The Plague of Frogs
The second of the ten plagues was frogs. Rashi cites a Rabbinic source that describes how this plague manifested itself; at first one single frog emerged from the river, and the Egyptians tried to kill it by striking it. However, instead of harming it, it split into swarms of frogs each time it was struck until the frogs were so numerous that they inundated the land.(1)
The Steipler Gaon sees a very great difficulty with this statement of the Sages; the Egyptians surely saw that the first time they hit the frog they did not succeed in destroying it, in fact their hitting had the opposite result, causing more frogs to emerge. Yet they continued to hit the frog many times, only succeeding in filling the whole of Egypt with frogs! Why did they not learn their lesson and refrain from hitting the frog after they saw its disastrous results?
The Steipler Gaon answers with a principle about how the destructive trait of anger causes a person to act. When one is insulted he feels the need to avenge this treatment, therefore he responds in kind to the aggressor. The aggressor returns the insult, and he in turn feels the need to return the insult again, until both are subject to a vicious circle of fruitless retaliation and a full-blown quarrel erupts with harmful consequences for all involved. In a similar vein, when the Egyptians were faced with this threatening frog, their instinctive reaction was to strike it, however when more frogs swarmed out of the initial frog, their anger was kindled and in response they wanted to avenge the frog by striking it again. When this failed again, they continued in their aggressive manner, continually striking the frog until their anger caused the whole of Egypt to be engulfed with these pests. We learn from this explanation about the damaging nature of anger, and how it causes a person to act in a highly self-destructive manner.(2)
It is instructive to delve deeper into why a person can act in such a seemingly foolish fashion. When a person is first insulted he feels considerable immediate pleasure by reacting in kind to the person who dared speak to him in such a rude way. However, after that immediate satisfaction, he endures a longer-term backlash which results in the negative feelings that are normally generated by arguments. Logically, it would seem that he should learn his lesson, recognize the long-term damage of reacting strongly, and control himself in a similar future scenario However, this does not normally occur, rather he continually falls into the same trap. His problem is that he has habituated himself to focus on the short-term results of his actions rather than its long-term consequences. It requires great effort and self-growth to break out of this damaging mode of behavior.
It seems that this problem of focusing on the immediate results occurs in many areas of Divine Service with damaging results. The Medrash Tanchuma tells us a dramatic example of this phenomenon. There was a righteous man whose father was a hopeless alcoholic. On one occasion, the son saw a different drunkard lying in a sewer on the street. Youngsters around him were hitting him with stones and treating him in a highly degrading manner. When the son saw this pitiful site, he decided to bring his father to the scene in the hope that it would show the father the degradation that alcoholism causes. He brought his father to see the drunkard. What did his father do? He went to the drunkard and asked him from which wine house did he drink the wine! The shocked son told his father that he brought him here to see the humiliation that this man was enduring so that his father would see how he appears when he himself was drunk, in the hope that it would cause him to stop drinking. His father replied that his greatest pleasure in life was drinking.(3) It is very likely that the father was intellectually aware of the harm that his drinking caused him, however he was so preoccupied with the immediate pleasure it gave him, that he was blind to its overall damage.
The yetzer hara, our evil inclination, blinds a person to the long-term damage of his behavior, hindering one's Divine Service. Whether it be in the area of destructive responses or addictions, or any number of other areas, it is essential for a person to address this issue if he hopes to fulfill his potential. It seems that the first stage of this process is to develop an intellectual recognition that the mode of action or reaction that he has habituated himself to is ultimately detrimental. Using the example of anger, a person must recognize that the short-term pleasure he feels after shouting at his wife, child or friend, is an illusionary pleasure created by the yetzer hara and in the long-term it only harms his relationships.
The second stage is to anticipate situations of difficulty before they occur so that he can intellectually prepare his response without being swept away with emotion at the time of the occurrence. Thus when he is insulted he can hopefully offset his natural reaction of anger with a calm countenance, based on his recognition that shouting in response will only aggravate the situation. This is no easy task, but in time one can hopefully internalize this intellectual awareness and react in a calm and measured fashion. The plague of the frogs gives us a vital insight into the destructive nature of anger and focusing on short-term results. May we learn the Steipler Gaon's lessons and control our reactions for the good.
1. Va'eira, 8:2, Rashi.
2. Birchas Peretz, Va'eira.
3. Medrash Tanchuma, (end of Parshas Shemini), quoted in Sichos Mussar, Maamer 1, p. 4.