrash Tanhuma, the Egyptians initially interacted with the frogs violently, by striking them:

מדרש תנחומא וארא יד
כָּתוּב אֶחָד אוֹמֵר: וְשָׁרַץ הַיְאֹר צְפַרְדְּעִים. וְכָתוּב אֶחָד אוֹמֵר: וַתַּעַל הַצְּפַרְדֵּעַ. רַבִּי עֲקִיבָא אוֹמֵר: צְפַרְדֵּעַ אַחַת הָיְתָה, וְהָיוּ הַמִּצְרִים מַכִּין אוֹתָהּ וּמַתֶּזֶת צְפַרְדְּעִים הַרְבֵּה.


Midrash Tanhuma Va’Era 14
One verse says, the Nile swarmed with frogs (plural, Shemot 7:28). And another verse says, the frog emerged (singular, Shemot 8:2). R. Akiva said: There was one frog and the Egyptians would strike it and it would spit out many frogs.


Striking something only to find that it multiplies is exactly what happened when the Egyptians abused their Israelite slaves:

שמות א:יב
וְכַאֲשֶׁר יְעַנּוּ אֹתוֹ כֵּן יִרְבֶּה וְכֵן יִפְרֹץ וַיָּקֻצוּ מִפְּנֵי בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל:


Shemot 1:12
And the more they caused [the people] to suffer, the greater and more widespread it became. And they loathed10 the children of Israel.


Just as striking the Jewish people made their number increase, so too striking the frogs did not exterminate them—it empowered them to grow in physical and auditory volume. The oppressing of the Israelites, the attempt to rob them completely of their humanity and to transform them entirely into slaves, backfired. It prodded them to develop, it caused them to recognize who they really were and to become able to assert their right to redemption.

R. Joseph Dov Ber Soloveitchik 11 understands that the crying, even if at first inarticulate, not only educated the Egyptians, but also educated the Israelite slaves about their own humanity. It was critical to the development of their identity as a full, free, and independent people capable of knowing that they needed to leave Egypt and that they had the right to dignity and freedom:

“Redemption, Prayer, Talmud Torah,” in Tradition: A Journal of Orthodox Jewish Thought Vol. 17, No. 2 (Spring 1978), p. 59
Before Moses came there was not even a single sound. No complaint was lodged, no sigh, no cry uttered. Only an agonizing un-human shriek would penetrate the weird silence of the night. The slaves were gloomy, voiceless and mute… Torture was taken for granted. They thought this was the way it had to be… When Moses came, the sound, or the voice, came into being כד אתא משה אתא קול.12 Moses, by defending the helpless Jew, restored sensitivity to the dull slaves. Suddenly they realized that all that pain, anguish, humiliation and cruelty, all the greed and intolerance of man vis-à-vis his fellow man is evil. This realization brought in its wake not only sharp pain but a sense of suffering as well. With suffering came loud protest, the cry, the unuttered question, the wordless demand for justice and retribution. In short, the dead silence of non-existence was gone; the voice of human existence was now heard.


To compare Benei Yisrael to the frogs in order to make this point gestures to the tragedy that it was easier for the Egyptians to recognize the pain of the frogs and to hear their crying out than it was for them to hear and understand the anguish of their fellow human beings. The noise that the frogs make, the noise that the slaves make is what announces their capacity not only for pain, but also for suffering. Through these human-like frogs, through the parable, the Egyptians are given a window into seeing and recognizing the humanity of people who they treated worse than animals. The noise that they made made it harder to ignore and dismiss them.

The lesson here is twofold. First, it is to us as the Egyptians. We need to listen to the voices that seem that they are irrelevant or that we might dismiss as different from us, somehow less real or less human. We need to be able to look past the way that pain and suffering disfigures people, look past our own guilt, and recognize them as being just like us. Not abstractly and in the image of God, but concretely in our own human image. The second lesson is to us as the Israelite slaves. Though it is dangerous to remain stuck in a mode of complaint, sometimes we need to be willing to make some noise. The first step to emancipating ourselves from our slavery was to complain of the pain and indignity of being enslaved. At first, this is a plain and pained crying and then it becomes the more constructive articulation of our suffering and hopes and plans for its termination and our redemption.

1 See Shemot Rabbah 15:27.

2 Though the other examples here are of the root צ,ע,ק and in this passage uses ז,ע,ק, the two roots sound almost identical and have the same meaning.

3 Shemot 8:4.

4 Shemot 8:5.

5 Shemot 8:24-26.

6 The human-frog connection is highlighted by a midrash quoted on Talmud Bavli Pesahim 53b, where Hananiah, Misha’el, and Azaryah are inspired to throw themselves in the fiery furnace because the frogs in this plague were willing to jump into the ovens of the Egyptians.

7 Ya’akov also uses the verb ב,א,ש when he is concerned about his perception in the eyes of his neighbors. See Bereishit 34:30 where he tells his sons in the aftermath of the Shekhem massacre, עֲכַרְתֶּם אֹתִי לְהַבְאִישֵׁנִי בְּיֹשֵׁב הָאָרֶץ You have ruined me, to make me seem putrid in the eyes of the residents of the land.

8 See Bereishit 47:19-23 where Yosef buys all of the Egyptians as slaves to Pharaoh in exchange for feeding them.

9 In VaYikra 11:29, the sheretz is listed first among the unkosher, unclean animals and in addition to actually being a source of impurity legally speaking, is also used to describe ultimate impurity in an allegorical fashion, as in the phrase “immersing oneself with a sheretz in hand.”

10 This verb also carries a connotation of finding something disgusting.

11 1903-1993, Belarus and United States.

12 Soloveitchik is basing himself on the Zohar’s understanding that Moshe represents קלא the capacity to make sound, whereas Aharon represents the ability to speak with words, דיבור. See Zohar Raya Mehemena Va’Era.