There Goes the Neighborhood
Sing the song:
One day when King Pharoah awoke in his bed
There were frogs in his bed and frogs on his head
Frogs on his nose and frogs on his toes
Frogs here! Frogs there!
Frogs were jumping everywhere.
The plague of frogs which we read about in today’s parasha is probably the funniest of the plagues and the one we have the most fun with at the Passover Seder. We sing songs about it. We have little frogs decorating the Seder table.
But, there is much more to this plague than fun. In fact, it’s likely that the plague of frogs was a very deliberate payback to Pharoah for his bigoted attitude towards Jewish immigrants. And, our children’s song can help us understand that.
Remember that the Jewish people were first invited to Egypt by Pharoah as a favor to Joseph who had saved Egypt from starvation. At the time, this small clan was hungry and needy. And, notice. Pharoah did not say: “I don’t want any immigrants from that backwater, Canaan. Give me people from advanced countries, like Babylonia.” But, it’s one thing to reach out to the immigrant when he needs us. It’s quite another thing to love the independent when he doesn’t need us anymore. And, in fact, over several generations, the Jewish immigrants did well for themselves. And, a new king arose over Egypt who was alarmed by the increase in number and success of the Jewish population.
We can imagine the Egyptians expressing anxiety about the increasing footprint of the Jews in Egyptian society. My God, they’re everywhere! They’re in our malls. They’re in our neighborhoods. They’re in our school system. Jews, here. Jews, there. Jews are jumping everywhere!
The anti-immigrant stance of the Egyptians is also reflected in two rabbinic interpretations of the Biblical plague. The Torah describes the beginning of the plague with these words: va’ta’al ha’tz’farde’a. The frogs rose up, that is, they rose up from the Nile.
But, the word tzfardea in Hebrew is singular. Shouldn’t the text say: va’yaalu ha’tzfard’im…the frogs/plural rose up? So, there are two Rabbinic answers to this question. One rabbi says there was actually one gigantic frog that rose up and threatened all of Egypt. It was like the frog that ate Chicago.
I love this image! This is a hilarious and preposterous expression of the fear of the immigrant. The immigrant is pictured as this monster frog that is so enormous that it is literally sitting on and crushing the entire Egyptian people. This is how natives who fear immigrants think of them.
The second interpretation is equally compelling. The second rabbi says that actually, the plague began with a single frog. But, then he whistled and called all of his other frog friends to join him. This is an amazingly contemporary image of white flight. Substitute for the word frog—Jew, black, Latino, Asian, Muslim. Those who fear the newcomer panic at the sight of even one family coming in. “There goes the neighborhood!” It starts with one. But, before you know it, frogs are jumping everywhere.
Native American writer Sherman Alexie grew up in Spokane. And, a few months ago, I mentioned that he went to high school in the all white town of Riordan, Washington. He was a superstar there. Even though he was the first Native American to go to the school, he became captain of the basketball team and the debating team.
And, in his recent memoir, Alexie wonders how it was possible that he was accepted by classmates who only recently voted overwhelmingly for an anti-immigrant administration. And, he speculates that there is a difference between one newcomer and two. As long as he was the only Native American, he was treated generously. But, the moment several other Native Americans enrolled in his high school, he noticed that the anxiety level began to rise, as did the expression of bigotry.
There seems to be a tipping point where tolerance collapses. And, it has to do with what we might call The Mordecai Moment. The Persian empire was actually known for its tolerance of minorities. And, in fact, King Cyrus was very generous to the Jewish people. He even allowed those who wanted to return to Israel and rebuild the Temple. How did such a tolerant society turn against the Jews?
It’s similar to what happened in Egypt. As long as the Jews were a small, vulnerable population, they were treated with sympathy. But, when we became successful, we lost that sympathy.
In the Megillah, the key moment is when Mordecai encountered Haman. The Megillah says: “U’Mordecai lo yichra v’lo yistachaveh/Mordecai refused to bend and refused to bow.” This is a portrait of a self-confident Jew, capable of standing on his own two feet. This immigrant is no longer a victim. And, there are some people who are only capable of loving us when we are helpless and afraid.
This pattern has repeated itself many times in Jewish history. I have often heard this from Muslims. It is said in a well meaning way. We don’t have a problem with Jews. I grew up with Jews in Egypt, in Yemen, in Tunisia. Everyone got along. Jews themselves celebrate the Golden Age of Spain when for 300 years, Jews flourished in a Muslim land, far more than in Christian Europe.
The problem with this is that we were tolerated as long as we were a vulnerable minority in a Muslim country. There is no precedent in Muslim history for tolerating a strong, independent Jewish state, a state in which Mordecai lo yichra v’lo yishtachaveh/Mordecai will not bend and will not bow.
In the same way, we wonder what happened to the world’s love of Israel. In 1948, we were Europe’s darlings. Of course we were. Europe had just slaughtered six million of our people. And, so naturally there was sympathy for a small, vulnerable Jewish state that wanted to put the Jewish people back on its feet again. But, the moment we became strong and confident and no longer needy, we lost the world’s sympathy.
But, this is not just about us. Just think about the message that this human tendency sends to all the peoples of the world. There are now 1.3 billion Muslims in the world. Some say Islam will be the world’s largest religion by 2040. For the life of me, I cannot figure out how this global community got to be portrayed as the underdog. But, of course, if the world only loves the weak, there is tremendous incentive to portray yourself as the eternal victim, no matter how strong you are.
The Black-Jewish relationship fell apart over this issue, too. At the height of the Civil Rights Movement, blacks and Jews could sympathize with each other as long as we believed that we were both victims, each in our own ways. But, the minute our two communities became more successful, there was tension between us.
Blacks did not want to think of themselves as needing the help of white people, including Jews. They wanted to do things for themselves. Jews were experiencing unprecedented success in America and in Israel. And, we stood taller. We stopped changing our names and disguising our identity.
In many ways, our two communities helped each other by showing that we could be ourselves and still be accepted in America. But, standing on our own also decreased the sympathy we had for each other. And, the question before us today is: can the Jewish community and the black community re-invent our relationship? Can we have a relationship as adults? Can we love each other when we are strong, not just when we are vulnerable?
I’d hate to think that we live in a world that the only way we can love people is if we keep them weak and helpless. What would it say about us that we love the homeless, but the minute we succeed in helping them to their feet, we turn our backs on them?
The world has a problem. We are invested in keeping people eternal children, eternal victims. And, right now, we the Jewish people are experiencing the fallout from this thinking in the form of resentment of a strong and independent State of Israel. But, we are not the only victims. All the minority populations in America are the victims—blacks, Asians, Latinos—if the minute they succeed, we hate them.
We the Jewish people need a shift in the way we relate to our neighbors. We are used to thinking of social justice as reaching down and pulling our neighbors up. Nobody wants that anymore. Nobody wants to be treated as a child. We need to begin thinking of repairing the world as reaching out—reaching out as equals, reaching out to form adult relationships with our friends and neighbors.
We need to convince each other that we will not lose our appeal if we are strong. We need to say to our friends and neighbors, in America and in the world, “ Don’t be afraid to succeed. I will still love you, even when you are grown up.”