May G-d Return Us From Exile Ka’afikim Ba’Negev [Parshat Va’eira By Rabbi Zalman Lent]

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I am not sure how many inanimate objects around the world have their own social media accounts, but in Israel there is at least one — the Kineret  Twitter account.

The Kineret (the Sea of Galilee) is the largest freshwater lake in Israel, and the source of most of Israel’s drinking water. Because the water level in the Kineret has such an impact on daily life in Israel, the Twitter account sends out regular brief updates how full or empty it is. For many years now it has hovered very near to dangerously empty levels, leading to water restrictions and limits on usage. Thankfully the last few days there has been so much rainfall (and even snowfall — the most in twenty years) that it is now at levels last seen seven years ago, and is still rising.

One particularly striking phenomenon at this time of year is the flash flooding in the Negev desert. One of the first things a hiker is told is never to sleep in a wadi, a dry river bed. Tragically, every year after heavy rainfall, people are killed by these afikim ba’negev, these ferocious torrents of water which suddenly appear and which travel with enough force to sweep away heavy vehicles.

To anyone who has visited Masada, the fortress in the Negev desert overlooking the Dead Sea, one of the most wondrous aspects is how those who lived there had water to survive. Amazingly, in a feat of engineering ingenuity, Herod had a system constructed to channel the flash floods into enormous underground cisterns. This system worked so well that he and his retinue had enough water to drink and bathe in to their hearts’ content, building a number of bathhouses and even a swimming pool.

Once a year, on the festival of Shemini Atzeret, the Jewish people pray together Tefillat Geshem, the Prayer for Rain. It reminds us that “the land to which you are coming to possess is not like the land of Egypt … the Land is a land of mountains and valleys and from the rains of heaven shall you drink water (Deut 11:10-11)”; that unlike Egypt which relies on the River Nile, Israel is dependent on rainfall — and it is our behavior which influences whether or not we will be rewarded with that rain from heaven.

In the Torah readings of these weeks water seems to play a central role. Water is used to drown the newborn Hebrew male children, and it is used to hide the basket which saves Moshe’s life. It is used in the first plague, when the Nile is turned to blood, in the second plague as a source for the frogs and in the seventh plague in its frozen form as large hailstones. When the Children of Israel are eventually released from slavery they will cross a body of water, the Yam Suf, where the pursuing Egyptian army will meet a watery grave, and later on we will encounter Miriam’s well, the bitter waters at Marah and the water struck from the rock.

Interestingly the plagues that involved water were initiated by Aaron, Moshe’s brother, and not by Moshe himself. Our Sages explain the reason for this is that since Moses’ life was saved by the water, it would be unseemly for him to bring forth a plague from the very river that protected him, as the saying goes, “don’t spit into the well you drank from.” (Aaron also initiated the plague of lice which originated in the sand, as that too had been beneficial to Moshe in providing a burial place for the Egyptian taskmaster.)

The question which immediately springs to mind is: Surely water and sand are inanimate objects which do not have feelings (except possibly the Kineret which has its own website!). Was G-d really concerned that Moshe bringing forth a plague from the water would cause it feelings of rejection or embarrassment?

The answer is contained in the following story about the 19th century sage, Rabbi Yisroel Salanter. The rabbi was once visiting the town of Kovno, and needed a place to stay for Shabbat. Of course he was invited by many of the townsfolk, and he finally accepted an offer from the local baker.

Together they returned home from the Friday evening prayers, and as they entered the house they noticed that the challot were not covered on the table. The baker turned to his wife and berated her, “Why are the challot not covered? You know they should be covered!” His wife, embarrassed and humiliated, hurried to cover them.

The rabbi who had been watching this take place turned to his host and asked him, “Tell me, do you know the reason for covering the challot?” “Yes, Rebbe,” replied the baker. “Bread is normally the most important food at the meal, and so we usually bless the bread before all other foods. However on Shabbat we first bless the wine, and so as not to embarrass the bread which gets second place, we cover it over.”

Rabbi Yisroel looked at the baker in disbelief: “Have you heard what you just said?” he asked. “Do you honestly think a piece of bread has feelings, and could get embarrassed?! The reason our Sages instituted these laws was to make us sensitive to the feelings of human beings, our friends, our neighbors and especially our wives!”

The baker hung his head in shame, and apologized to his wife for his outburst.

Similarly here with the Plagues, of course the water and the sand do not feel pain when hit, but the moral is there for us all to learn from. When someone or something has been good to us, we must show gratitude and respect, and avoid repaying kindness with negativity.

When we do that, we will surely merit to the fulfillment of the words we say every Shabbat in the Shir HaMaalot recited after meals: May G-d return us from exile ka’afikim ba’negev — as swiftly as the flash floods refill the dry river beds in the Negev.  Shabbat Shalom.

Rabbi Zalman Lent

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Rabbi Zalman Lent is a Community Rabbi in Dublin and director of  Chabad of Ireland.


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