Monday, January 03, 2011

free choice and the plague of frogs

The gemara (Pesachim 53) teaches that Chanayna, Misha’el, and Azarya deduced that they had an obligation to sacrifice their lives and be tossed into a burning oven at Nevuchadnezer’s hands from the fact that during the plague of frogs the frogs jumped even into the Egyptian ovens, forfeiting their lives.

There seems to be a clear difference between these two cases. G-d specifically commanded that the frogs enter even the ovens of Egypt. G-d never specifically commanded Chananya, Misha'el, and Azarya to be tossed into an oven. How could they draw an analogy from the frogs to their situation?

The Sha’agas Arye is quoted as answering that G-d commanded that the frogs enter the ovens, the bedrooms, the kitchens – every area of Egypt. The frogs as a group had to be everywhere. However, no one said that any individual frog had to enter an oven as opposed to a bedroom, or vica versa. The fact that a frog would choose to jump into an oven demonstrates the chiyuv of self-sacrifice which Chananya Misha’el and Azarya imitated. (See Rashi/Tosfos why they needed the frogs as a model when there is a chiyuv of kiddush Hashem is learned from pesukim.)

Maharil Diskin is troubled by this answer. If every frog had a choice whether it wanted to be the one to jump into an oven, it is entirely possible that all the frogs could choose to not jump into ovens. How then would the command that frogs be everywhere – including in the ovens – be fulfilled? The will of all frogs cannot be greater than the sum of their individual decisions. Maharil Diskin therefore gives a different answer to this question, as to many other meforshim.

The debate between the Sha’agas Arye and Maharil Diskin parallels a debate between the Rambam and Ra’avad. The Rishonim ask why the Egyptians deserved punishment for enslaving Bnei Yisrael when Hashem had already told Avraham in the bris bein ha’besarim that his descendents would be slaves. Rambam (Hil Tshuvah 6:5) answers that while the Egyptian nation as a whole was destined to enslaved Bnei Yisrael, each individual Egyptian had a choice whether he/she would be part of that victimization. Ra’avad disagrees and argues that if each individual Egyptian could potentially choose to not participate in the enslavement, how could it be guaranteed that the Egyptian nation as a whole would enslave Bnei Yisrael? The whole cannot be greater than the sum of those individual choices. Ra’avad therefore offers a different answer: the Egyptians went above and beyond in their persecution of Bnei Yisrael and were therefore culpable. (There is another answer as well – ayen sham.)

In a nutshell, it seems like the issue here boils down to whether we allow for some form of soft determinism in our conception of bechira. (What bothers me is how the Ra'avad's rejection of the Rambam here fits with what sounds like his own form of soft determinism at the end of ch 5 of Hil Teshuvah.)


  1. Frogs have bechirah altogether? Does a frog choose to jump into an oven any more than a rock chooses to fall when you let go of it?

    I never took that medrash as literally as the Shaagas Aryeh does. In light of his answer, which presumes the three nevi'im actually took the frogs' bechirah quite seriously. I am therefore left wondering how.

    BTW, I thought this was part of a machloqes between Tosafos and the Rambam. The Rambam holds that sacrificing oneself when not necessary is assur, whereas Tosafos say that not getting out of a situation of dying al qiddush Hashem when it's possible to do so is laudible. In our case, Tosafos say that Chananel, Mishael, and Azariah could have gotten out of being thrown into the kivshan ha'eish. They needed this limud in order to justify dying al qiddush Hashem in this situation where they had a choice. Thus their focus on choice.


  2. Anonymous6:49 PM

    ohr samayeach on the rambam there says the shagos aryeh, and the parallel.

  3. Micha - If frogs don't really have bechira, what's the limud from them? I don't understand how you read the gemara. And I don't see why you would compare a frog to a rock - most pet owners (except perhaps those who tend to pet rocks) would disagree with your analogy.

  4. Isn't bechirah an essential part of tzelem E-lokim (eg. see Meshekh Chokhmah ad loc).

    Animals may love, but only if Hashem designed them thus.

    We anthropomorphise computer programs all the time. "The chess program doesn't want me to take its queen." Does that mean that I think the chess program has wants?

    Animals are closer to humans than that, but still, the impressions we draw by empathizing with an animal can only be taken with a grain of salt.

    So, how did Chanania, Misha'el veAzaria take a lesson from the frogs? Because Hashem used the frogs to model a lesson for them.

    Same way we say "mah Hu niqra Rachum, af atah heyei rachum" (see Dei'os 1:6) Hashem is called Rachum anthropomorphically. His actions look like those of Rachamim. And we are supposed to emulate that. Even though Hashem doesn't really have attributes.

    At least, that's how I understood this medrash until the Shaagas Aryeh. I await seeing the OS that "Anonymous" mentions, before commenting further.


    PS: I own a dog and a cat, and come March we'll also have a service dog for my son. I'm not saying this to be callous to animals. Just to assert that a dog that is compassionate was simply made that way. (And for that matter, has no first-hand experience of his own thoughts, including that compassion; but that's a different subject.)

  5. IOW, R' Chaim, I'm not comparing animals to rocks. I'm comparing the laws of animal behavior to those of physics. An animal has as little choice in its responses as a rock does to fall, or a rainbow does to order its colors so prettily. It is wired a certain way, and that's what it does.

    What makes people special is that we can watch and hear our own thoughts, and thus ammend them. This allows us to be self-defining. To transcend, if we wish to. The most transcendent thing about Man is the very ability to transcend. We are closest to Hashem when we try to emulate Him. (After all, any human, no matter how holy, is still infinitely far from G-dliness.)


  6. >>>Just to assert that a dog that is compassionate was simply made that way.

    But at any given moment the dog may or may not express that compassion. It may be playful, it may be sleepy, it may bite. Do you consider every aspect of the dog's behavior to be predetermined, just as it is predetermined that if I drop a rock it will fall because of the force of gravity? I'm just curious how far you take your thinking...

  7. Yes, I believe that, like a spreadsheet, every response of a dog obeys strict causal laws.

    Again, this is in following the Meshekh Chokhmah -- "hatzelem haE-lokim hi habechirah chofshis beli teva hamachria'". Only humans have free will. (pg 4 amudah 2 in the copy I linked to, d"h "Na'aseh Adam")

    Does that not mean that when we say that animals lack that Tzelem, we are saying that they are compelled by teva?


  8. Doesn't Rav Dessler speak about decisions that are within the range of bechirah, and decisions that are beyond the nequdas habechirah and made preconsciously? So yes, people can get trained.

    As for why Hashem has us show consideration for animals, it's not for the sake of the animal. A chazan who says "al kan tzipor yagi'u rachamekha" gets impeached mid-prayer. As the Ramban puts it, the obligations are for our sake.

    Because we naturally anthropomorphize, ignoring animal pain causes a callousness. The homicidal maniac who tortured animals as a child is cliche, but still actually a common part of their history.

    As for hakaras hatov to dogs... Moshe was obligated to show hakaras hatov to the Nile and to sand.

    The animals in the mabul are described as being secondary effects of the morality of the people -- not deciding beings in their own right.

    Animals cannot sense their own thoughts. They feel pain, but they can't have the thought "I am feeling pain". Thus the pain never leads to suffering and misery. If they could see/hear their own thoughts, they would become inputs for future thoughts -- and thus they would have free will. But only humans are in the Image of G-d.

    I argue this at more length on my blog (on qualia and free will) and continued at the blog entry I already posted a link to (on pain vs self-aware misery, and what that means WRT shiluach haqen, tzaar baalei chaim).


  9. As I understand it, the choices a dog or a frog make are no different than my choice of whether to have a bagel or a peanut butter sandwich for lunch. I am hesitant to call these things predetermined, but at the same time those those choices have nothing to do with bechira chofshis (which is what i assume your meshech chochma refers to). Bechira chofshis = choice about Torah u'mitzvos alone, which defines who I am, not just what I wish to do at that moment. (This explains why an Aku'M has no bechira. They can make choices, but those choices do not stem from a higher neshoma that can enable them to be something greater than a guf+lower neshoma.)

    Side point (as long as we are off on a tangent): the Maharil Diskin happens to ask in P' Braishis how the trees could choose to disobey Hashem's command about edible bark when trees have no bechira.

  10. Reb Chaim, I gave you a link to the copy so you wouldn't have to guess.

    R' Meir Simchah haKohein is referring to the basic kisharon of making choices. Quoting:

    Naaseh adam betzalmeinu: Hatzelem haE-loki hu habechirah hachafshis beli teva machri'is, raq meiratzon veseikhel chafshis.

    And then RMShK continues with a discussion of "hakol tzafui vehareshus nesunah." And I'm CERTAIN the Or Sameiach would not deny the bechirah of aku"m. RMShK believed in the value of natural morality, and believed that nachriim posessed it AND were obligated to follow it even beyond the black-and-white law of the 7 mitzvos. (MC Shemos 20:7, Devarim 30:11-14) He invokes Ben Azzai's kelal gadol "Eileh toledos ha'adam". You're mixing theologies.

    I didn't take the bit about "eitz oseh peri" that literally either. Rather, I saw the medrash as being about the gap between the ideal and the real.

    Back on topic... I do not see how the MC could believe the frogs chose to be the ones to sacrifice their lives, as they are compelled by teva.

    And it's not just the MC. It's the whole notion of people being dynamic, holekhim, in contrast to animals or mal'achim.