Vaera: The Nile is Mine

Copyright 2011 Neal Joseph Loevinger

Torah Portion: Vaera

Perhaps it’s warming up around here just a bit, but certainly our
haftarah this week is a “hot one.” The prophetic text associated with
the Torah portion Va’era is primarily about Egpyt- or, in Hebrew,
“Mitzrayim,” the “narrow place”- and its eventual downfall. In the
Torah portion, Moshe confronts Pharaoh and demands freedom; in our
haftarah, the prophet Yechezkel (Ezekiel) portrays Egypt as a
treacherous ally that will be punished by God in the days to come.

According to our Etz Hayim commentary, the ancient nation of Israel
tried to make an alliance with Egypt when the Babylonians were
besieging Jerusalem around 586 B.C.E. The prophet scorns those who
would place their trust in evil nations, and regards Mitzrayim as
especially arrogant:

“Thus said the Lord God:
I am going to deal with you, O Pharaoh king of Egypt,
Mighty monster, sprawling in your channels,
Who said,
My Nile is my own;
I made it for myself.” (Ezekiel 29:3)

This latter phrase is repeated a few verses later:

“And they shall know that I am the Lord — because he boasted, ‘The
Nile is mine, and I made it.’ ” (Vs. 9)

Now, we know Egypt did a terrible thing in enslaving the Israelites in
the days of Moshe, but what’s so bad about claiming “the Nile is mine,
I made it? ” Why should the prophet or anybody else care what Pharaoh
thinks about the Nile river?

To me, what’s striking about these lines is the extraordinary
arrogance of Pharaoh- here representing the nation- in believing that
somehow they made, or control, nature itself. In philosophical terms,
this is called anthropocentrism- the belief that humans are the center
of all value. To be clear: I am making no claims about what the
ancient Egyptians actually believed, and even less so does any
discussion of an ancient text bear on the modern country called Egypt.
Rather, we’re looking at what the prophet believed that Egypt
believed, and which, of course, he found highly problematic.

Yet the message of prophet is more relevant than ever: if we, as
individuals or as a society, believe that the natural world exists
only to meet our needs, if we place ourselves above the ecological web
rather than within it, surely it’s only a short step to deciding that
other people exist only to meet our needs as well. Seen this way,
Egypt/ Mitzrayim is not so much a place, but a worldview, one
concerned with power and taking, with human ego at the center of an
ethics of dominance and violence.

That is what the prophet reject: not a group of people, as such, but a
way of thinking; it’s a rejection of egocentric entitlement, which
almost inevitably leads to the question: how can others serve me?
That, in turn, precludes the really important question: how can I
serve others? If I think everything belongs to me, then I use it; if I
think that I’m a steward for others, including future generations,
then I guard and protect the earth and its inhabitants.

Pharaoh sees the world as his for the taking; the prophetic tradition
sees the world and all its relationships as gifts with the opportunity
for caring.

Shabbat Shalom,


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