“Messages from the Nile”

by Rabbi Ephraim Z. Buchwald

In this week’s parasha, parashat Va’eira, we read of the first seven plagues that strike the Egyptians. The first two plagues, blood and frogs, set the tone for all the others. Both of these plagues are visited upon the Egyptian people by attacking the heart and soul of Egypt, the famed Nile River.

In anticipation of the first plague, blood, G-d tells Moses that Pharaoh’s heart is stubborn–he refuses to let the people go. G-d bids Moses to confront Pharaoh in the morning, when he goes out to the water, and to tell him: “Let My people go, so that they may worship G-d in the wilderness.” Warn Pharaoh that he has paid no heed to G-d until now, and that (Exodus 7:17), “B’zot tay’dah kee ah’nee Hashem,” by this you shall know that I am the L-rd. Through Moses, G-d warns Pharaoh that He will strike the Nile, and the waters will be turned into blood, all the fish in the Nile will die, and that the Nile will stink, making it impossible for the Egyptians to drink the waters of the Nile.

The Nile River, the central feature of Egypt, is, in essence, the lifeblood of Egypt. So, it is rather ironic that the first plague causes the waters of the Nile to turn into blood, creating an impression of a country bleeding from a mortal wound.

As the mainstay of Egyptian life, the Nile provided water for drinking and irrigation. Its periodic floods enriched the Egyptian soil. In the Haftarah of this week’s parasha, the prophet Ezekiel depicts Pharaoh as saying (Ezekiel 29:3), “The Nile is mine, I made it for myself,” underscoring the arrogance of the Egyptian monarch.

As the central feature of Egypt, it was logical that the Nile would be the first object of G-d’s wrath. The Nile also served as a god of the Egyptians, and even though Pharaoh arrogantly says that he made the Nile, he frequently bathes in the Nile in order to benefit from its fabled powers and to pay homage to its godlike qualities.

By attacking the central and essential feature of Egypt, the country’s agriculture and economy come to a stunning halt. Despite the Egyptians’ efforts to dig around the Nile for drinking water, it is unclear from the text if they ever find potable water. The plague lasts for seven full days.

From the Pharaoh of Joseph’s times, we see how careful one must be when relating to the Nile. In the description of Pharaoh’s dream (Genesis 41:1), the Torah states, “Oo’Phar’oh cho’lehm, v’heenay oh’mehd al ha’y’ohr,” Pharaoh was dreaming, and, behold, he was standing on the river. This image seems to portray Pharaoh as superior to the Nile, but when Pharaoh retells his dream to Joseph, he dramatically changes the depiction, and says (Genesis 41:17), “Ba’cha’loh’mee, hin’neh’nee oh’mehd al s’fat ha’y’ohr,” in my dream, behold, I was standing upon the bank of the river. Pharaoh takes pains not to portray himself as superior to the river. Fearful about the future of Egypt, Pharaoh needs all the help he can muster. He cannot afford to offend the Nile, the powerful god of Egypt. Therefore, it makes perfect sense for G-d to strike the Nile and the god of the Egyptians in His initial attacks on the Egyptians (Sh’mot Rabbah 9:8).

In justifying inflicting punishment on the Nile, perhaps even more important than the divine powers that were attributed to the Nile was the immoral use of the Nile by the Egyptians to murder little Jewish boys. Pharaoh turns the Nile into a vicious killing instrument by declaring in Exodus 1:22, “Kohl ha’ben ha’yee’lohd, ha’y’oh’rah tash’lee’choo’hoo,” every boy who is born, you shall throw into the Nile, but let every girl live. One can only imagine the impact of the Divine plagues on the Egyptians, who saw their source of life, which they had transformed into a brutal instrument of death for the Israelite babies, turned into a river of blood.

Although it appears as a simple offhanded remark, the Torah tells us in Exodus 7:19 that it was Aaron, not Moses, who was designated to strike the river with the staff in order to introduce the plague of blood. Similarly, in Exodus 8:1, G-d tells Moses to instruct Aaron to stretch out his hand with the staff over the rivers to bring up the frogs upon the land of Egypt. Rashi explains that because the river had saved baby Moses’ life in the bulrushes, he was not permitted to bring about the plagues of blood and frogs by striking the river. Since Moses had been saved by the river, it would have been improper for him to inflict a plague upon it. The message is clear: If it is wrong to show ingratitude to an inanimate river, how much more so to be ungrateful to a human being.

In the overall scheme of things, the river seems to play a modest role in the ten plagues, but the lessons of the Nile are anything but modest. The Nile plays many roles. The Nile is king. The Nile is an instrument of death and murder. The Nile saves the babe Moses, enabling the Jews to be led to freedom by the great leader. The all-powerful Pharaoh bathes in the Nile, appearing totally oblivious to the Jewish slaves in Egypt who are being beaten to a pulp and the Jewish children who are being plastered into the walls when there is a shortage of bricks! The daughter of Pharaoh goes to bathe in the Nile, and saves a Jewish child who is destined to change the world, and bring much good to humankind.

It is, perhaps, no coincidence that the Nile in Hebrew is called Nahar and Y’ohr, two terms that signify light.

May you be blessed.