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Whacking the River

Whacking the River

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"Blood, Frogs, Lice, Wild Animals, Plague, Boils, Hail, Locusts, Darkness, Smiting of the Firstborn."

The above list, familiar to every seder participant, is of the ten makkot which G‑d inflicted upon the land of Egypt prior to liberating the Children of Israel from Egyptian slavery.

What is a makkah? The Hebrew term is often translated as "plague," as in "The Ten Plagues." A more precise translation of the word makkah is "blow" -- blow as in "whack!" We're not just punishing Egyptians and liberating Jews; we're also bashing and smashing something.

One thing that seems to be getting many of the blows is the Nile: most of the makkot are either inflicted upon the river directly (its water turning to blood or spawning millions of frogs) or else they are enacted on its banks.

Why whack a river? Because the Egyptian Nile is not just a river. It is an idea, an approach to life. And whacking this idea out of our heads is what the Exodus is all about.


Forty years after they exited Egypt, on the eve of their entry into the Holy Land, Moses says to the Children of Israel:

For the land into which you are entering, to inherit it, is not like the land of Egypt from which you are coming, that you sow your seed and water it with your feet like a vegetable garden.

The land into which you are crossing to inherit is a land of hills and valleys, which drinks water of the rain of the heavens.

A land which the L-rd your G‑d seeks; constantly the eyes of the L‑rd your G‑d are on it, from the beginning of the year to the end of the year. (Deuteronomy 11:10-12)

The commentaries explain that "the land of Egypt does not drink rainwater; rather, the Nile rises and waters it." The Egyptian surveying his source of sustenance sees a mighty river that rises, regular as clockwork, to flood its banks and fill the reservoirs he's prepared for it; walking circles with his feet he pushes a wheel round and round to raise the water to the irrigation ditches that criss-cross his fields. Never once, in his entire career as a farmer, does he lift his eyes upward.

The Israelite farmer, in contrast, drinks water of the rain of the heavens. His source of sustenance is neither regular nor predictable. It does not well up from a channel grooved in the earth, nor is it treaded up from a hole in the ground. His eyes are forever trained upward, in hope and expectation, and in faith that life will, indeed, shower from Above.

It is true that rain also comes from below; according to Genesis 2:6, "A vapor rises from the earth, and quenches the face of the land." G‑d did not create us to be passive recipients of a unilateral flow of sustenance from heaven. Our toil and effort, our initiative and creativity, prompted by the warming sun of divine empowerment and inspiration, rise as mists from the earth to float as clouds before the heavens, from where they return as the blessings of life. But ever-present is the awareness that it's all orchestrated and driven from above. The point of reference is not earth but heaven.

Whack the river, G‑d commanded Moses. We need to beat the Nile out of the heads of My people, so that we can bring them into the land that drinks water of the rain of the heavens.

By Yanki Tauber; based on the teachings of the Rebbe.
Artwork by Sarah Kranz.
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ruth jerusalem, israel December 31, 2010

Strong and clear strong and to the point Reply

Leah Lapidus Cleveland Hts, OH December 30, 2010

Maybe trust more than break no, no no ! the daled has the numerical equivalent of 4 to remind us that there is nothing but G-d anywhere, including in the four directions N, S, E, and W. I think the point of this quote about beating the Nile "out of the heads of My people..." means we must come to the point already of realizing that we must have humility before G-d to the point where we turn it all over to Him, and truly TRUST Him, continue to make our efforts, yes, but really relinquishing all potential outcomes of our efforts to Him. He's in charge. All blessings are coming from Above. Reply

ruth housman marshfield hills, ma December 30, 2010

children of the same God The story of exile, of our coming out of Egypt, of our coming of age, with Moses, as leader with the tambourine of Miriam, his sister, as music, as part of the dance, well this is a very deep story, and one that has been embraced by others, for meaning, for meaning that is deeply and always about freedom. Let My People Go! There is an intense mirroring of this story throughout story itself, all stories of oppression.

But we must be careful, not to impute lack of wonder, of feeling, to the Egyptians who did work those fields and to say they did not look up, and only down. Because wherever we do look, all of us, there is Awe, and a divinity of stars above, that surely, even for those who oppressed, brought them also to marvels. And we must not ever, forget, the anguish of freedom, that did kill many who were no doubt innocent actors in a cosmic drama, who did lose their lives, whether Jews or Egyptian. We are the Family of Man.

We must be humble and humble even about freedom's price. Reply

Ari Edson thornhill, ontario January 16, 2007

We must break our minds to heal our friends "We need to beat the Nile out of the heads of My people, so that we can... drink water of the rain of the heavens."
I am confused onto how this quote is to be interpreted. Perhaps the quote is meant to imply the words of the Alter Rebbe, "Shema Yisroel Hashem Elokaynu, Hashem Echad. The letter of daled of the word echad resembles a hatchet. And why does the daled resemble a hatchet? Because you have to knock the echad into your mind"... Reply

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