Tuesday, January 20, 2004

Va`era #1: All's Well That Ends Well

(from last year, pre-parshablog, edited a bit):

In parashat Va`era, Moshe tells Pharaoh to release the Jews and, when Pharaoh refuses again and again, Moshe brings plague upon plague upon Egypt. The first of those plagues is that of blood. Aaron, at Moshe's command, stretches his staff over the waters, and the Nile turns to blood (7:20):
וַיַּעֲשׂוּ-כֵן מֹשֶׁה וְאַהֲרֹן כַּאֲשֶׁר צִוָּה יְהוָה, וַיָּרֶם בַּמַּטֶּה וַיַּךְ אֶת-הַמַּיִם אֲשֶׁר בַּיְאֹר, לְעֵינֵי פַרְעֹה, וּלְעֵינֵי עֲבָדָיו; וַיֵּהָפְכוּ כָּל-הַמַּיִם אֲשֶׁר-בַּיְאֹר, לְדָם
"And Moses and Aaron did so, as the LORD commanded; and he lifted up the rod, and smote the waters that were in the river, in the sight of Pharaoh, and in the sight of his servants; and all the waters that were in the river were turned to blood."

According to the description given in Hashem's commandment to Moshe (7:19), not just the Nile turned to blood, but also all existing pools of water, ponds and streams, as well as water in stone and wooden vessels would also turn to blood:
וַיֹּאמֶר יְהוָה אֶל-מֹשֶׁה, אֱמֹר אֶל-אַהֲרֹן קַח מַטְּךָ וּנְטֵה-יָדְךָ עַל-מֵימֵי מִצְרַיִם עַל-נַהֲרֹתָם עַל-יְאֹרֵיהֶם וְעַל-אַגְמֵיהֶם וְעַל כָּל-מִקְוֵה מֵימֵיהֶם--וְיִהְיוּ-דָם; וְהָיָה דָם בְּכָל-אֶרֶץ מִצְרַיִם, וּבָעֵצִים וּבָאֲבָנִים.
"And the LORD said unto Moses: 'Say unto Aaron: Take thy rod, and stretch out thy hand over the waters of Egypt, over their rivers, over their streams, and over their pools, and over all their ponds of water, that they may become blood; and there shall be blood throughout all the land of Egypt, both in vessels of wood and in vessels of stone.'"

There is thus a slight disparity between Hashem's description of what will happen and the Torah's description of what happened. The most obvious answer is that the Torah shortened its language and just described what happened to the Nile, and the reader can surmise the rest. I would expect some midrash to pick up on this though, and I have not encountered any such midrash. It is possible that the way the Torah informs us of the rest of the water turning to blood is in (7:21):

וְהַדָּגָה אֲשֶׁר-בַּיְאֹר מֵתָה, וַיִּבְאַשׁ הַיְאֹר, וְלֹא-יָכְלוּ מִצְרַיִם, לִשְׁתּוֹת מַיִם מִן-הַיְאֹר; וַיְהִי הַדָּם, בְּכָל-אֶרֶץ מִצְרָיִם.
And the fish that was in the river died; and the river stank, and the Egyptians could not drink of the water of the river; and there was blood throughout all the land of Egypt.

The last part, וַיְהִי הַדָּם, בְּכָל-אֶרֶץ מִצְרָיִם, may very well refer to other sources of water.

Now, the midrash expands upon this miracle. We are told that the Egyptians could find no other sources of water. They dug wells and they were also full of blood. The Jews, however, did have water. If an Egyptian and Jew were drinking from the same vessel, the Jew would get water while the Egyptian would get blood. It did not turn to blood if the Egyptian bought the water from the Jew, and thus the Jews became wealthy.

This midrash is clearly at least in part based on (7:19) cited above, which is Hashem's description of what will happen in the plague: ... Take thy rod, and stretch out thine hand upon the waters of Egypt, upon their streams, upon their rivers, and upon their ponds, and upon all their pools of water, that they may become blood; and that there may be blood throughout all the land of Egypt, both in vessels of wood, and in vessels of stone.

Thus, the midrash speaks about water in vessels turning to blood for the Egyptians, just as it does in the pasuk. Also, the stress over and over is *their* rivers, *their* ponds, *their* pools of water. That which is possessed by Egyptians turns to blood and that possessed by Jews does not.

One part of the midrashic claim, that they dug wells to try to get other sources of water and did not succeed, contradicts a pasuk! Pasuk 7:24 states:

וַיַּחְפְּרוּ כָל-מִצְרַיִם סְבִיבֹת הַיְאֹר, מַיִם לִשְׁתּוֹת: כִּי לֹא יָכְלוּ לִשְׁתֹּת, מִמֵּימֵי הַיְאֹר.
And all the Egyptians digged round about the river for water to drink; for they could not drink of the water of the river.

This pasuk seems to imply that the Egyptians dug wells as an alternative water source and succeeded - they found water. They dug the wells since the Nile could not provide water, for it had turned to blood. The midrash claims that these wells also produced blood. One could argue that the pasuk makes no mention of success or failure; however, the *implication* of the pasuk on a simple level is that the Egyptians succeeded. Besides, what is the basis of the midrash's claim that they failed?

One could question how they *could* have been successful. After all, they dug wells right next to the Nile. Presumably any water they would get would be connected to the Nile - an underground river stemming from the Nile. If the well would be connected to the Nile and the Nile is blood, that found in the wells should also be blood. If so, why would they dig near the Nile "for they could bit drink from the water of the Nile?!" One could answer that the wells were not connected to the Nile, and so did not give forth blood, and the reason they dug wells near the Nile is that that was where the water was needed.

However you can answer the question, the question can still be asked. The answer, at least midrashically, is to read pasuk 7:24 in a different way. We see this midrashic reading in Targum Yonatan's translation. He writes, And all the Egyptians digged round about the river for water to drink, {and they could not find clear water} for they could not drink of the water that was in the river. The stuff in {} represents Tg Yonatan's midrashic insertion. Thus, the Egyptians failed in their quest for water, because the wells were connected to the river. This in turn transforms the import of the latter part of the verse: "for they could not drink of the water that was in the river" no longer is the motivation of the Egyptians digging the well, but rather the explanation for the Egyptians' failure. All in all, a transformation almost as miraculous of that of a staff to a snake. Thus, we have our source for the midrash within the troublesome pasuk itself.

Ibn Ezra, we can already predict, will not be happy. Ibn Ezra does not like to use miracles to explain difficulties in the reading of the text of Tanach. The explicit miracles are fine, but implicit, hidden miracles where they are not necessary are not. Thus, he will have problems with Yocheved, Moshe's mother, being born on the way into Egypt, for she would have to be 130 when she gave birth to Moshe, a miracle so impressive it should be recorded in the chumash. Here as well, if such a miracle should be explicitly mentioned, and instead, it contradicts a pasuk! (He did not necessarily chance upon the explanation presented by Tg Yonatan) More so, the blood becoming red or clear depending on its owner is such a miracle that it certainly should be written in the Torah. Ibn Ezra indeed says something like this.

This is what Ibn Ezra has to say on 7:24 (some of the weird punctuation as I found it):
And they dug: Many say thay the water was in the hands of the Egyptian red like blood and it whitened (cleared) in the hands of the Israelite. If so, why was this sign (miracle) not written in the Torah? In my opinion, the plague of blood and frogs and lice encompassed both Egyptians and Hebrews. For we shall run after that which is written. And these three did little damage. Only the plague of wild animals which was harsh. Hashem divied between the Egyptians and Israel, and simialrly the plague of hail and pestilence because of their cattle. And not so by boils. And not by locusts since they were leaving from Egypt. And just as the Egyptians dug wells, so too the Hebrews dug wells.

Thus, the blood plague affected both Jews and Egyptians equally, and they both dug wells about the Nile, and they both got clear water from those wells.

Avi Ezer is a running commentary on Ibn Ezra, and he is very frum about this sort of thing. He does not like Ibn Ezra's suggestion that both Egyptian and Jew were effected, for it goes against Chazal. He does not mention explicitly the issue of the Egyptians managing to get water despite the Nile being blood. Here is what he says:
[And in my opinion the plague of blood {Josh: affected both Jews and Egyptians}]: And we, we only have the words of our Rabbis of blessed memory, that from the plague of blood the Jews became rich {Josh: by selling water}. And even a gentile and an Israelite drinking from the same cup would be half blood and half water. And in my opinion a mistaken student {of Ibn Ezra} and poor in thought wrote these words. And I already revealed this in the beginning of Beresishit that mistaken students (talmidim toim) put out pliliah.

I am fairly sure that Ibn Ezra did mean it, and did author it. It is an interesting trick by which he can denigrate the opinion but leave the man unscathed, and you kind of have to wonder if Avi Ezer truly meant it. I do not think Ibn Ezra would have appreciate it, though. Aside from all this, I am not convinced that Ibn Ezra is correct here as a matter of pshat. Hashem's command after all, mentions only Egyptians - perhaps no water was affected in Goshen, so the Jews had reserves of water. And only Egyptians dug, or that is all the pasuk informs us of, at least. I would agree with Ibn Ezra that the Egyptians did find clear water when they dug, though.

An interesting point I think I'd bring up is that the motivation of Tg Yonatan is similar to an explanation of Yitzchak's troubles when digging up wells. His servants dug up a well, and the people of the place said it was their water. An explanation given (I forget by who) is that the wells drew from a river which the residents of the place owned, so they indeed had claim to the water.

Any homiletic lessons from this? I'm sure I could conjure something up. Ain Mayim Ela Torah. Water represents Torah. Sometimes, you cannot get true pshat the direct way - ain lsihtot min hayeor. If so, you should dig deeper, perhaps to the underlying source, and get clear refreshing water. It is not for nought that באר means both "well" and "explain."

And, if the Egyptians were not successful? Oh "well," I tried. :)

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