Has there ever been a moreimaginative rabbi than Akiva? The same sage who allegedly knew little more than the aleph bet at 40 rose to become one of the greatest interpreters of Torah. Akiva is said to have been the only one who understood the secret codes in the curves and crowns in the letters of the Torah. Moses himself is said not to have understood them.
During the second plague of frogs, in Parashat Vaera, verse 8:2 switches from the plural form "tz'farda'im" and says that the frog "ha-tz'farde'a" rose up and covered the land of Egypt. This switch to the singular is a bit odd given the many plural references, but not bizarre. A few verses earlier we read that the fish "ha-dagah" (singular) died in the Nile and no one suggests that it was one mega-fish.
Somehow, Rabbi Akiva understands, from the Talmud and Midrash, the singular form to be literal—that a monster frog jumped out of the Nile and occupied Egypt. Rabbi Elazar ben Azariah (Akiva’s contemporary) counters with a slightly more realistic interpretation that one lead frog came out and then called all frogs in the world to follow and take over. So, it's a choice between Akiva's Monster Frog acting alone and Elazar's King of the Frogs theory. A later source, Midrash Tanhuma, conflates them and has Akiva teach that a monster frog came out, and as the Egyptians tried to kill it, little frogs flew off its body. Rashi reports these midrashim and then gives a more rational explanation—that "the frog" refers to the singular phenomenon of the swarm of amphibians upon Egypt.
As if the plagues narratives weren't dramatic enough, the ancient sages found ways to augment them and capture our imagination. However, the thing that interests me is not the vivid imaginations of our ancestors but the serious debates between them. Rabbi Elazar ben Azariah actually rebukes Rabbi Akiva for his Monster Frog theory and tells him to go back to halakhic topics like the rules of skin affliction and corpse contamination—which are complicated but apparently require no imagination.
Here is the problem. Elazar seems to feel that Aggadah, a non-legalistic interpretation which combines the allegorical and overt literal meaning, is a serious business, requiring responsible use of imagination, whereas Halakhah, legal interpretation, is a tedious process, requiring stultifying attention to detail and precluding creativity. Unfortunately, this dichotomy has often turned out to be true—Aggadah and then mystical interpretation has been a center of creativity, while Halakhah has often seemed like a tedious exercise of applying precedent without new insight. The dichotomy is, or ought to be, false. Aggadah, according to Elazar ben Azariah, is not truly a free-form permission to do whatever one wants with the text. And Halakhah is not really meant to be a dry application of precedent. Both genres of Rabbinic literature should be simultaneously creative and conservative—adding innovative concepts within established frameworks allowing Judaism to evolve.
In the end, we can be grateful that Akiva continued to author aggadot, creative interpretations, and that he also became one of the great halakhic teachers of all time. Perhaps his late start in learning allowed him to cultivate an individual voice and thus to contribute unique insights to the development of our sacred literature. May we each find our own distinct voice within the chorus of Jewish insights.
Rabbi Jeffrey Abraham