When I asked my son about the parsha, he and my daughter starting singing the frog song (“frogs here, frogs there . . .”). He told me that there was one big frog, and the Egyptians hit it and it became many frogs.
There is an interesting post at Rationalist Judaism that complains that schoolchildren are taught the above Rashi as peshat instead of derash. Rashi explains that the use of the singular for frog (“the frog came up and covered the land of Egypt”) has the midrashic interpretation that one frog was beaten and turned into many frogs and the simple meaning that “frog” can mean a swarm of frogs, the way that lice is singular and plural at the same time.
In his response to this post, Josh Waxman over at Parshablog argues that the two explanations do not necessarily contradict each other. Both state that the reference to one frog ultimately refers to a multitude of frogs. Both address a textual irregularity where “frogs” are mentioned elsewhere, but here frog is in the singular. Here is the Parshablog take on this Rashi: “But, while I do think that some Rishonim would argue with Rashi as to what historically happened, I don’t think that just because Rashi labels this midrash as a midrash, Rashi is taking a ‘rationalist’ position here. Unlike Ibn Ezra, I don’t think Rashi feels compelled to explain miracles in the most naturalistic way possible.”
On the other hand, Parshablog also has a post that offers some analysis of this midrash in allegorical terms. Rabbi Akiva stated that there was one frog that was beaten and spit out many frogs. Rabbi Elazar ben Azarya rejoined in famously strong terms (“Akiva! What business have you with Haggadah? Leave homiletical interpretations and turn to Neg’aim and Ohalot!”) that instead there was a frog that whistled, and the other frogs came.
Parshablog points out that frogs represent fertility (simply from their rapid multiplication here and also within Egyptian culture where frogs were deified symbols of fertility). Rabbi Akiva’s position can be understood as an analogy between B’nei Yisroel and the frogs. B’nei Yisroel, like the plague of frogs, caused dread in the Egyptians with their rapid population growth. As with the beaten frog, the more the Egyptians tried to combat the population growth by afflicting the B’nei Yisrael, the more the growth increased.
Rabbi Elazar suggests another analogy, with Yosef being the whistling frog that brought the multitude of B’nei Yisroel to Egypt.
Rabbi Ari Kahn offer a different idea of what Rabbi Elazar and Rabbi Akiva were arguing about. The frogs of this parsha became metaphors for martrydom (because of their leap into ovens). Rabbi Kahn suggests that Rabbi Elazar is pleading with Rabbi Akiva against martrydom. “Is Rabbi Elazar ben Azarya pleading with Rabbi Akiva not to take the responsibility upon himself? ‘It was one frog, but he croaked and called the others!’ Rabbi Elazar ben Azarya felt that the role of a leader is to call out to others, to build the philosophical underpinnings for the movement.”
Rabbi Naftali Reich takes a different approach to the midrash of the beaten frog. Why, he asks, did the Egyptians behave so irrationally? Why did they continue to beat the frogs when they saw that this approach just caused them to multiply? According to Chazal, this irrational reaction was intended by Hashem. “The message was simple and straightforward. Just as it was futile and irrational to flog the frogs, so would it be futile and irrational to defy the will of Hashem.” The Egyptians reaction to the frogs, beating them even as that caused them to increase, is a metaphor for the increased suffering of the Egyptians as a result of their continued refusal to see the will of Hashem in the plagues.
Rabbi Reich points out that we are all sometimes guilty of reasoning like the Egyptians, continuing to do the futile while ignoring the real causes of our problems. He tells the story of a merchant who asks a sage for advice about his failing business. The businessman has spent a fortune trying improve his business, renovating the store, advertising, running sales. The sage tells the businessman that he has been going about things the wrong way, trying to draw in customers instead of looking inward and improving his merchandise. Rabbi Reich suggests that when we face difficulties, we too should look inward and consider what message Hashem is sending us.