Sunday, December 30, 2012

Why can't Moshe hit the water?

from the Golden Haggadah, Spain, 1300s
An interesting question posed at Judaism.StackExchange (that is, Mi Yodeya):
As a kid I learned that Moshe wasn't allowed to hit the water because it saved him when he was a child and he had to show hakaras hatov (similar answer for why he couldn't hit the sand that saved him by hiding the body of the mitzri he killed). But the water didn't save him, the little basket, the Egyptian lady who yanked him out or even the sister who watched him might have saved him, the water didn't do anything. If someone was in a car accident an survived unharmed they would say the seat belt saved them, not the road. How can we make sense of this ma'amar chazal?

I think that just as you can't ask a kasha on a maaseh, you often can't ask a kasha on a midrash.

On a peshat level, the reason it is Aharon who hits the water and the sand is that Hashem established Aharon as a spokesperson for Moshe, in the 4th perek of Shemot:

יג  וַיֹּאמֶר, בִּי אֲדֹנָי; שְׁלַח-נָא, בְּיַד-תִּשְׁלָח.13 And he said: 'Oh Lord, send, I pray Thee, by the hand of him whom Thou wilt send.'
יד  וַיִּחַר-אַף ה בְּמֹשֶׁה, וַיֹּאמֶר הֲלֹא אַהֲרֹן אָחִיךָ הַלֵּוִי--יָדַעְתִּי, כִּי-דַבֵּר יְדַבֵּר הוּא; וְגַם הִנֵּה-הוּא יֹצֵא לִקְרָאתֶךָ, וְרָאֲךָ וְשָׂמַח בְּלִבּוֹ.14 And the anger of the LORD was kindled against Moses, and He said: 'Is there not Aaron thy brother the Levite? I know that he can speak well. And also, behold, he cometh forth to meet thee; and when he seeth thee, he will be glad in his heart.
טו  וְדִבַּרְתָּ אֵלָיו, וְשַׂמְתָּ אֶת-הַדְּבָרִים בְּפִיו; וְאָנֹכִי, אֶהְיֶה עִם-פִּיךָ וְעִם-פִּיהוּ, וְהוֹרֵיתִי אֶתְכֶם, אֵת אֲשֶׁר תַּעֲשׂוּן.15 And thou shalt speak unto him, and put the words in his mouth; and I will be with thy mouth, and with his mouth, and will teach you what ye shall do.
טז  וְדִבֶּר-הוּא לְךָ, אֶל-הָעָם; וְהָיָה הוּא יִהְיֶה-לְּךָ לְפֶה, וְאַתָּה תִּהְיֶה-לּוֹ לֵאלֹהִים.16 And he shall be thy spokesman unto the people; and it shall come to pass, that he shall be to thee a mouth, and thou shalt be to him in God's stead.
יז  וְאֶת-הַמַּטֶּה הַזֶּה, תִּקַּח בְּיָדֶךָ, אֲשֶׁר תַּעֲשֶׂה-בּוֹ, אֶת-הָאֹתֹת.  {פ}17 And thou shalt take in thy hand this rod, wherewith thou shalt do the signs.' {P}

and later in perek 7:
א  וַיֹּאמֶר ה אֶל-מֹשֶׁה, רְאֵה נְתַתִּיךָ אֱלֹהִים לְפַרְעֹה; וְאַהֲרֹן אָחִיךָ, יִהְיֶה נְבִיאֶךָ.1 And the LORD said unto Moses: 'See, I have set thee in God's stead to Pharaoh; and Aaron thy brother shall be thy prophet.
ב  אַתָּה תְדַבֵּר, אֵת כָּל-אֲשֶׁר אֲצַוֶּךָּ; וְאַהֲרֹן אָחִיךָ יְדַבֵּר אֶל-פַּרְעֹה, וְשִׁלַּח אֶת-בְּנֵי-יִשְׂרָאֵל מֵאַרְצוֹ.2 Thou shalt speak all that I command thee; and Aaron thy brother shall speak unto Pharaoh, that he let the children of Israel go out of his land.

Still, it is irregular that sometimes Moshe takes action, and sometimes Aharon takes action, but there are surely peshat resolutions to this issue.

The Midrash is derash and derush. By derush, I mean that it is meant to teach a moral / ethical lesson. On a practical level, on which normal and sane people conduct themselves, people don't need to show gratitude to inanimate objects, which did not mean to assist in any way, and have no senses such that they would be hurt by being hit. And the river was hit anyway, whether by Moshe's direct action or by his command.

But the midrash is highlighting these actions by Aharon as a homiletic way to highlight the important trait of gratitude. And perhaps even gratitude for unintended side effects of other people's actions. Someone did not directly intend to benefit you, but they still effectively helped you out -- you should show, and feel, gratitude. Even if someone benefited you in a limited, transitory way, you should show, and feel, gratitude.

However, in terms of the challenges posed by the question, I think that they are readily surmounted. The sand hid the slain Egyptian. The water hid baby Moshe, such that the Egyptians did not find him. And it kept him their until he was found by the daughter of Pharaoh.

Further, there is a midrash that the astrologers told Pharaoh of one, soon to be born, who would challenge his power,  but that that person would die by water. (Think of Moshe hitting the rock and as a result dying in the midbar.) Therefore, Pharaoh commanding casting all infants into the Nile. The midrash continues that as soon as Moshe was cast into the water, the astrologers informed Pharaoh that they had sensed that this usurper had been cast into the Nile. And immediately, Pharaoh rescinded his decree. Thus, one could say that it was the water itself which had saved Moshe.


Rabbi Joshua Maroof said...

The midrash still has to make sense on some level. I would have responded to the original question by pointing out that while Moshe's mother and the daughter of Pharaoh both played critical roles in his salvation, the medium of the water served to hide him from Egyptian notice and capture until he was saved. This is quite different from the person in a car crash for whom the road played no part at all in his survival. In the case of Moshe, lack of appreciation for the role played by water in his salvation would actually be an OVERestimation of the actions of the two women in the story, which only succeeded because of the water and what it provided them.

Rafi said...

There's a saying in Hazal, אין משיבין על הדרוש

Rabbi Joshua Maroof said...

But Hazal didn't mean that you can't ask questions and give answers on Midrash and Aggadah; in fact, they do so regularly throughout the Talmud. What they meant, according to the Rishonim, was that we don't ask qushyot from one Midrash on another, since there is no need to assume they were meant to be harmonized.

Jr said...

Your assertion does not seem to be true. For example, see Rashba in Megillah 15a where he asks a question on an aggada, and then concludes אלא שדברי אגדה הן ואין משיבין עליהן.
His question there in not from an outside medrash that he is trying to reconcile but rather a problem within the medrash itself that he is discussing.

Rabbi Joshua Maroof said...

In the Moreh, that's what the Rambam says that the phrase means, not what you are suggesting in the name of the Rashba.

joshwaxman said...

i haven't seen the Rambam inside, but perhaps one refers to derash and the other to derush? with derash being midrash (which involves midrashic methods to discover historical truth and meaning), and derush being homiletic interpretations?

Jr said...

It seems that the the source for this phrase is unknown.
See maharatz chayes, darcei hahoraah, second cheilek
He says "לא מצאתי מקום לדברים אלו בשום מקום" , meaning in chazal

Isaacson said...

I was the one who originally posited the question and I a solution here

The basic question is assuming the midrash is telling us a homiletic ethical message it would still require an underlying philosophical understanding as to where/when to apply it.

The theory I propose is that when one uses inanimate objects in the service of God they are imbued with a sense of kedusha which requires recognition.


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