Full of It

In VaEra, this week’s Torah portion, we read of Moshe’s back and forth arguing for the Israelites’  freedom with Pharaoh. There we read:

And the Lord said to Moshe: ‘Pharaoh’s heart is stubborn, he refuses to let the people go. Go to Pharaoh in the morning; so, when he goes out to the water; and you shall stand by the river’s brink to meet him; and the rod which was turned to a serpent shall you take in your hand. And you shall say to him: The Lord, the God of the Hebrews, has sent me to you, saying: Let My people go, that they may serve Me in the wilderness; and, behold, you have not heeded until now; thus said the Lord: In this you shall know that I am the Lord–behold, I will smite with the rod that is in my hand upon the waters which are in the river, and they shall be turned to blood. And the fish that are in the river shall die, and the river shall become foul; and the Egyptians shall loathe to drink water from the river.’ (Exodus 7:14-18)

The simple meaning is that God is directing Moshe to have a power meeting with Pharaoh in the morning to negotiate their release from slavery.  That would make sense if they were meeting at Starbuck’s, but why is this meeting scheduled to happen at the water? Quoting the Midrash in reference to this Rashi  writes:

When he goes out to the water– to relive himself for Pharaoh would pretend to be a god and would say that he did not need to relieve himself. He would arise early and go out to the Nile and secretly tend to his  needs.  ( Shemot Rabbah 9:8)

In Rashi’s understanding Moshe is challenging Pharaoh’s very claim to power. Pharoah is not a god, rather  just an ordinary man. Moshe knows this because he grew up in Pharoah’s house. Moshe knows that Pharoah’s poop stinks just like everybody else. This is interesting in reference to how the Israelites understood their own standing in reference to smell earlier in the book. There we read:

HaShem look upon you, and judge; because you have made our very scent to be abhorred in the eyes of Pharaoh, and in the eyes of his servants.(Exodus 5:21)

But more on this in another post. So for now, back to Pharoah doing his business in the water in the early morning. In light of Pharoah’s hardened heart and his resolve not to let the Israelites go, this image depicts Pharaoh as being constipated and not being able to let us go. It is as if Moshe is coming with prunes and Metamucil to encourage Pharaoh’s movement on the issue.

But joking aside, maybe there is even more going on here. Why is this the location that God wants Pharaoh to “know that I am the Lord”? Water is the site of extermination of all of the boys of Moshe’s generation at the hands of the Egyptians. Its seems fitting that the Egyptians will suffer through the plague of the water turning to blood. But water is not such a simple symbol in Moshe’s life. This water is also the site of Moshe’s salvation and the source of his name i.e. drawn from water. Why is this the site of engagement between Moshe and Pharaoh?

This reminds me of one of my favorite Aggadot. In Berachot we learn:

Rabbi Akiba said, ‘Once I went in after Rabbi Yehoshua to a bathroom, and I learned from him three things. I learned that one does not sit east and west but north and south; I learned that one evacuates not standing but sitting; and I learned that it is proper to wipe with the left hand and not with the right’. Said Ben Azzai to him (Rabbi Akiba), ‘Did you dare to take such liberties with your master?’ He replied: It was a matter of Torah, and I am required to learn. It has been taught: Ben Azzai said, ‘Once I went in after Rabbi Akiba to a privy, and I learned from him three things. I learned that one does not evacuate east and west but north and south. I also learned that one evacuates sitting and not standing. I also learned it is proper to wipe with the left hand and not with the right’. Rabbi Yehudah said to him, ‘Did you dare to take such liberties with your master? ‘ He replied: It was a matter of Torah, and I am required to learn.  ( Berachot 62a)

The most striking thing about this Gemarah is not that Rabbi Akiba learned Torah from Rabbi Yehoshua in the bathroom or even that Ben Azzai learns the same three things from Rabbi Akiba in the bathroom. It seems crazy that Ben Azzai admonished Rabbi Akiba for learning those lessons in that way only to follow Rabbi Akiba into the bathroom to learn the same lessons the same way. Some lessons can be taught in words and others need to be modeled. Needing to see Torah in action with our own eyes presents us with a great model for the best in experiential Jewish education, but that is also a topic for another time. Back to Moshe and Pharoah meeting in the bathroom.

We learn in the Gemara, “It was a matter of Torah, and I am required to learn”. What did  Moshe need to learn from Pharaoh that necessitated following him into the bathroom? I think there could be a number of answers to this question, but one might be that Moshe needed to come to peace the fact that he had nothing to learn from Pharaoh. Moshe is a complex character caught between the house of Pharaoh in which he was raised and his birth nation who are Pharaoh’s slaves. Moshe did just have contempt for the Egyptians, he loved them and they shared a culture. Pharaoh’s heart was already hardened , maybe having Moshe return to the place of his salvation and naming was to help Moshe develop his resolve and commitment to the Israelite nation. Pharaoh might have a great man, but truly great people have nothing to hide. Moshe needed to realize that the Torah was going to be given to his birth nation at Sinai and it was not coming out of Pharaoh no matter how much he pushed. There is a lot of Torah to be learned. We need our teachers to be the right role models. The wrong teachers are just full of it.

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