Commentary on Parashat Vaera, Exodus 6:2 - 9:35
This week the process of Moses negotiating with Pharaoh for the right of the Jewish people to leave Egypt and worship God in the desert moves into full swing. The negotiations are accompanied by the 10 plagues — a pretty effective bargaining tool. The first three plagues — the waters of the Nile turning into blood, the plague of frogs, and of lice, all have an interesting element in common. All three of these plagues are brought about not by Moses but by his brother, and assistant, Aaron:
“And God said to Moses, say to your brother Aaron: Take your staff and stretch out your hand over the waters of Egypt, over their rivers and over their streams and over their lakes and over all their bodies of water and they will become blood…”
“And God said to Moses, say to Aaron: Stretch out your hand with your staff over the rivers, over the streams, and over the lakes, and raise up the frogs on to the Land of Egypt.”
“And God said to Moses, say to Aaron: Stretch out your staff and strike the earth of the land and it will be lice in all the Land of Egypt.”
The Next Three
After these three plagues, the next three plagues are announced by Moses and brought about by God himself (with both Moses and Aaron assisting with the sixth plague, boils). The next three are brought about by Moses who, like Aaron, brings about the plague himself, with his staff. The last, the killing of the first born, is, again, announced by Moses and brought about by God.
On one level, this arrangement seems to give everyone a chance to be involved — God, Moses, and Aaron are all part of this process. On another level, the Rabbis have tried to make some deeper sense of the way the roles of our three heroes are divided up. Rashi quotes an interesting Midrash, which attempts to explain Aaron’s active involvement in the first three plagues.
The first two, blood and frogs, take place, obviously, in the Nile and the other waters of Egypt. Rashi quotes the Midrash which says that since the waters protected Moses when, as a baby, his parents put him in a basket among the river’s reeds in an attempt to save him from Pharaoh’s decree to drown all the male babies in the river, it would have been inappropriate for him to repay the river in this way, by turning it into blood, or by bringing the plague of frogs from it.
The third plague, lice, is brought about by striking the earth; the lice are seen as emerging from the earth. Here again, Rashi says, it would have been wrong for Moses, whom, earlier, the earth had protected, when he used it to bury the body of the Egyptian he had killed, in an attempt to keep the crime a secret. It is for these reasons of propriety, of a sensitivity to and recognition of the debt which Moses owed to the water and the earth, that Aaron is chosen, rather than Moses, to bring about these plagues.
A Silly Midrash?
What do you think of this Midrash? When I was a kid, I thought it was silly, in that the Midrash seems to ascribe to the water and the earth feelings and sensitivities. What difference, I thought, could it possibly make to these inanimate objects whether or not Moses is an ingrate? What do they care if they are turned into blood, or spawn frogs or lice? Could they possibly care who does this to them?
Later on, I realized that, to make sense, the Midrash does not really depend on the earth and the water caring how Moses treated them, or whether he expressed the proper amount of gratitude to them or not. It was a parable, a way to teach us about sensitivity and gratitude in general. Aaron, and not Moses, was chosen to smite the water and the earth in order to teach us that one should be sensitive to the way one interacts with others.
We all have a history, a past, full of interactions with other people, which we should be sensitive to, aware of, and act in accordance with. If someone has been good to us, we should remember it, and act accordingly. The Midrash is not really about the earth and the water, they are just examples of how we should interact with those who have been good to us, how we should behave towards those who have helped us.
The Rabbis, in effect, are saying: “Look, if God, Moses, and Aaron showed this kind of sensitivity to the debt that Moses owed the earth and the water, who DON’T have any feelings, shouldn’t we be at least as sensitive with the way we act towards people, who DO have feelings? Shouldn’t we learn from this story how to be grateful, and sensitive, and loyal?”
But now I have another way of looking at this Midrash. I was in New York last December and the temperature there was 70 degrees. And, once again, I thought, as I am sure many of you have over the past years: “This is it. Global warming. Summer in December. Greenhouse effect. Ice caps melting. The end of the world as we know it.”
These thoughts, and many others like them, which I, along with many others, have been having for a while now, bring me to realize that we do owe the earth, and the water, the kind of sensitivity shown here by God, Moses, and Aaron. The earth and the water do protect us, give us life, sustain us, just as they did Moses.
Rather than being silly, as I thought when I was a kid, it would be completely appropriate, and wise, for us to develop the kind of sensitivity, thoughtfulness and delicacy of feeling towards them which the Torah indicates here.
It may be true that the earth under our feet, and the waters around us, are inanimate objects. But they do ‘feel’ it when we mistreat them. How we behave towards them does make a difference. And yes, apparently something does happen when we forget that they protect and sustain us, and behave as if we have forgotten that we owe them.
Provided by the Bronfman Youth Fellowships in Israel, a summer seminar in Israel that aims to create a multi-denominational cadre of young Jewish leaders.
Pronounced: MIDD-rash, Origin: Hebrew, the process of interpretation by which the rabbis filled in “gaps” found in the Torah.
Pronunced: TORE-uh, Origin: Hebrew, the Five Books of Moses.