Moshe, Pharoh and the Nile River – Rav Yonatan Horovitz
This week we once again tell the story of the ongoing battle between Moshe and Pharoh, or rather between God and Pharoh. Amongst the colorful and somewhat scary events depicted, including rampant frogs, wild animals and enormous hailstones, one aspect of the encounter emerges time and again – the river. On several occasions Moshe is told by Hashem to find Pharoh by the river. It is the river which is the first to be hit in the series of plagues and it seems to play a central role in the entire negotiation process.
The river is, of course, no less than the famous Nile, a body of water stretching 4,000 miles which winds itself across the entire expanse of the Egyptian state. Interestingly enough, the Torah describes the Nile not as a “nahar” which is the accepted word for river but rather as the “ye’or”. The use of this word, which is most often found in Tanach in reference specifically to the Nile, demonstrates the uniqueness of this river. Why is the Nile river so central to the story of Sefer Shemot?
[I would be interested to hear of the root of the word ye’or. If any of the readers can shed light on this matter, please be in touch.]
The simple answer is that the Nile was the source of Egypt’s fertile soil and therefore it’s economic stability. The fact that the Nile’s banks flooded over into the land allowed the soil to be irrigated and so provided the opportunity to grow crops without having to rely on the sparse rainfall of the Middle East region. When the first plague caused the Nile to be turned into blood, it was not a mere inconvenience; it caused the entire Egyptian economy to waver. Without the water of the Nile and its tributaries, the Egyptian people would be unable to remain in their home country for an extended period.
Back in the book of Bereishit, as Pharoh dreams of the seven fat cows and the seven lean cows, the Torah stipulates that in his dream he was standing on the banks of the Nile. Rav Hirsch points out that Pharoh was thinking of the agriculture and economic stability of his country. He was therefore looking out to the Nile wondering when its bank would overflow allowing the soil to become fertile and produce its crops once again. This may have assisted Yosef in his interpretation of the dream as he concluded that the fact that the entire scene took place by the river pointed to the theme of the Egyptian state economy. We suggest, however, that the centrality of the “ye’or” to the Exodus story stems from more than mere budgetary concerns.
The Nile in the culture of ancient Egypt represented much more than just a water source. The Nile became a focus for religious worship. It was considered to be the center of the earth from which the entire world was founded. (Lehavdil, Jewish tradition believes the world to have been formed from the Even Hashetiya, the rock found in the center of the Bet Hamikdash.) The Egyptian calendar was divided into three seasons which were based around the cycle of the Nile. The legends about the Nile and its supernatural properties go on and on. This river was much more than a source of livelihood to the inhabitants of Egypt – it was considered divine.
As we know from the Torah, Pharoh was generally to be found early in the morning on the banks of the Nile. Apart from using the natural resources there, this could be seen as a meeting of the gods, the mighty river and its master the Pharoh of Egypt. This idea is portrayed in the haftara for Parshat Vaera taken from the book of Yechezkel. (This year we will not be reading this haftara as Shabbat is Rosh Chodesh.) In a prophecy which is directed towards Egypt, Hashem tells Yechezkel to warn of the imminent demise of the Egyptian Empire for a period of forty years. The reason for this punishment is due to Pharoh’s insistence that he views himself as the large creature in the river Nile (hatanim hagadol harovetz betoch ye’orav) who states that “the river belongs to me and I created it” (Yechezkel 29:3). We see from these pesukim that not only do the Egyptians view the Nile as a form of god but Pharoh is himself considered to live within the waters of the Nile and declares ownership of the entire river.
[The above use of the word “tanim” could explain why Aharon’s staff turned into a “tanin” in front of Pharoh, as opposed to Moshe’s staff which became a ”nachash”. While Rashi sees these two words as describing the same creature, other commentaries disagree. See Chizkuni, Rav Hirsch on Shemot 7: 8-13.]
The Torah states quite clearly that one of the main purposes of the plagues and Yetziat Mitzrayim is to demonstrate to the Egyptians that God is The Almighty and that they need to recognize Him as such (Shemot 7:5). Pharoh questions the very existence of a God and ruler other than he, as is stated in last week’s parsha: “Who is the Lord that I should listen to His voice to free the Israelites; I do not know of Hashem nor shall I set the Israelites free” (Shemot 5:2). In this context, the “ye’or” becomes a player in the battle between Pharoh and God. Not only is the Nile a source of awe and reverence for the entire Egyptian people; it is also something of national importance which Pharoh believes to be under his control. A meeting between Moshe and Pharoh on the banks of the Nile river should, by Pharoh’s logic, result in immediate defeat of Moshe. The fact that not only does this not happen, but rather the opposite occurs, is part of the learning process that God is delivering to the Egyptian monarch.
We can now understand certain aspects of the first plague in which the water was turned into blood. Hashem tells Moshe to instruct Aharon to take his staff and stretch his arm out over all the water sources in Egypt and they will become blood (Shemot 7:19). This would appear to be a far-reaching plague through which all forms of water used by the Egyptians would turn into blood. If so, this raises two questions. First of all, how did the sorcerers find water in order to demonstrate that they too had the power to change water into blood? Secondly, the pesukim allude to the fact that this plague lasted at least seven days. If so, and there was absolutely no water available, how did the Egyptians survive? Furthermore, if we assume, as most commentaries do, that the plagues gradually got worse and harsher culminating in the ultimate plague of Makat Habechorot, how can we view Makat Dam as the least severe? If there was no water at all, surely all forms of life would cease to exist?
We therefore suggest that this plague affected the Nile and its tributaries but not water which the Egyptians had earlier removed and kept in storage. The Torah, in describing the effects of this plague, makes constant reference to the Nile:
“Vayehofechu kol hamyim asher baye’or ledam. Vehadaga asher baye’or meta vayivash haye’or, velo yochelu hamitzrim lishtot mayim min haye’or… Vayachperu kol mitzrayim sevivot haye’or mayim lishtot; ki lo yochlu lishtot mayim min haye’or. Vayimolay shivat yamim acharei hekot Hashem et haye’or” (Shemot 7:20-25)
The Torah tells us that the Egyptian people could not drink from the “ye’or”; they dug around the “ye’or”; seven days passed after Hashem had smitten the “ye’or”. It seems that it is not the water per se which was affected by the plague but that great source of Egyptian pride and worship, Pharoh’s own river – the Nile.
Note also that as the plagues continue, each one is removed before Moshe warns Pharoh of the next impending disaster. The Torah, however, never informs us of the removal or end of the plague of blood. We are told that seven days went by before Moshe approached Pharoh a second time which itself is a time period not stipulated in respect to the other plagues. We therefore suggest that not only did Makat Dam last longer that any of the other makot, it was also never removed. The entire time that the plagues continued, the Nile flowed not with water but with blood. This was to emphasize that it is not Pharoh who controls the ye’or but The Almighty. And if Hashem had power over the “mighty” Nile, pride of Egypt and its Pharoh, then Hashem naturally wields power over the entire Egyptian empire. Through this treatment of the Nile river we see one of the aims of the entire process of the plagues and Yetziat Mitzrayim: “Veyade’u Mitzrayim ki Ani Hashem”.
This aspect of the exodus story appears once again in the opening verses of next week’s parsha, Bo. There too, we find additional reasons for the miracles Hashem performed in Mitzrayim. But for that we have to wait till next week…
Shabbat Shalom and Chodesh Tov,
Comments and questions are welcome: