This week we begin the plagues yet before we do we get the genealogy of Moses, and Mose’s and Aaron’s confrontation of snakes and staffs with Pharaoh sorcerers. One interesting aspect of this week’s portion is how it reflects what happens in front of the burning bush last week inParshat Shemot. Last week we read
‘ 2 And the LORD said unto him: ‘What is that in thy hand?’ And he said: ‘A rod.’ 3 And He said: ‘Cast it on the ground.’ And he cast it on the ground, and it became a serpent; and Moses fled from before it. 4 And the LORD said unto Moses: ‘Put forth thy hand, and take it by the tail–and he put forth his hand, and laid hold of it, and it became a rod in his hand– [exodus 4]
Then in this weeks portion:
And the LORD spoke unto Moses and unto Aaron, saying: 9 ‘When Pharaoh shall speak unto you, saying: Show a wonder for you; then thou shalt say unto Aaron: Take thy rod, and cast it down before Pharaoh, that it become a serpent.’ 10 And Moses and Aaron went in unto Pharaoh, and they did so, as the LORD had commanded; and Aaron cast down his rod before Pharaoh and before his servants, and it became a serpent. [Exodus 7]
Similarly we have God commanding Moses to turn water into blood.
9. And it shall come to pass, if they will not believe also these two signs, nor listen to your voice, that you shall take of the water of the river, and pour it upon the dry land; and the water which you take from the river shall become blood upon the dry land.[Exodus 4]
Later the fist plague begins
19 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.’ 20 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. [Exodus 7]
While there are Differences between pouring out of a jar and striking the Nile, water to blood remains the same. Between these two is another thing Moses is told to do:
6 And the LORD said furthermore unto him: ‘Put now thy hand into thy bosom.’ And he put his hand into his bosom; and when he took it out, behold, his hand was leprous, as white as snow. 7 And He said: ‘Put thy hand back into thy bosom.–And he put his hand back into his bosom; and when he took it out of his bosom, behold, it was turned again as his other flesh.– 8 And it shall come to pass, if they will not believe thee, neither hearken to the voice of the first sign, that they will believe the voice of the latter sign.[Exodus 4]
This has no parallel in this weeks portion. In all the plagues there is no mention of tzarat, the strange disease which might inflict the people. It’s next appearance will be in Leviticus where diagnosis, isolation and treatment procedures will be scrupulously detailed.
Tzarat does eventually show up of course, but not until the book of Numbers, almost two years from the time of leaving Egypt.
10 And when the cloud was removed from over the Tent, behold, Miriam was leprous, as white as snow; and Aaron looked upon Miriam; and, behold, she was leprous.[Numbers 13]
Why did Moses stretch out his rod to start the plague of blood? What did he do when his hand became tzarat? I believe these two questions are related. Why wait until deep in the desert for tzarat to show up?
Moses original question was essentially “what if they don’t believe me?” In Parshat Shemot, it might well have been Moses who in some small way doubted he could complete the mission and the three wonders there where for his benefit. The Staff to snake were for the court of Pharaoh, and that went unexpectedly well when the Aaron’s staff ate the other staffs. The blood to water however, wasn’t private with a water pitcher, but but all of Egypt by spreading a staff across the water.
If spreading the staff over the Nile was a public act. Placing one heart on one’s chest is a private, intimate one. The plague was a private one too, inflicting a family member, Miriam. It happened in a moment where she had doubts about Moses’ authority. According to the rabbinic interpretation, one easily seen in the way God defends Moses’ actions, Miriam’s doubts was about little brother’s ability to prophesy. At the heart of the argument according to the Rabbis, was Moses determination to keep celibate since he knew the people were prepared to receive the word of God by being celibate three days before Sinai. He figured someone like himself who could be called at any moment by God needed to be prepared at all times. Miriam didn’t trust this argument, believing he should not be celibate as the Torah mandates, and it was that lack of belief that caused the tzarat.
There are wonders both big and small, public and private. Sometimes they are plagues and bad things happening to people. Like a lot of Torah columns this week I struggle with talking about the plagues in the shadow of Haiti’s earthquake. The extending of the staff, the large widespread plague, doesn’t happen often, more likely in my mind is natural disasters just happen, and what we do in their aftermath is what we are judged on. We make a disaster a plague, or we do what is necessary to mitigate the damage and prevent more. Hurricane Katrina always sticks in my mind of both how badly we sometime fail, and how wonderfully we sometimes put our own lives aside to help others. Yet it is that missing plague from this week that speaks to me, for that is all to easy to happen under the best of circumstances. Losing faith in the ones we love is eerily easy, and hurting the ones we love because of that is easy too. I truly believe Moses never wanted to hurt his sister. Some situations get out of hand between family and friends, those close to our hearts.
Sometimes, sadly, the damage is irreparable. But more often, if we understand what we are doing, both parties can try to change things for the better.