The Mighty Nile – Vaera 5780

Twenty five years ago, I was fortunate to be able to travel to Egypt.  One of the touristy things to do in Cairo is to hire a small sailing boat called a felucca to go out onto the Nile River. It was a beautiful day, and a great memory.  At one point, our guide generously offered to make us tea, promising to make the experience even better. So he reached over the side of the boat, scooped up some fresh Nile River water, and set it to boil.

I passed on the tea.

The Nile is one of the great rivers of the world.  Depending on who you ask, it is either the first or second longest river.  For much of human history, whoever controlled the Nile was arguably the most powerful person in the world.

The Nile is the life-blood of Egypt, the source of all its power and strength.  The annual rising and flooding of its waters feeds its people.  The one who rules the Nile is the master of Egypt and all who live there.  It is easy to understand why the pharaohs of Egypt tended to think highly of themselves.  

Much of the action in both this morning’s Torah and Haftarah portions takes place at the Nile. In the Haftarah, it is the year 586 BCE, the end of the First Temple period.  The Kingdom of Judah, about to be overrun by the Babylonians, has desperately aligned itself with Egypt.  The Prophet Ezekiel, knowing that nothing can avert the coming tragedy, prophesizes that Israel will eventually be redeemed, but Egypt is about to be shmeisted.  (That’s a technical term) Listen to how the Prophet describes it:

I am going to deal with you, O Pharaoh king of Egypt, tanin—Mighty monster, sprawling in your channels, who said, Li Ye’ori va’ani asitini—My Nile is my own; I made it for myself.

Ezekiel 29:3

Literally, “Mine is the Nile, and I have made myself.”  The Pharaoh of Ezekiel’s time is a self-declared god, answerable to nobody.  He is personified as a tanin, a mythical sea monster dwelling in the River.  What plans does God have for this Pharaoh?

I will put hooks in your jaws, and make the fish of your Nile cling to your scales; I will haul you up from your Nile, with all your Nile fish clinging to your scales.  And I will fling you into the desert, with all your Nile fish.  You shall be left lying in the open, ungathered and unburied: I have given you as food to the beasts of the earth and the birds of the sky.  Then all the inhabitants of Egypt shall know that I am the LORD.

Ezekiel 29:4-6

Pretty specific.  God will haul out Pharaoh from the Nile and leave his corpse to rot, unburied, in the desert where it will be eaten by scavengers.  That was the haftarah.

Let’s turn now to the Torah portion.  Again, the Nile River is the battleground where God exerts power over an impotent Pharaoh. For the first demonstration, Moses and Aaron appear before Pharaoh and his court.  Aaron throws down his rod and it turns into a… tanin.  Remember that word?  The same word Ezekiel uses to describe the mythical sea monster in the Nile.  It is not the usual word for snake.  That word is nachash. When Pharaoh’s magicians replicate the trick, Moses and Aaron’s tanin eats up their taninim.  The meaning of this demonstration is obvious.

The next confrontation, we read, takes place at the banks of the Nile River, early in the morning.  Why does that Torah go out of its way to inform us of the time of day? A midrash (Tanhuma Va’era 14) offers a colorful explanation.  Pharaoh considers himself a god.  Divine beings, of course, do not need to use the bathroom or wash themselves.  If Pharaoh’s subjects were to see him engaged in such humble tasks, they would doubt his divinity.

So what does he do?  Every day, Pharaoh arises at dawn to sneak down to the banks of the river by himself for his morning ablutions.  That is why God chooses that moment to send Moses and Aaron to confront Pharaoh.  It is to embarrass him and demonstrate his corporeality.  Moses is saying, “I know your secret.”

Keep in mind that the purpose of a midrash is often to use the biblical text to say something about current situations.  That is what the Prophet Ezekiel does.  He hearkens back to an earlier time when the Israelites found themselves dealing with Pharaoh in Egypt.  In the case of the midrash, the Sages are perhaps referring to rulers in their own day, Roman Emperors or other Kings who claim divinity and infallibility. This dawn showdown continues with the first plague.  God gives instructions to Moses:

Say to Aaron: Take your rod and hold out your arm over the waters of Egypt—its rivers, its canals, its ponds, all its bodies of water—that they may turn to blood; there shall be blood throughout the land of Egypt, even in vessels of wood and stone.” Moses and Aaron did just as the LORD commanded: he lifted up the rod and struck the water in the Nile in the sight of Pharaoh and his courtiers, and all the water in the Nile was turned into blood and the fish in the Nile died. The Nile stank so that the Egyptians could not drink water from the Nile; and there was blood throughout the land of Egypt.

Exodus 7:19-21

It is comparable to Ezekiel in its vividness.  The Nile, as the battleground between God and Pharaoh, is a powerful symbol.  It is the source of Pharaoh’s strength and the symbol of his divinity.  He is the Nile’s creator and master.  But he is powerless to prevent this transformation of the the source of his authority into a symbol of death.

Think about what else the Nile represents.  To the Israelite slaves, the Nile has already become a symbol of terror and dread.  Pharaoh’s decree, described in chapter one of the Book of Exodus, to murder every male baby by throwing it into the Nile must have transformed the river, which was seen as the source of life, into a symbol of death—at least for the Israelites.

Except for one.  Moses is different.  Remember, after Moses’ birth, his mother places him in a basket sealed with pitch and floats him down the river.  Maybe someone will rescue him, she hopes. Her wish is fulfilled.  Pharaoh’s own daughter encounters the basket when she is bathing in the river (sound familiar?), and understands immediately that he must be a Hebrew baby.

So what does the Nile mean to Moses?  As the adopted child of the Egyptian Princess, he surely must have had some positive memories of it.  On the other hand, he knows that the Nile is  a place of death to his people.  But, the Nile River also saved him from drowning.  His basket did not sink, and somehow it arrived in the best possible place.  His name, moshe, meaning “I drew him out of the water,” alludes to his miraculous redemption in the Nile.

Now, God is sending Moses down to the Nile to confront Pharaoh, and doing some pretty nasty things to it.  How does Moses feel about that? Our great commentator, Rashi, notices a subtle detail.  Moses is not the one who actually strikes the water with the rod.  That action is performed by Aaron.

And then, for the second plague, Moses again instructs Aaron to strike the waters of the Nile with the rod.  That brings up the frogs, who hop slimily out of the waters and invade absolutely everything, homes, beds, kneading bowls, and toilets.  Rashi asks why Moses does not perform these first two plagues himself.  After all, he conducts most of the others.

The answer is that these are the only two plagues that are produced by smiting the waters of the Nile, the river which once protected Moses when he was an infant.  That is why Aaron, not Moses, does the smiting for the first two plagues.

We can see Moses’ mixed emotions. This incredible river is the source of life and prosperity.  Its consistent annual rise and fall makes Egypt the breadbasket of the world, and the place of refuge when famine strikes in the days of Jacob and his sons. The very source of life and blessing, however, becomes a means for power, dominion, and cruelty.  In both the Torah and Haftarah, God punishes a Pharaoh and a nation that has become haughty and overly self-assured.  Perhaps that is why Moses is torn at the Nile.  He can see its potential for blessing and curse.  He knows it personally, because he has experienced it.

We have many gifts in our lives.  The choice is whether we will use them for blessing or for curse.  Our tradition is one that fully embraces the idea of free choice.  We are told to choose life.  The Torah’s purpose is to guide us towards treating our gifts in a way that makes them blessings.

Ki Tov Hu – Shemot 5773

When my sister in law had her first child, she called up my wife and asked her, “Isn’t my baby the most beautiful baby you have ever seen?”

To which my wife responded, “No. My baby is the most beautiful baby ever.”

Of course, they are both right. To every mother, her baby is the most beautiful, and she would do anything for that child.

This is a phenomenon that goes all the way back to the beginning of the book of Exodus. The Israelites are enslaved in Egypt. Pharaoh and the Egyptians have been oppressing them. After trying, unsuccessfully, to compel the midwives to murder any male child born to an Israelite, Pharaoh issues a more specific decree: all Israelite boys are to be thrown into the Nile.

Then, in chapter two, the camera zooms in from the wide angle lens to focus in on one particular baby boy: “A certain man of the house of Levi went and married a Levite woman. The woman conceived and bore a son; and when she saw how beautiful he was, she hid him for three months.”

And so begins the story of Moses. A couple of problems with our text.

First, as illustrated by the interaction between my wife and sister in law, there is nothing extraordinary about a mother looking at her newborn baby boy and noticing how beautiful he is.

Second, there is also nothing unusual about a mother trying to defy a horrific decree by keeping her son in hiding.

As Nachmanides says: “All women love their children, beautiful or not, and they would all hide them to the best of their ability; there is no need to say that he was beautiful to explain why she hid him.”*1*

The universality of a mother and father’s love of her or his child is a given, across all time and culture. So why would the Torah take the time to mention something so obvious?

Naturally, there are a number of commentaries from our tradition that give us additional insight into Moses’ birth. The Torah states, Vatere oto ki tov hu – “When she saw how tov he was…”*2* What does tov mean in this context? The Talmud offers five explanations*3*:

“Rabbi Meir says: His name was Tov” Remember that he does not receive the name Moshe until the Egyptian daughter of Pharaoh rescues him from the Nile River. Tov was his birth name.

“Rabbi Judah says: His name was Tuviah” – This answer is similar to the first one, with two additional letters, yud, heh. These are letters from the name of God. It is common for biblical names to incorporate the Divine name.

“Rabbi Nehemiah says: [She foresaw that he would be] worthy of prophecy” – That is to say, Moses’ mother saw something in him that was not typical. Guided herself perhaps through prophecy, she saw God’s presence in this child in a way that made her confident he would be saved if she took extraordinary measures, which might explain why she sent him off in a basket down the Nile River.

The Talmud’s final two explanations are based on another appearance of the word tov in the Torah: Va’yar elohim et ha’or ki tov*4* – “And God saw that the light was tov.”

The word tov appears seven times in the account of creation. It indicates God’s satisfaction that each of those things that are declared tov have been made complete. The Talmud’s fourth explanation builds on this.

“Others say: He was born circumcised” Circumcision is the perfection, or completion, of the male body. So when Moses’ mother sees him and declares him to be tov, it means that he came out circumcised.

Finally, the last explanation is by the Sages: “At the time when Moses was born, the whole house was filled with light — it is written here, ‘And she saw that he was tov,’ and elsewhere it is written: ‘And God saw that the light was tov.'” Moses came out glowing. He was glowing with potential, a new creation. Like the light that God created and separated from darkness on the first day, Moses’ birth heralds the dawn of something new.

Moses is certainly an extraordinary human being. He deserves to have a a story recorded in the Torah about his birth. But the truth is, every child born is beautiful, tov, in all of these senses. Beautiful, complete, perfect, blameless. A continuation of creation. But more than just tov in the present, in that miraculous moment of coming into being. A new human being is also tov in the sense of containing the potential for redemption.

That is why we welcome Elijah the Prophet at a Brit Milah or a Simchat Bat ceremony. Elijah, Jewish tradition teaches, will announce the coming of the Messiah and the redemption of the world. Every baby who is born has the potential to bring the world closer to redemption.

This is why, in our family, we tell our children “I can’t wait to see who you will become.”

This past week, the children of Newtown went back to school for the first time. Our nation is still going through a process of soul-searching after the tragedy at Sandy Hook elementary school. Those twenty children, all of them tovim: beautiful, perfect creations, contained within them so much potential for goodness in our world.

The tragedy has opened up a conversation about violence in our society, gun control, mental health services, violent video games, eroding moral values, and more. These are important conversations to have. While the connections between any one particular policy issue and different outcomes is often difficult to establish, there is a widespread sense that we are off course, and not doing enough to protect and cultivate the tov in our children.

Many faith communities are getting involved in these issues, including among American Jews. The leadership of Conservative Judaism, representing all of the various bodies of the movement, have recently reiterated its call for tighter regulations of the sale of guns and ammunition through adoption of common sense gun policies.

I am skeptical, given our fractured society, whether anything will be done.

But I want to come back to Nachmanides, who stated the obvious, declared, and I’ll take the liberty of making a couple of slight adjustments “All men and women love their children, beautiful or not, and they would all protect them to the best of their ability…”

We may think we are doing the best we can in our own sheltered communities. But we are part of a much larger society, in which the evidence would suggest that we are falling short of Nachmanides’ assumption. We are not protecting our kids to the best of our ability. And that has to change.

When Moses was born, light filled the room. When his mother saw it, she saw his beauty, his potential, his ability to bring goodness into the world, and she declared him tov. Every child fills our world with light. It is up to us to recognize it and build a society in which it can shine.

*1*Commentary on Exodus 2:2

*2*Exodus 2:2

*3*BT Sotah 12a

*4*Genesis 1:4