Rabbi’s Weekly Message

Rabbi’s Message, January 10, 2024

THE NILE as BABI YAR

            The Bible reaches out to us from its Bronze Age setting, but we hear it with ears attuned to the issues of our own day. This week, as we re-read the familiar narrative of the Ten Plagues, our Israeli siblings have passed the 100-day point in their war against the brutal terrorists of Hamas and their enablers and supporters. The world is focused on the devastation occasioned by Israel’s retaliation to the horrors perpetrated by Hamas on October 7th  and much less so to the Hamas attack itself .  Perhaps the Bible can speak to that particular issue?


Illustration: Jan Symonsz Pynas, Aaron Changes the Water of the Nile into Blood.  1610. Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam

 

            We remember that the first plague was the turning of the waters of the Nile into blood. Let us understand the under-the-surface significance of making the Nile the __cpLocation of the first of the plagues. In the minds of Egyptians, the Nile was connected to the Egyptian deity Osiris.  The mythology of Osiris focused on the story that he was murdered and then resurrected. He was hailed as the god of death and rebirth, judge of souls reaching the underworld, and the guarantor of life after death for the worthy.  As such, the annual flooding of the Nile was associated with the worship of Osiris.  The Nile, as it were, was thought of in the Egyptian religion as the lifeblood of Osiris.  The plague takes that idolatrous belief to its reducto ad absurdum: the waters turned to blood were no longer potable. Humans suffered and fish died.
            The plague against the Nile, therefore, was the first in a series that aimed not only for the political goal of liberating the enslaved Hebrews, but also the theological goal of discrediting the religions that undergirded the massive Egyptian disregard for the lives of everyday people, let along the lives of non-ethnic Egyptians.
            In Israelite memory, the Nile was a mass grave. It was where the male infants of the Israelites were drowned, in the year of the birth of Moses. The Pharaoh’s edict of mass murder said, “let every male child that is born be cast into the Nile” (Exodus 1:22). The Nile was the Babi Yar of the Jews of that generation: the site of the mass murder.
            It was Aaron who actually wielded the staff of Moses and performed the miracle of transforming the Nile.

 

Illustration: James Tissot, The First Plague: Water is Changed into Blood
 
            The Rabbis, sensitive as always to every nuance in the Biblical narrative, commented that Moses could not himself bear to work a miracle against the waters that had been his pathway to rescue. Those waters had borne him to the arms of Pharaoh’s daughter, and to safety.
            But the waters had to be turned. Pharaoh had to be confronted. His power came from the dictatorial powers he wielded, and those powers, in turn, were buttressed by the mythology of Egyptian religion, in which he was hailed as the son of Ra, the sun god.
            And so it is today.  The dictatorial power that Hamas wields has to be broken.  Their virulent hatred of the Jew, coupled with their total disregard for the lives of the Palestinians themselves, whom they use as human shields, make them irredeemable.  Some other party will have to lead the Gazans, if there is ever to be peace between them and Israel.
            Pharaoh’s heart was hard, and he did not heed the lesson of the first plague; nor of any of the others until the last one.  Only when the plagues reached his own household did he let the Israelites go…. And that concession was only temporary.  Within a week he was trying to hunt them down again. Does that not sound contemporary?
            Yes. the story of the Exodus, old as it is, definitely speaks to our time, and even more specifically, to our situation in this year….. in these 100 days.
            May we experience a rescue this year that….. if it had happened in the days of the Bible…. Would have become the stuff of Bible story, to teach the Children of Israel for all generations. Amen.