Seder participants shoot little toy frogs across tables, narrowly missing the cups of wine and other guests’ heads. The frogs seem cute and harmless, fun.
How did we get from the grotesquely unpleasant second plague described in this week’s Torah portion, to such a lighthearted seder activity?
About 20 years ago I heard the Rev. Emanuel Cleaver deliver a sermon entitled “One More Night with the Frogs.” At the time, Cleaver was the senior pastor of St. James United Methodist Church of Kansas City, Mo., and a member of the city council. (Today he is serving his third term in the U.S. House of Representatives.) Cleaver’s sermon, delivered to a Jewish congregation in Kansas City over the Martin Luther King Jr. holiday weekend, asked, and challenged, the listeners to ask ourselves, just how long we were willing to put up with the frogs — the societal ills that plagued our cities at that time.
Cleaver’s question arises out of a conversation between Pharaoh and Moses, held during the second plague when frogs covered the land of Egypt:
“Then Pharaoh summoned Moses and Aaron and said, ‘Plead with the Eternal to remove the frogs from me and my people, and I will let the people go to sacrifice to the Eternal’ And Moses said to Pharaoh, ‘You may have this triumph over me: for what time shall I plead in behalf of you and your courtiers and your people, that the frogs be cut off from you and your houses, to remain only in the Nile’
‘For tomorrow’ he replied.”
Despite our attempts at seders to make them so, frogs are not cute — at least not in such quantities. And they were everywhere — in beds and ovens, under their feet in the streets and in their homes, in the Egyptians’ clothes and on their food.
And here is Pharaoh’s unbelievable answer to the question of when the plague should be lifted. Pharaoh said, “Tomorrow!”
Tomorrow? He chose being rid of the frogs tomorrow?
Scholar C. Northcote Parkinson said, “Delay is the most deadly form of denial.” In exchange for one more night to oppress the Israelites, Pharaoh subjected his people to one more night of pain and discomfort and disgustingness … one more night with the frogs.
When we think about the Rev. Cleaver’s 1990 “One More Night with the Frogs” sermon, and the social problems in his community about which he spoke — poverty and hunger, lack of accessibility to quality education, health care, safe and affordable housing — we are chastened. For those same problems still exist in Kansas City, just as they still exist in Pittsburgh and throughout this country. We are horrified that Pharaoh allowed his people one more night of suffering because he was so intent on enslaving our ancestors. But perhaps we should ask ourselves — have we not allowed our neighbors to live one more night in poverty? Have we not allowed a generation of Americans one more night without a secure future? Isn’t it true that there are untold numbers of Americans without access to affordable medical insurance?
Our Torah teaches that we must remember the pain of our oppression so that we will work toward a world where all are free and where all have access to the most basic of human rights. As we read the passages that describe the plagues brought upon the Egyptians because of their callous ruler, let us resolve to help remove the shackles of poverty and unequal access to basic rights that plague our neighbors.
We are called upon to answer this week … not “tomorrow.”
(This column is a service of the Greater Pittsburgh Rabbinic Association.)