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Parshah Halacha – Parshat Va’eira

Shabbat Mevarchim Shevat

For a print version of this article click here
Parsha Halacha is underwritten by a grant from Dr. Stephen and Bella Brenner in loving memory of Stephen’s father, Shmuel Tzvi ben Pinchas, and Bella’s parents, Avraham ben Yitzchak and Leah bas HaRav Sholom Zev HaCohen

The Torah portion of Va’eira describes the first seven of the ten plagues. When instructing Moshe to warn Pharaoh about the first plague, the plague of blood, the verse says, [1] “Go to Pharaoh in the morning; behold, he is going forth to the water, and you shall stand opposite him on the bank of the Nile…” Similarly, when G-d instructed Moshe to warn Pharaoh before the fourth plague, that of wild beasts (arov), He said,[2] “Arise early in the morning and stand before Pharaoh; behold, he is going out to the water, and you shall say to him…” Finally, before the seventh plague of hail, G-d said to Moshe,[3] “Rise early in the morning and confront Pharaoh, and say to him…” (In the final verse it doesn’t say where Moshe should meet Pharaoh. However, since we have already learned that Pharaoh would stroll on the riverbank every morning, it seems obvious that this is where Moshe was supposed to meet him.[4] But see below that the Midrash has a different interpretation.)

What was Pharaoh Doing at the Riverbank?

The commentaries suggest various reasons as to why Pharaoh would frequent the riverbank in the mornings and why Moshe was supposed to meet him there. Here are some of their interpretations:

·        For a Nature Walk

The Rashbam writes that Pharaoh would walk and ride by the riverbank for pleasure as is the way of the nobility.  The Bechor Shor adds that the kings would bring fancy birds such as ostriches on these walks. This venue would be a good one for Moshe to converse with Pharaoh as usually there were not many people with Pharaoh at that time.

·        To Play Ball

The Abarbanel writes (in the name of Ibn Caspi) that the custom of Egyptian kings (up to the time of Ibn Caspi, 1280 – 1345) was to play ball (for the sake of exercise and to aid the digestion) at the riverbank twice a week, on Tuesdays and Saturdays, from the morning until mealtime.

·        To Perform Sorcery

The Targum Yonatan suggests that Pharaoh, who was a sorcerer, would practice his sorcery at the riverbank.[5]  This may be related to the fact that he (and the Egyptian people) used to worship the Nile River as a deity.[6]

·        To Wash his Eyes

The Chizkuni writes that it was customary in those days for people to wash their eyes with river water in the mornings as they believed this to be beneficial for their eyesight. This was Pharaoh’s custom as well. The Abarbanel says that just seeing the water was considered beneficial to one’s vision.

·        To Bathe

The Da’at Mikra suggests that Pharaoh may have gone to the river in the mornings in order to bathe just as his daughter Batya did.[7]

·        To Witness the Rising of the River

The Ibn Ezra writes[8] that it was customary for the Egyptian kings to go to the river in the summer months to see how high the water had reached. The reason for Moshe’s meeting Pharaoh there (for the first plague) was so that Pharaoh could witness, with his own eyes, how it was Aharon’s staff (i.e., G-d, through the staff) that caused the plague of blood when it struck the water.

The Midrash Lekach Tov adds that Pharaoh would usually make excuses, saying he had no time to see Moshe. By meeting him at the river, Moshe avoided the bureaucracy and was able to talk to him.

·        To Pray to G-d

The Midrash says[9] that, after the first three plagues, Pharaoh was ready to repent. Thus, he rose early in the morning and went to the Nile River to pray to G-d[10] and begin his penance. G-d, however, didn’t want Pharaoh’s repentance as his sins were too serious.[11] He therefore instructed Moshe to disturb his prayers by going to the river to warn him about the upcoming plague of wild beasts.

·        To Relieve Himself

According to Rashi,[12] Pharaoh pretended to be a god and as such never needed to perform his bodily functions.  He would perform his functions at the riverbank every morning when no one was around. By meeting him there, Moshe was humbling Pharaoh and proving his claims to divinity were preposterous.

Why Earlier for the Fourth and Seventh Plagues?

It is noteworthy that concerning the first plague G-d told Moshe to “Go to Pharaoh in the morning”[13] whereas for the fourth and seventh plagues He told him,[14] “Arise early in the morning.” The latter expression (“arise early”) usually means to rise at dawn[15] while the former expression can mean later in the morning. The Ha’amek Davar explains[16] that Pharaoh would always get up late in the morning as is the way of kings.[17] But after being accosted in the morning by Moshe before the first plague, he changed his schedule and began going out to the Nile at dawn in order to avoid Moshe. G-d therefore instructed Moshe to preempt Pharaoh and meet him at the river in the early morning.

Where Was Pharaoh Going?

The Midrash[18] points out that concerning the seventh plague, G-d instructs Moshe to meet Pharaoh in the early morning, but He doesn’t say where Moshe should meet him. The Midrash explains that after twice being accosted by Moshe at the river bank, Pharaoh changed his routine and began taking his morning stroll elsewhere. Once again, G-d told Moshe to preempt Pharaoh and to confront him in the early morning as he was leaving his palace.

Why the First, Fourth, and Seventh?

The commentaries point out that there were three sets of plagues with three plagues in each set. The first set was blood, frogs, and lice. The second was wild beasts, pestilence, and boils while the third was hail, locusts, and darkness. The Abarbanel explains that the first set was to teach Pharaoh about the existence of the one G-d. The second was to teach him that G-d is aware and involved in the minute details of this world. And the third was to prove that G-d can override the laws of nature completely.

Before the first plague in each of the three sets, Pharaoh was warned publicly so that the Egyptian people also learn these lessons. Before the second plague Pharaoh was warned privately whereas before the third plague of each set he received no warning as he no longer deserved one, having ignored the previous two warnings and plagues.

Another Self-Proclaimed Deity

Chiram, king of Tyre, who lived at the end of the era of the first Temple was another monarch who proclaimed himself to be a god. He made himself a huge palace which was suspended in the air above the sea.[19] G-d sent the prophet Yechezkel to rebuke him. Yechezkel was to say (among other things),[20] “You are the one who engraves images, full of wisdom and perfect in beauty. [You enjoyed yourself as if] you were in Eden, the garden of G-d… the work of your drums and your orifices is in you; on the day of your creation they were established.” Rashi explains that with the words “the work of your drums and your orifices is in you,” G-d was saying that “although I gave you all this honor, I knew that you would become haughty, and I made in you the work of the perforated drums that let out wind with an instrumental sound like a drum, and these are what you should have contemplated about.” I.e., if Chiram would think about his digestive system and how it lets out sounds (and other things), he would realize how humble and non-god-like he is.

According to the Talmud,[21] G-d was saying to Chiram that it was because of his haughtiness (and the haughtiness of people like him) that G-d created mankind with the digestive system in a manner that creates waste and sounds since it is a humbling experience for mankind.

In Eden – No Waste

The Ramban writes[22] that, like the Manna,[23] the food in the garden of Eden was so pure that it created no waste. It has been said[24] that Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden and the Jewish people who wandered in the desert were so aware of G-d that they did not need to be reminded of their humility by going to the bathroom. The rest of us, who do not have this level of awareness, must be reminded of our human frailties on a constant basis.[25]

The Blessing of Asher Yaztar

Our sages established that we thank G-d throughout the day for the many kindnesses he grants us on a constant basis. One of the blessings they composed was the blessing of Asher Yatzar.[26] It is to be recited every morning when arising (as part of the morning blessings) as well as during the day after one relieves oneself by going to the bathroom.

According to the Code of Jewish Law (O.C. 6:1) this blessing includes thanksgiving for the following natural miracles:

·        Our lungs do not collapse even though they open to allow air in and out.

·        G-d prepared sustenance for man even before creating him.

·        G-d created our orifices and digestive systems which enable us to remain nourished yet uncontaminated by the waste that the nourishment system creates. Were the waste to remain in our bodies for too long, our lives would be endangered.

·        At the moment of our birth, this system began working immediately.

·        This system does not excrete too much as this, too, can be dangerous.

·        The digestive system is able to purify the nourishing components from our food and separate it from the harmful components.

·        And, finally, G-d connects out spiritual souls to our physical bodies.

How to Recite the Asher Yatzar Blessing

The Seder HaYom, by the famed Kabbalist Moshe ban Machir (of 16th-century Tzefat), writes the following[27] about how to recite the blessing of Asher Yatzar.

“He should say the blessing with concentration and say it word by word (paying attention to) each concept. He should think about the great kindness of G-d which He does with us all the time, whenever we go to do our needs. (That) we (are able to) expel that which we ate (and is now waste). As a result of this we can exist. For, if not for this, all of the money in the world would not suffice to heal us and remove the waste. Rather, we would die and be gone from this world. G-d, in His great mercy has made chambers and systems in the body of man to bring in what is proper (to absorb) and to expel that which is proper (to expel). To absorb the choice (product) and expel the waste and (thus) keep the body healthy so that it should be fitting and ready to serve G-d throughout one’s life… One should certainly recite this blessing with complete concentration and focused attention to (thank) the Healer of all flesh.

The Midrash says that, in the Messianic era, G-d will “fix” our digestive systems so that only fragrant smells will be emitted from our orifices. May this take place speedily in our times!

[1] Exodus 7:15

[2] Ibid 8:16

[3] Ibid 9:13

[4] See Da’at Mikra

[5] See also Mo’ed Kattan 18a

[6] See Midrash Lekach Tov

[7] See Exodus 2:5

[8] See also Midrash Lekach Tov, cited in Torah Shleima

[9] Shemot Rabbah 11:1

[10] The Pirush Maharzu explains that Pharaoh could not pray to G-d in his palace as it was full of idols. (See Exodus 9:29 and Rashi there.)

[11] See Rambam, Laws of Teshuvah 6:3

[12] See also Midrash Tanchumah, Va’Eira 14, Shemot Rabbah 8:2 and 9:8 as well as Shabbat 75a in Tosfot D.H Amgosha

[13] Exodus 7:15

[14] Ibid 8:16 and 9:13

[15] See Gen. 22:3 as explained in Pesachim 4a and Rashi there

[16] See also Shemot Rabbah 11:1

[17] See Mishnah, Berachot 1:2

[18] Shemot Rabbah 12:1

[19] See Yalkut Shimoni, Yechezkel 367, quoted in the Encyclopedia of Biblical Personalities by Yishai Chasidah, entry Chiram

[20] Yechezkel 28:12 – 13

[21] Bava Batra 75a

[22] On Gen. 2:17

[23] See Yoma 75b

[24] Kuntres Iyunim Bevirkat Asher Yatzar by Rabbi Mordechai Potash (Jerusalem 2015), page 15

[25] Ibid in the name of the Chafetz Chayim

[26] Brachot 60b

[27] End of Kavanat HaBrachot

Wishing you a Shabbat Shalom UMevorach and a Chodesh Tov!

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