Kalman Cowl, a music professor at Columbia University, became friendly with some chassidim and would often visit them in 770.

Once, he was persuaded by his friends to sign up for a meeting with the Rebbe.

He was apprehensive about the meeting, though, for in his own words, “Although I felt fiercely Jewish, I didn’t believe in G‑d.”

At their meeting, after exchanging pleasantries, Kalman told the Rebbe, “I appreciate the privilege of being taught more about my heritage here in 770, but I don’t want to be here under false pretenses. I have no faith.”

The Rebbe thought for a few moments and said simply, “As long as you are concerned about that, I’m not worried.”


G‑d said to Moses: Come to Pharaoh and say to him, “So said G‑d: Let My people go, so that they may serve Me. But if you refuse to let [them] go, behold, I will smite all your borders with frogs.”1

“If not for the [plague of the] frog, how would G‑d have punished the Egyptians?”—The Midrash

A strange statement, that one, if not outright heretical.

The implication is that if not for The Frog, Pharaoh could not have been vanquished. But aren’t there “many agents of G‑d”? Is His task force not huge and varied? And weren’t the other nine plagues equally—if not more—effective in bringing Pharaoh to his knees?

The Three Stooges

In Biblical lore (to generalize) we find three ideologies, professed by three notorious characters, each of whom rubbed G‑d the wrong way, in varying degrees.

The individuals (listed non-chronologically) are: Balaam, Pharaoh, and Sennacherib.

Balaam was a complicated man.

A believer he was. After all, he was a prophet. And which prophet in his right mind would deny the existence of the G‑d for whom he claimed to speak? Rather than believing merely abstractly or theoretically, he well understood, and would later re-learn, the fact that G‑d is heavily interested and involved in world affairs. This we know from his own candid admission: “If Balak will give me his house full of silver and gold, I cannot transgress the word of the L‑rd, my G‑d, to do anything, small or great . . .”2

But his belief system was nuanced and complex. He took issue with the unity, though not the existence, of G‑d . . . but that’s for a separate discussion.

On the other extreme we have Sennacherib the atheist, who denied the existence of a Higher Being, going so far as to make a point of cursing G‑d. His disbelief in G‑d took the form of active atheism. He was a religious non-believer, passionate and committed to discounting faith in a Creator.

In this way, both he and Balaam shared common ground; they were both equally disturbed by the notion of G‑d, especially one who supervises the world. They differed, though, in how they chose to deal with their respective frustrations: Balaam reluctantly resigned himself to G‑d’s dominion, while Sennacherib spent a lifetime campaigning against it.3

Pharaoh, however, charted new ground.

He is the Bible’s very first deist, believing that even if G‑d existed, He had nothing to do with the world’s administration. The world’s maintenence was man’s domain.

In other words, in Pharaoh’s books, the question of G‑d’s existence was theoretical and removed from practical life. It made for great debate in the halls of the academy, but had no business being discussed in the streets or bars, let alone shaping government policy.

That this was Pharaoh’s philosophy is clear from his very first words to Moses, “Who is G‑d that I should heed His voice to send out Israel?” which could be understood to mean, “Since when is G‑d involved in what goes on downstairs?”

Pharaoh’s weltanschauung becomes more evident from Moses’ words to him on G‑d’s behalf, “If you do not let my people go, behold, I will incite against you, and against your servants, and against your people, and in your houses, a mixture of wild beasts . . . so that you will know that I am G‑d in the midst of the land.”

Apparently, Pharaoh needed convincing that G‑d was chief not just in heaven but on earth as well, “in the midst of the land.”4

So in sum, we have Balaam the (befuddled) Theist, Pharaoh the (makes-no-difference-to-me) Deist, and Sennacherib, the (angry) Atheist or Anti-Theist.

If you were judging these men and their philosophies, which would you rank the greatest threat to the institution of faith?

Perhaps unexpectedly, G‑d voted Pharaoh worst of the bunch.

For you’re bound to hear G‑d’s name in conversation with both Balaam and Sennacherib. Granted, when talking to Sennacherib, you’ll hear it louder and fiercer; but let’s face it, He’s on both of their minds.

Talk to Pharaoh and you’d never know there’s a G‑d.

From both the theist’s arguments for, and the atheist’s or anti-theist’s arguments against, the existence of G‑d, one is informed of a power to be reckoned with. They’re both G‑d-fearing, if you know what I mean.

To the deist, G‑d isn’t even up for discussion.

Pharaoh gave G‑d the cold shoulder, and that’s what singled him out for special attention.

And here’s where the frog jumps in.

Animals can be broken down into three groups: those that benefit mankind, those that harm mankind, and those that seem irrelevant to mankind.

Dogs provide security and companionship. We like them. They’re a creation of G‑d that is meaningful to us. Poisonous snakes can cause death. This lends the snake a definite character too. And if the person poisoned was wicked, there’s some meaningful justice in a snakebite.

Then there’s the frog, which (other than Kermit from the Muppets) seems to serve no purpose at all. It bears no indication of a design or a Designer. The frog, like Pharaoh, when encountered or observed, says nothing about its Creator.

Therefore it was chosen to bring punishment upon Pharaoh. As if to say, even this “random” creature has a purpose in this world. No creation is meaningless or unnecessary. The Creator of our world is also its Conductor. And in His ensemble, even a frog’s croak is a song of praise.

What’s In It for Me?

“The opposite of love is not hate, it’s indifference. The opposite of art is not ugliness, it’s indifference. The opposite of faith is not heresy, it’s indifference. And the opposite of life is not death, it’s indifference between life and death.”—Elie Wiesel (US News & World Report, Oct. 27, 1986)

More for Me . . .

According to a recent Pew Forum report,5 “The number of people who say they are unaffiliated with any particular faith today (16.1%) is more than double the number who say they were not affiliated with any particular religion as children. Among Americans ages 18–29, one in four say they are not currently affiliated with any particular religion.”

The terms “uninitiated Jew” or “unaffiliated Jew” must be written out of the Jewish lexicon and experience. The “relationship status” of today’s Jewish Facebook page must begin to read: “Engaged,” “In a relationship,” even “It’s complicated”—so long as it reads something.

(Based on Likkutei Sichot, vol. 21, pp. 38-44)