The Vilna Gaon, as you might imagine, was a prodigy even in his earliest youth. And there are many stories told about the brilliance that he showed even as a boy. There is one story that is told in this regard that I’d like to share with you this morning, since it relates to our parsha.
You know, we read in the book of Daniel of how Nevuchadnezar set up a gigantic idol in the valley of Dura, and commanded that – on a given signal – all the assembled people should prostrate themselves before it, on pain of death. And so it was – as the signal was sounded, that all the people, young and old, men and women, gentile and even Jews, all bowed down before the idol, except for three men, who refused to bow; Chananiah, Mishael and Azariah. And so Nevuchadnezar ordered that they be thrown into a fiery furnace; but miraculously, they were not burned, and emerged unscathed.
The Gemara in Pesachim makes the following comment regarding this episode: From where did Chananiah, Mishael and Azariah learn to prefer to be thrown into the furnace rather than bow down to the idol? They learned it, says the Gemara, from the frogs in Egypt who filled the homes of the Egyptians and entered even into their ovens, as the Torah says. For they reasoned that if the frogs, who were not commanded to sanctify Hashem’s name, were willing to enter into the ovens of Egypt to fulfill Hashem’s will, then we, who are commanded in the mitzvah of kiddush Hashem, certainly ought to be willing to let ourselves be thrown into the furnace rather than desecrate Hashem’s name by bowing to the idol.
Now there is a problem in understanding this Gemara. And this problem was raised by the Shaagas Aryeh, one of the great Torah giants of the 18th century. Because the Gemara implies that the frogs were not commanded to jump into the Egyptian ovens. But that’s not true, said the Shaagas Aryeh! After all, Moshe Rabeinu, relating the word of Hashem, had told Pharaoh explicitly:
ועלו ובאו בביתך ובחדר משכבך ועל מטתך ובבית עבדיך ובעמך ובתנוריך ובמשארותיך
“…and they will go up into your home and your bedroom and upon your bed and the into the homes of your servants and people, and into your ovens and dough”. So it seems that G-d had required the frogs to go into the ovens! How can the Gemara, then, say that the frogs were not commanded?
Among those present when the Shaagas Aryeh asked the question was the seven-year-old prodigy Eliyahu, the future Gaon of Vilna. And without hesitation he spoke up and answered the question, as follows: True, he said, the frogs were commanded to enter, among other places, the ovens of the Egyptians. But each individual frog was not given a specific mission. The frogs as a whole were commanded to go into Pharaoh’s home, into his bedroom, into his bed, into the houses of his slaves and of his people, and into the ovens and into the dough. But there was nothing to stop any particular frog from choosing to go into Pharaoh’s bedroom or bed, and letting some other frog go jump in an oven
And therefore those frogs that jumped into the hot ovens – if we can say such a thing about frogs – did so voluntarily. And it is from them that Chananiah, Mishael and Azariah took their cue.
When the Shaagas Aryeh heard the young genius’ answer, he picked him up, kissed him on the forehead, and foretold a great future for him.
I would like to suggest that this comment of the Vilna Gaon does more than simply answer the Shaagas Aryeh’s question. In fact, it gives us an important insight into the real point that the Gemara is making.
After all, the Gemara – at face value – seems absurd. Why should Chananiah, Mishael and Azariah have needed to learn a lesson from the frogs in Egypt? After all, everyone knows that idolatry is one of the three cardinal sins regarding which a Jew must give up his life rather than transgress them; and countless Jews throughout the centuries have done just that. Nowhere else - in the long history of Jewish martyrdom - do we find that anyone ever needed to draw inspiration from the frogs in Egypt!
And there is another difficulty: The Gemara seems to imply that the frogs’ entering the ovens was somehow an act of self-sacrifice for the sake of Kiddush Hashem. But we’re talking, after all, about frogs! It hardly seems likely that the frogs, when they entered the ovens, knew what they were getting into.
I believe that what the Gemara is really saying is this: Of course, Jews have often suffered martyrdom for their faith. And that was heroic. But they rarely did so alone. Rather, families and whole communities stood together and – in those times of supreme trial – drew strength from each other. But Chananiah, Mishael and Azariah were willing to sacrifice themselves at a moment when the whole word – including the Jews, including everyone whom they knew and respected – were not ready to do so. And therefore they had a right, we might have thought, to ask: Why us? Why should we three be the only ones in the whole world to stand up to Nevuchadnezar? All right, we know its wrong to worship an idol, even under duress; but everyone else is doing it! Why should we be the only heroes?
And the Gemara therefore asks: From where did Chananiah Mishael and Azariah get the strength to stand up for kiddush Hashem when no one else was willing to do so? From where did they learn that “why me” is not an excuse?
And the answer is – from the frogs. Of course, frogs are not intelligent creatures. But the Gemara is asking us to use our imagination and conduct what Albert Einstein used to call a “thought experiment”. Let us imagine that one of those frogs had been an unusually intelligent frog. And so we might imagine that frog hopping up to an oven and saying: “Hold on! I’m not going in there! I’ll take my station in the kitchen cupboard, let some of those other, stupid frogs go in here”.
Well, if only one frog had been so gifted it wouldn’t have mattered. Another frog would have taken his place. But let us imagine further that all of the frogs were of this same unusually intelligent variety. And that each one of them said to himself: “Why should I go into an oven? Let some other frog do that duty.” And the end result would have been that not one frog would have gone into an oven, and Moshe’s prophecy that the frogs would fill, among other places, the ovens of Egypt, would have gone unfulfilled. Which would have been, of course, a Chillul Hashem.
Now, of course, in the case of frogs the whole scenario is absurd. But that is exactly what happened in the valley of Dura. Each one of the assembled Jews knew as well as Chananiah, Mishael and Azariah that he or she ought to give up his life rather than worship an idol. But each one looked around and said: “Why me? Everyone else is going along and bowing down. Why should I be the one to take a stand?” And so the end result was a Chillul Hashem of colossal proportions.
Because Chillul Hashem begins with the words: “Why me?” And that was the insight of Chananiah Mishael and Azariah. And so they said, instead: “Kiddush Hashem has to begin with someone. And it may as well be – and what a merit that it should be – with us.” And with that they earned themselves an eternal place in the annals of our people.
By learning the lesson of the frogs.
It’s fascinating to note that this “lesson of the frogs” corresponds almost exactly a comment that the Rambam makes about the culpability of the Egyptians themselves. It seems that the Rambam was bothered by a question that perplexed many commentators: Why were the Egyptians punished for enslaving the Jews when, after all, G-d had told Avraham Avinu, hundreds of years before, that:
גר יהיה זרעך בארץ לא להם ועבדום וענו אותם ארבע מאות שנה
Since the slavery had been foretold, it would seem that the Egyptians had no choice; they had to enslave the Jews. Why, then, should they have been punished for it?
And the Rambam answers that although it was foretold that the Egyptians, as a whole, would enslave the Jews, yet no particular individual Egyptian was mentioned in that prophecy. And therefore each individual Egyptian had a choice; he could also choose not to go along, and not to be a party to the persecution. But instead each Egyptian looked around and said: “Everyone else is doing it. Why should I be different?” And because they all chose to hide behind the crowd, they were culpable and ultimately were punished.
The Egyptians needed to learn the lesson of the frogs.
Now this lesson is also relevant to us. For while we are not, thank G-d, called upon to demonstrate the self-sacrifice of Chananiah, Mishael and Azariah, yet there are often times when we look around ourselves and see that everyone seems to be doing something that we know is wrong – and that they, too, probably know is wrong. And the temptation at such times is to say: “OK, its wrong; but everyone else is doing it; why should I be the hero? Why me?”
At such times we have to remember the lesson of the frogs; the lesson that Chillul Hashem begins with the words: “Why me”. And Kiddush Hashem begins when we begin to say: “Someone must begin to take a stand; and what greater merit than that it be we.”