Va’eira: Oh The Water

This week’s Parsha (Torah Portion), Parshat Va’eira, begins the story of the Eser Makot, the Ten Plagues. The Ten Plagues are described in Shemot (Exodus) Chapters 7 to 12. During the Pesach (Passover) Seder, the Haggadah (a special book that is used at the Pesach Seder) lists each plague and we recite each plague at the Seder. Following the recitation of the plagues in the Haggadah, Rabi (Rabbi) Yehuda gives us a mnemonic device to remember them: he takes the first letter of each of the first three plagues, the first letter of each of the next three plagues, and the first letter of the last four plagues to create three respective abbreviations.

This is not just a mnemonic device–there is logic to grouping the plagues together in this particular way. In the story of the first three plagues, Dam (Blood), Tsfardayah (Frogs) and Keenim (Lice), God brings these three plagues through Aharon (Shemot Chapters 7 and 8). All of the other plagues are brought through Moshe (Moses), with the exception of the tenth plague, Makote Bechorot, the Plague of the Killing of the First Born, which God does alone (Shemot Chapters 8 to 12).

Why did God perform the first three plagues through Aharon and not Moshe? Let’s look at the common element of the first three plagues–water. In the first plague, Dam (Blood), the River (most likely the Nile), is turned from water to blood. The second plague, Tsfardayah, Frogs, is obviously water oriented. Also, it seems that according to the commentary the Malbim, on Shemot 7:26, the first two plagues are interconnected in that it is the river turning to blood that causes the frogs to leave the water and spread throughout Egypt. The third plague, Kinim, Lice, is due to the death of the frogs, who could not survive without the river that had been turned to blood. The infested waters and dead frogs were a perfect breeding ground for lice.

What is it about water that would make God choose Ahraon, and not Moshe, through whom to perform the first plagues? At important points in Moshe’s life, water plays a central role. In Shemot 1:22 to 2:10, Moshe could have been killed as an infant by water when Pharaoh decrees that all baby boys should be thrown into the River (once again, most likely the Nile). Instead, Moshe is saved when his mother places him in a basket and the daughter of Pharaoh takes him out of the water and names him Moshe, “taken from water.” Not only one of his greatest moments, the parting of the Red Sea (Shemot Chapter 14), involves water, but so does his worst moment; in Bamidbar (Numbers) 20:7-13, Moshe is commanded by God to speak to a rock to get water, but instead Moshe hits the rock. For disobeying, Moshe is forbidden to enter Israel.

The intense role water plays in Moshe’s life has both negative and positive manifestations. I would like to suggest that God had compassion for Moshe and chose not to involve him directly in these water-related plagues. What is the larger lesson here?

In the Talmud in Sotah 14a it says: “…What does the Torah mean when it says: ‘You shall walk in the ways of the Lord.’ (Devarim, Deuteronomy 13:5) Can a person really walk in the shadow of the Divine Presence? Rather, it means that you should imitate the ways of God. Just as God clothed the naked … so you shall clothe the naked. Just as God visited the sick … so you should visit the sick; just as God buried the dead … so you should bury the dead; and just as God comforts the grieving … so you too comfort the grieving. The Talmud is teaching us that God is our model in moral behavior. When we study stories in the Torah that demonstrate some aspect of the way God operates from an ethical perspective, we can–and should–use those stories as paradigms for the way we live our lives.

Therefore, as we read how God chooses not to involve Moshe in the first three plagues, which will possibly be too emotionally charged for Moshe to handle, we can extrapolate from this story a lesson for our own lives. As friends, relatives, or coworkers, we need to step in when a situation may be too difficult for someone in our life and say to him or her: “You do not have to deal with this issue right now. I will handle it for you.”

However, this does not mean that we should always strive to ease the situations of others. At times, we also need to help people face their challenges. God was there supporting Moshe as he faced his challenge with water at the Parting of the Red Sea, and Moshe together with God transformed this challenge into one of his greatest moments. We need to support the people in our lives and help them to turn their greatest challenges into their greatest triumphs. I bless you all that we help all of the people in our lives in the way they need us to help them and that we use God as our model in this holy endeavor.

This week’s title “Oh The Water,” comes from the song, “And It Stoned Me” by the extraordinary Van Morrison. The song is the first track on Van Morrison’s classic album Moondance, his third album, released in 1970. In each stanza, just before the chorus, the song repeats the phrase “Oh the water” three times. As I was writing this week’s article and I thought about the theme of water in Moshe’s life, I heard in my head Van Morrison singing that phrase “Oh the water.” It seemed like a great title for the article. In Van Morrison’s biography, Van Morrison: Too Late to Stop Nowby Steve Turner, Turner has a fantastic quote from Van Morrison about the origin and meaning of the song on Page 102 Van Morrison said, “I suppose I was about twelve years old. We used to go to a place called Ballystockart to fish. We stopped in the village on the way up to this place and I went to this little stone house, and there was an old man there with dark weather-beaten skin, and we asked him if he had any water. He gave us some water which he said he’d got from the stream. We drank some and everything seemed to stop for me. Time stood still. For five minutes everything was really quiet and I was in this ‘other dimension’. That’s what the song is about.” It is interesting before I ever read this quote I felt the same exact way every time I heard this amazing song. For me, “Time stood still. For five minutes everything was really quiet and I was in this other dimension.” It is the same way I feel when I read Moshe’s story… and perhaps it is the way Moshe felt as his own story unfolded.