“Bloody Well Right” Parashat Vaera – Bo 5779

Two weeks ago, in our discussion of Parashat Shemot, we looked at the three signs that G-d instructed to Moses to perform before the Jewish People “just in case” they did not believe that he was being sent by G-d to take them out of Egypt. These signs included [1] turning a staff into a snake and back again, [2] striking Moses’ hand with leprosy and then curing it, and [3] turning water into blood. In a footnote, we mentioned that, prima facie, turning water into blood is not that big of a miracle. After all, last week, in Parashat Vaera, when Moses turns the Nile River into blood in the first of the ten plagues, the Torah tells us [Shemot 7:22] “The magicians of Egypt did likewise [turning water to blood] with their secret rites”. If turning water into blood was so simple that even an Egyptian Houdini could do it, why does G-d choose that particular trick as one of the signs with which to reintroduce Himself to the Jewish People?

Let’s return to the three signs. The observant reader will notice that G-d actually demonstrated only two of the signs to Moses: the “serpentine staff” and the “leprous hand”. Regarding the third sign, G-d tells Moses [Shemot 4:9] “If they do not believe either of these two signs and they do not heed your voice, take from the water of the Nile and spill it upon the dry land and the water that you take from the Nile will become blood on the dry land”. The trick had to be performed specifically with the water from the Nile. Any other water would not do. As Moses was not near the Nile[1] at the time, he had to take G-d’s word that the trick would work. The obvious question is why only “Nilean” water was required.

To proceed, we must take a closer look at the plague of blood. G-d commanded Moses [Shemot 7:19]: “Stretch forth your hand over the waters of Egypt, their rivers, their canals, their ponds, and all their bodies of water, and they will become blood; There will be blood throughout the entire land of Egypt, even in wood and stone [vessels].” All of the water in ancient Egypt came from the Nile. Cairo typically receives less than an inch of rain a year and south of Cairo it does not rain at all. When the Nile turned to blood, the only remaining potable water in Egypt was the water that had been drawn from the river before the plague and the Torah tells us that that water also turned to blood. But didn’t the Torah testify that the Egyptian magicians managed to turn water into blood? Which water did they use? Abraham Ibn Ezra, who lived in twelfth-century Spain, directs our attention to a nearby verse [Shemot 7:24]: “All the Egyptians dug around the Nile for water to drink because they could not drink from the water of the Nile”. Only the water in the Nile River became blood. Water that had been absorbed into the ground was unaffected[2]. But why?

Before we can begin putting our puzzle together, we must introduce one final piece. Before G-d smites the Egyptians with the tenth and final plague – the killing of the firstborn – the Jewish People are commanded to sacrifice a lamb, to take its blood and to smear it on the doorpost [Shemot 12:13]: “The blood will be for you for a sign upon the houses where you will be, and I will see the blood and pass over you and there will be no plague to destroy [you] when I smite the [people of the] land of Egypt.” Rashi, a contemporary of the Ibn Ezra, notes that G-d tells the Jewish People that “the blood will be [only] for you for a sign”, meaning that it must be smeared on the inside of the doorpost, where it is not visible to passers-by. Rabbi Moshe Alsheikh, known as the “Alesheikh HaKadosh”, who lived in the 16th century in Safed, is puzzled. It seems strange that G-d needed some kind of indicator to know where the targets were located. Isn’t G-d omniscient? This, explains the Alsheikh HaKadosh, is why the Torah states that the blood is a sign specifically “for you”. The Jewish People who left Egypt were on an extremely low spiritual level. They were nearly indiscernible from their Egyptian neighbours. Had they remained in Egypt only one nanosecond longer, they would have become unredeemable. When they smear the blood of the lamb on the inside of their doorpost, they must look at the blood and say to themselves, “That lamb’s blood could just as easily have been my blood”. There, but for the Grace of G-d, go I. They must face this stark reality as they make final preparations for life as free men.

Rabbi Moshe ben Nachman (also known as the Ramban), who lived in 13th century Spain, expounds upon the idea of a sacrifice offered as a substitution. In his commentary on the sin offering [Vayikra 1:9], he writes, “[The sinner] sprinkles the blood on the altar corresponding to the blood of his soul, so that a person think in doing all of this that he sinned to God with his body and his soul and it is fit for him that his blood be spilled and his body burnt. Were it not for the kindness of the Creator, who took an exchange and ransom from him [in] the sacrifice – that [the animal’s] blood be instead of his blood and its soul be instead of his soul.” There, but for the Grace of G-d, go I.

With this motif in hand, we can now address the questions we have raised. G-d never performs miracles merely as a show of shock and awe. The Hebrew word for miracle, “ness”, means “flag”. G-d performs miracles to teach lessons. When G-d decides that a miracle is necessary, He chooses the most fitting way in which to project Divine power. When G-d gives Moses signs to perform for the Jewish People, each sign carries a different message. For instance, the Midrash teaches that leprosy is a punishment for slander. Thus, G-d smote Moses’ arm with leprosy in order to chastise him for speaking ill about the Jewish People, claiming that they would never listen to him. In the same vein[3], Moses turned water into blood to show the Jewish People that contrary to what they might have believed, G-d had seen the Egyptians spill their blood. He had heard their cries and now He was going to rescue them. The water that Moses turned to blood had to come from the Nile River because the Nile contained the blood of thousands of Jewish babies who had been thrown into the river by Pharaoh and the Egyptians. G-d was telling the Jewish People that He saw this blood and was now preparing to avenge it. Note that when G-d instructs Moses how to perform this sign, He tells him to take water from the Nile and to “spill it upon the dry land”. No more Jewish blood would be spilled by the Egyptians. From now on, the only blood that would be spilled would be Egyptian blood.

Similarly, the Ten Plagues, above and beyond destroying Egypt and the Egyptian economy, were meant to convey critical lessons about G-d and His might. In the plague of blood, the water of the Nile River is not “spilled on the dry land” before it turns to blood. The entire Nile River and all of its tributaries are suddenly transmogrified into blood in one fell swoop. The transformation from water to blood signified a different metaphor: the Nile was the source of life for everything in Egypt. Consequently, the Egyptians worshipped the Nile. My son, Elyassaf, suggests that the Egyptians threw Jewish babies into the Nile as offerings to the river god. When G-d turns the Nile to blood, He is showing the Egyptians that what they perceive to be a source of life is in truth a source of death. When the Egyptian magicians recreate the miracle, they are actually reinforcing G-d’s message: our gods are killing us. Water that remained below the surface was not affected by the plague, as if to tell the magicians, “You can avoid the plight of your gods by separating yourselves from them.”

Miracles are far more than the suspension of the laws of physics. Any well-trained magician can do that. A miracle teaches a critical lesson. A miracle profoundly changes a person. Anything else is just sound and fury, signifying nothing.

Shabbat Shalom,

Ari Sacher, Moreshet, 5779

Please daven for a Refu’a Shelema for Yechiel ben Shprintza, and Tzvi ben Shoshana.

[1] Moses was in exile in Midian in modern-day Saudi Arabia, about 400 [km] from the Nile River.

[2] Interestingly enough, the Ibn Ezra’s innovation is reflected in normative halachic practice. The Torah prohibits the eating of blood [Vayikra 7:27]: “Any person who eats any blood, his soul shall be cut off from its people”. Rabbi Yaakov ben Asher rules in the Arba’a Turim [YD 67:2] that blood that has been absorbed into a piece of meat is not subject to the prohibition, meaning that as long as the meat has been rinsed, it is permissible to eat carpaccio made from raw meat.

[3] No pun intended.

About the Author
Ari Sacher is a Rocket Scientist, and has worked in the design and development of missiles for over twenty years. He has briefed hundreds of US Congressmen on Israeli Missile Defense, including two briefings on Capitol Hill at the invitation of House Majority Leader. He speaks regularly for the Israeli Foreign Ministry. Ari is a highly requested speaker at AIPAC events, enabling even the layman to understand the "rocket science", and his speaking events are regularly sold-out. Ari has also been a scholar in residence in numerous synagogues in the USA and Canada. He is a riveting speaker, using his experience in the defense industry to explain the Torah in a way that is simultaneously enlightening and entertaining. Ari came on aliya from the USA in 1982. He studied at Yeshivat Kerem B’Yavneh, and then spent seven years studying at the Technion. Since 2001 he has published a weekly parasha shiur that is read around the world. Ari lives in Moreshet in the Western Galil along with his wife and eight children.
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