Learning Responsibility From the Frogs
After the first plague of blood, Moses warned Pharaoh that if he continue to refuse Moses' request to let the Jewish people leave Egypt, then there would be a new plague: "And the river will swarm with frogs; they will rise up and go into your homes, your bedrooms; onto your beds; and in the homes of your servants and your people; and into your ovens and your kneading bowls." (1) After Pharaoh's refusal, the frogs did indeed swarm all over Egypt, including into the ovens of the Egyptians.
The Gemara tells us that several hundred years later, the actions of the frogs who entered the ovens served as a lesson to three great men; Chanania, Mishael and Azariah. They lived in Babylon under the rule of Nebuchadnezzar. He made a decree that everyone must bow to a statue in his image, and the punishment for not doing so was to be thrown into a fire. The law states that one must give up his life rather than worship idols, however, the commentaries explain that bowing to this image did not constitute actual idol worship.(2) Therefore, technically speaking, it was permissible to bow to the image, and most of the Jewish people did so. However, Chanania, Mishael and Azariah learnt from the example of the frogs who went into the ovens in Egypt, that they too should be prepared to be thrown into a fire. They reasoned that the frogs who were not commanded in the Mitzva of Kiddush HaShem (sanctification of God's name), nonetheless were willing to go into a burning oven for the sake of sanctifying God's name. All the more so (kal v'chomer), they, who, as human beings, were commanded in the mitzvah of Kiddush HaShem, should be willing to be thrown into the fire.(3)
The Darchei Mussar points out a great difficulty with this Gemara. The three men's reasoning was based on the fact that the frogs were not commanded to die for the sake of Kiddush HaShem, whilst they were commanded to do so. However, Moshe's informing of Pharaoh that the frogs would enter their ovens constituted a command for the frogs; accordingly the frogs were commanded to go into the ovens. That being the case, how could Chanania, Mishael and Azariah learn from the frogs that they should allow themselves to be thrown into a fire?!
He explains that whilst God did command the frogs to go into the ovens, He did not restrict the command to ovens - the bedrooms, beds, and kneading bowls were included in the list of the places where the frogs could go to. Therefore, each frog had the choice as to where they would go - he could conceivably decide that he would choose the more comfortable option of going to the bed or kneading bowl. Nonetheless, many frogs did indeed choose to risk their lives in order to ensure that God's command was fulfilled. Since each individual frog was not commanded to go into the fire and yet many of them still did so, Chanania, Mishael and Azariah learnt that all the more so they should be prepared to be thrown into a fire.(4)
The Darchei Mussar continues that we learn a fundamental lesson from the actions of the brave frogs who went into the ovens. It was possible for them to shift the responsibility onto other frogs, however they declined the comfortable option and as a result, contributed to the enhanced sanctification of God's name. So too, he writes, that when a person is given the opportunity to perform a certain Mitzva he should not seek to shirk the responsibility placed upon him by hoping that someone else will undertake the mitzvah. Rather, he should view this as a golden chance to sanctify God's name. Sadly, it is not uncommon for a person to tend to view such opportunities as burdens. This attitude seems to be fundamentally against the Torah outlook. The Torah strongly espouses taking responsibility when things need to be done. The Mishna in Pirkei Avot states: "In a place where there are no men, strive to be a man." This applies in both minor daily occurrences and less common but more significant occasions. For example, there may be a general request for people to help in a certain endeavor, it is praiseworthy to assume the responsibility without waiting for others to do so. On a larger scale, there are numerous major problems facing the Jewish world today (5) - instead of waiting for others to take responsibility to rectify these problems, a person should see if there is anything he can do himself. On one occasion, some American Torah students living in Israel discovered that a significant amount of Americans living in Israel were living in extreme poverty but were too ashamed to tell anyone. Rather than merely expressing sympathy for these people, a few men undertook to create a new charity (known as Got Chicken) aimed at providing basic necessities for people in dire need.
We have seen how praiseworthy it is to take responsibility and avoid waiting for others to do so. If any more incentive is needed, the continuation of the story of the frogs shows what happened to the frogs who went into the ovens. After the plague stopped, the Torah states: "The frogs died from the houses, from the courtyards and from the fields." (6) The Baal HaTurim and Daat Zekeinim point out that there is no mention of the deaths of the frogs who were in the ovens. They explain that they were spared as a reward for their self-sacrifice. We see from here that taking responsibility to do God's will brings only good. May we all merit to take responsibility and reap the rewards.
1. Shemot, 7:28.
2. See Tosefot, Pesachim, 53b, dh: Mah rau.
3. Pesachm, 53b.
4. Darchei Mussar, Va'eira, p. 105-6.
5. Just a few examples are the rate of intermarriage, children leaving Torah, people's difficulty in finding shidduchim, and severe financial hardships.
6. Shemos, 8:9.