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.