Frogs and Orchestras
“And Aharon stretched out his hand over the water of Egypt, and the frog came up and covered the land of Egypt…. And Pare’oh called to Moshe and to Aharon and said, ‘Plea to Hashem, that He take away the frogs from me and my people….’” Rashi on our parashah notes the use of the singular, “hatzfardei’ah”, “the frog” when the plague begins, but both in the warning before the plague and in its ending, the pasuq says “hatzefarde’im”, “the frogs”, in the plural. One of Rashi’s explanations for this inconsistency is taken from the medrash. Only one enormous frog came out of the Nile (as the text says) but each time it was hit, the frog split into more frogs – thereby producing the many frogs of the plague.
The Steipler Gaon asks about this medrash. Why did the Mitzriyim continue to hit the frogs? How could they not have learned after a few attempts to destroy the frogs by violence, that all it would accomplish is to make the infestation worse?
Rabbi Shlomo Wolbe has this description of how to coordinate middos and desires:
… There isn’t any power in the soul which is specifically evil (Naftali Wessley, Sefer haMidos part I, ch. 4). Every power has some place in the World of Yedidus. Even egotism and anger are necessary sometimes. When you use each power in its proper place and time — it is good, and every force in the soul is necessary. However, in order to build the World of Yedidus, there has to be coordination of all the forces together, so that they work together in cooperation and a proper distribution of their duties.
The ruling power, which sets each of the other powers in their proper place, is the intellect, which is therefore the central power of yedidus (affection) in a person. (C.f. Kuzari, Rav Yehudah HaLeivi, 3:2 onward.) Without the rule of the intellect, there is no World of Yedidus. When any power from among the powers of the soul exceeds its boundaries and requires excessive satisfaction or even total control — this power alienates itself from the other powers and rebels against the intellect. This is where zarus (alienation) begins, and that power thereby changes to become “evil.” This process is depicted in the Talmud quoted above with the example of anger. Elsewhere the Talmud depicts the same process of alienation with regard to sexual lust (which the Gemara describes as “[Rav said:] someone who intentionally stimulates himself [should be excommunicated. And why is it prohibited? Because he incites the evil inclination against himself.]” – Niddah 13b)
Here we reach the question of free will. We explained that there is no power in a person that is specifically evil. We are able to use our powers to build the World of Yedidus, through the coordination of those powers by the intellect. The excessive use of one power or a rebellion against the intellect cause the destruction of the World of Yedidus. This choice is in the person’s hands, whether to choose yedidus or alienation. Indeed, he can choose.
In the Talmud we find an example of this (Shabbos 156a): “A person born under the sign of Mars will be a person who sheds blood — a blood-letter, a thief, a ritual slaughterer [for meat] or a mohel.” A person cannot change the basic attribute, in this example — the inclination to shed blood. But this attribute can be used for good, and the spectrum of possibilities is broad: he could be a doctor, a slaughterer or a mohel. Only the thief who won’t flinch from murder uses his attribute in a manner of alienation. Here we have an example of an extreme inclination, and there is still nothing that compels a person to be evil because of it. He has the choice to use it for more beneficial ends.
In any case, there is a limit to choice; the basic inclination cannot be changed! In the above example, someone born with the inclination to shed blood cannot uproot this inclination. The only choice in his control is whether to use it for good or for evil, to build the World of Yedidus or to destroy it.
… Here the Torah comes to the aid of the intellect, to strengthen the person to choose good. The Torah of Israel wages an all-out war against all the forces of alienation. Therefore, first of all, “The intent of the Torah is to extend the intellect to all the desires of the soul, and to assert its power over them” (Chovos HaLevavos, Shaar Perishus, ch. 2). The intent is not to to suppress desires, but to put each force in its proper place
I would illustrate Rav Wolbe’s message by asking you to imagine an orchestra. The intellect is the conductor, whose job it is to make sure that each instrument comes in at the right time and with the right tempo. Over in the back we can see temper, playing the tympani, on the left, empathy is on the first violin and sadness is over there on the left, among the oboes and bassoons. Joy is behind them on the trumpets. Each middah has its role, and through the intellect they are coordinated into a harmonious whole. One can make beautiful music with just one violin, but in a symphony it combines with all the other instruments to make something far richer.
The intellect is the conductor, the Torah — his sheet music. (Sadly, it is possible to have the sheet music, and never pick up the baton.) And while the Torah tells us what music should be played, the conductor has room within that for his own interpretation. And like a conductor’s task, much of the job of gaining mastery lies before the actual performance.
Anger is perhaps the tympanies in the back. Loud, ponderous, and used sparingly.
The Rambam defines the ideal for any personality trait as being the middle between the extremes. A person cannot be neither a doormat nor stubborn, neither impatient nor complacent. The middle path is a fusion of all middos and is therefore a true fulfillment of following G-d, walking bederekh Hashem.
Then he qualifies his statement by describing two ideals. The middle path is what the Rambam calls the path of the chacham. The chacham is neither a shefal ru’ach, considering himself of lowly spirit, nor egotistical. That balance is how the Rambam defines anivus. A chassid, however, tends to one side, chooses being a shefal ru’ach over harmony.
While in general the Rambam focuses on the chacham, he later states, “There are dei’os, personality traits, for which it’s prohibited to behave according to the median. Rather, he should distance himself to one extreme. And that [trait] is haughtiness. It is not the good path for a person to be an anav alone, but he should be a shefal ru’ach… This is why Moshe is called ‘anav me’od’, and not simply “anav”…. Also our sages said, ‘Whoever raises up his heart [in egotism], denies an article of faith.’”
Our original subject, anger, is the Rambam’s other exception. “Similarly anger, it is a very evil trait, and it is appropriate that a person distance himself from it to the other extreme and teach himself not to get angry…. Our sages said, “Whoever gets angry, it is as though he worshipped idolatry.’”
If the path of the wise, the path of Hashem is to find balance, and this is even the ideal the Rambam gives in the previous chapter, why does the Rambam not recommend such balance in practice? Why does the ideal of the chassid uniquely apply to egotism and anger?
Anger has an odd predilection; it thinks it belongs at the podium waving the baton. The Steipler Gadon answers the question we opened with by explaining that with each blow the Egyptians truck the frogs, their anger and frustration built. Anger robs man of the ability to think clearly. It blinds.
This is akin to a broader question about the makos except in that case the Torah clearly spells out the reason. Why didn’t the Egyptians renege and release the Jews? Why did they stubbornly hold on to the Jews in the face of plague after plague? “Pare’oh saw that there was respite, vehakhbeid es libo…” The usual translation, that Pare’oh “hardened his heart” is not strictly loyal to the Hebrew. “Hakhbeid” is hif’il (causative) of “kaveid”, heavy, massive. “Hakhbeid”, he made immobile. It is also from the same root as “kavod”, honor. Pare’oh stood on his honor, unable to bend to the will of others, and that too blinds.
The way of the chacham is to seek the middle ground. However, as we saw, anger and ego make rational thought impossible; how then can we expect to allow even an admixture of either in our pursuit of being chachamim? What does one do when the middah itself clouds one from reaching chochmah, wisdom? While following the middle path is proper imitation of Hashem, even a touch of egotism is heresy, a single angry outburst, idolatry. The proper use of these two middos is a wisdom available to Hashem alone.
 Shemos 8:2, 4
 Ad loc.
 Birchas Peretz, parashas Va’eira, 1
 Bishvilei haRefu’ah vol. 5, Sivan 5742 , pp. 57-90. I have a translation of the entire section of the article in question, here. And see also the use of this selection and metaphor in to explain the difference between desire (being a voice in the orchestra) and will (the orchestra itself), here.
 Hilchos Dei’os 1:1 – 2:2
 Ibid. 1:6-7
 Ibid. 1:5
 Ibid 2:5
 Shemos 8:11
I witnessed what appeared to be a young lad conducting a group of pacific chorus frogs 🙂
Wild! Wish I did…