When I was a kid, I remember watching a news special detailing how something called a T cell can get taken over by a virus which uses it to replicate more HIV cells. Yes, I grew up during the AIDS epidemic of the 1980s. Being very young, I didn’t understand much of it, just that it was a scary disease that had no cure. So the way I dealt with such a terror was to tell myself that by the time I’d be old enough to get AIDS (because I just knew I’d never get a serious ailment till I was like 60 or something), human inventiveness would find a cure.
I would use this logic to shrug off a whole plethora of concerns; cancer, the hole in the ozone layer, male pattern baldness. Of course, I didn’t think about the fact that new problems would pop up that I might fall victim to before our amazing scientists would be able to find that cure. Or the fact that treatments are expensive, aren’t 100% effective, and have serious side effects. Children need to live with that naive sense of security. But sooner or later we have to grow up and realize there are dangers in the world that humanity won’t always be able to overcome. That illusion is actually hinted at in this week’s parsha.
The Torah portion of Va’eira contains seven of the ten plagues that ravage Egypt. The first of which begins when Moses has Aaron strike the Nile, transforming the river into blood. The miracle is as dramatic as it is effective. Remember this is Egypt, their primary source of water is the Nile, and as any war strategist knows, the best way to weaken a population is to cut off its water supply.
It wasn’t just the Nile though. According to the text, all over the land all water would turn to blood. “…in vessels of wood and vessels of stone.” There are even Midrashim that talk about how the water in fruits would be affected. Gives new meaning to the term blood orange, right?
But once the plague begins, the Torah makes the following statement;
The sorcerers of Egypt did likewise with their magic art. Pharaoh’s heart remained hardened … and paid no attention even to this [miracle.]Shemos 7: 22 – 23
So Pharaoh’s magicians are able to recreate the miracle leaving Pharaoh unconvinced. But this verse has always bothered me. I get that Pharaoh is going to resist acknowledging any merit of Moses and “his God.” But knowing that the reach of the plague was so pervasive, where did they get fresh water? It seems like to me that getting the water and keeping it from becoming blood would be the true demonstration of their superiority.
Water You Thinking
The Midrash explains that none of the plagues of Egypt negatively affected the Jews (except the death of the first born). So the way Egypt survived the weeks of blood was that they could buy water from the Jews. But even if they took the water by force, it would instantly turn to blood. However the 12th century Rabbi known as the Ibn Ezra comments that only water above ground was affected by the plague so the Egyptians could dig wells to get fresh water. Either way, they had a difficult or expensive time getting something to drink.
But if rain is falling from the sky and you collect a bucket full, then dump said bucket full, are you going to convince anyone you can make it rain? Who is going to be impressed by Pharaoh’s magicians making the water turn into blood? It’s absurd. But the fact is, many of us have this mentality all the time.
Oh Me Dammit!
God instructs Moses to go to Pharaoh early in the morning when he “goes out to the water.” According to Rashi, this was “to relieve himself as he made claims to be a god and said the he did not need to relieve himself. He would arise early and go out to the Nile and relieve himself [then].” God has Moses go at this point just for the sake of pointing out Pharaoh’s lie. But as much as Pharaoh wants Egypt to believe he’s a restroom abstaining god, he needs to believe it himself.
When his magicians are able to replicate the miracle (no matter how insignificant it actually is), it gives Pharaoh the confidence to believe his power hasn’t been convincingly challenged. This in effect leads him to think (as David Sacks puts it) “Since I can replicate the miracle of God then I am equal to God. And if I am equal to God, why should I do what He wants me to do?”
According to the Ishbitzer Rebbi, we all face this superiority complex, because deep down every single person believes that they created themselves. All too often we believe our successes, accomplishments, and fortunes are because of our own doing. Though we may have worked hard for these, there are scores of other people who worked just as hard or even harder and didn’t enjoy that success. We may pride ourselves for coming up with a difficult solution at work or fixing something someone told us was beyond repair. But who nurtured us so we could have a proper development? Who provided us with education to learn those problem solving skills? Who gave us the 1 in a million chance to meet that friend who knows that person who works a some company so you could get an interview? Or even, when was the last time you thanked God for a good night’s sleep so you could think clearly throughout the day?
When we become convinced our successes are our own, we throw off the yoke of gratitude and responsibility. We blame others for their failures and justify our own greed. But worst of all, we become convinced we are always right and are more likely to make choices that reinforce our superiority rather than act in a way that benefits others. I mentioned my childhood belief of humanity’s ability of overcoming any danger because, though it allowed me to sleep at night, it also allowed me to believe we could be reckless. Any problem we created, we certainly could find a solution for. It’s that lack of concern for consequences that is exactly what led to Egypt’s downfall at the leadership of Pharaoh.
If we realize that our opportunities and accomplishments are miracles that are given to us, it not only fosters feelings of gratitude, it creates a relationship with God. Though that might mean we have a responsibility to someone other than ourselves, it also means there is a purpose to our success beyond our own gratification. Imagine if Pharaoh had been less concerned with building monuments and tombs and more concerned with what actually matters. We might have more of that culture than some pyramids and a giant broken-nosed Sphinx.