The first three of the ten plagues were performed by Aaron and not by Moses to show Moses’ gratitude (hakarat hatov הקרת הטוב ) to the water; which saved him as an infant in a basket and to the soil; previously used to dispose of the Egyptian slave-master Moses slew.
The Lord said to Moses, “Say to Aaron, ‘Take your staff and stretch forth your hand over the waters of Egypt, over their rivers, over their canals, over their ponds, and over all their bodies of water, and they will become blood, and there will be blood throughout the entire land of Egypt, even in wood and in stone.’ (Exodus 7: 19)
וַיֹּאמֶר יְהֹוָה אֶל משֶׁה אֱמֹר אֶל אַהֲרֹן קַח מַטְּךָ וּנְטֵה יָדְךָ עַל מֵימֵי מִצְרַיִם
עַל נַהֲרֹתָם עַל יְאֹרֵיהֶם וְעַל אַגְמֵיהֶם וְעַל כָּל מִקְוֵה מֵימֵיהֶם
וְיִהְיוּ דָם וְהָיָה דָם בְּכָל אֶרֶץ מִצְרַיִם וּבָעֵצִים וּבָאֲבָנִים:
Rashi: Say to Aaron: Since the Nile protected Moses when he was cast into it, it therefore was not smitten by him, neither with blood nor with frogs, but was smitten by Aaron. [from Tanchuma, Va’era 14]
אמר אל אהרן
לפי שהגין היאור על משה כשנשלך לתוכו, לפיכך לא לקה על ידו לא בדם ולא בצפרדעים, ולקה על ידי אהרן
See also Rashi to Exodus 8: 12
Say to Aaron It was inappropriate for the dust to be smitten through Moses since it had protected him when he slew the Egyptian and had hidden him in the sand. [Therefore,] it was smitten through Aaron [instead]. [from Tanchuma, Va’era 14, Exod. Rabbah 10:7]
אמר אל אהרן
לא היה העפר כדאי ללקות על ידי משה לפי שהגין עליו כשהרג את המצרי ויטמנהו בחול ולקה על ידי אהרן
While gratitude is certainly a wonderful thing, showing gratitude to inanimate objects such as water and soil smacks of animism. Was not Abraham’s great achievement that he rejected the worship of the stars and of wood and stone (See Maimonides Laws of Worshiping the Stars Chapter 1) and recognized a singular higher authority?
It’s infantile to “make nice” to an object which is helpful and hit a “bad” table after we stub our toe on it. If idolatry is ultimately misplaced faith, then showing gratitude to a clump of soil is misplaced affection if not outright idolatry. Since it was God who dictated that Moses not show a lack of gratitude, Moses can certainly be forgiven (as he was not forgiven many years later when he hit a rock without such a commend), but why sanction animism in the first place?
I am reminded of the wonderful story attributed to the founder of the Musar Movement, Rabbi. Yisrael Salanter who was invited to the home of a wealthy Jew for the Sabbath meal. When the man of the house was about to recite the Kiddush, he realized that the two Challah loaves had not been properly covered. In front of Salanter and the gathered guests, he shouted to his wife that she had neglected to cover the challah. After an embarrassed wife rectified the travesty, Salanter asked his host if he knew why it was customary to cover the loaves. The host replied, “Sure… every heder (kindergarten) child knows that you cover the challah so as not to embarrass it, since on weekdays bread is blessed at the start of every meal and on the Sabbath it takes second billing to the Kiddush wine”. Salanter replied “You fool, you should only listen to your own words. You have embarrassed your wife so as not to embarrass an inanimate loaf of bread. I’m sorry but the food in your house is not kosher.” And he left.
Moses’ show of respect for the water and soil and Salanter’s understanding of the true meaning of kosher certification are good bookends for 3,000 years of Jewish ritual observance. .. maybe, taking a license from Hillel we can suggest that the rest is commentary.
We need to acknowledge that every ritual act proscribed or prescribed in the Hebrew Bible is in a sense the assignation of holiness or taboo to an act that is human.. not divine. There are numerous examples of inanimate objects which in the Bible and by the command of God are invested with spiritual power; positive or negative (Kadosh, Tahor, Tamei) otherwise known as a system of Totem or Taboo… one could argue that all of ritual is nothing more than vesting an action or an object with misplaced holiness or profanity.
But if we follow the trail from the first three plagues to Salanter’s redefinition of kashrut, the message is clear and consistent. In the service of a higher good, the God of the Hebrew Bible can tolerate, condone or even prescribe activities that may include elements of misplaced-faith and animism similar to those found in idol worship. It’s called “talking in the language of man”. דברה תורה כלשון בני אדם (Sifre, Num. 112). It may be that we are actually invited to ignore all the layers of theology, legalism and learning and react at a primal level when it comes to gratitude and respect for the dignity of our fellow man or woman.
What the Hebrew Bible, especially the Book of Exodus, has zero tolerance for is indifference to the suffering of others and hard heartedness. In the service of teaching Gratitude – recognition of the good that we receive, the Bible may turn a blind eye to the most primal and primitive rituals or superstitions.
The only act which is totally taboo… not-Kosher, is a ritual… an act in the name of God which shows a lack of gratitude (כפר בטוב kofer baTov literally: “denier of what is good” where kofer has the sense of a heretical denial cf arab kāfir non-believer) or sensitivity to the suffering of another.
When, in Genesis (3: 12) after eating from the forbidden fruit, Adam answers God “The woman whom You gave [to be] with me she gave me of the tree; so I ate.” Rashi comments:
“Here he [Adam] showed his ingratitude. [from Avodah Zarah 5b]” כאן כפר בטובה
In the haggadah the wicked son asks “what does this meant to you” saying “you” in such a way that it is clear he lacks all sensitivity to the suffering of his people and has no gratitude for what was done to save them. This son is tagged as a kofer be’ikar; a denier of the basic principle of our faith.
The Pirkei D’Rabbi Eliezer [Chapter 7] writes, “There is nothing harder for the Almighty to live with (as it were) than an ungrateful person.” And brings the example of Adam’s lack of gratitude for the gift of Eve.
The Midrash continues that our ancestors in the Wilderness also angered God with their failure to recognize His Goodness towards them. They bemoaned the loss of the “good old days” in Egypt when they had melons, cucumbers, and garlic, and complained about the Manna bread.
The Midrash equates the sin of ingratitude with fundamental theological denial (kefira b’Ikar) of the Almighty. One who is ungrateful towards his fellow man is ultimately ungrateful towards the Almighty as well. (quoted by Yissocher Frand)
In the service of denying the suffering of others or of ingratitude, there is no ritual, theology, ideology or lip-service to piety that the Almighty will tolerate.
Thank God for that…