parshat vaera (exodus 7)
Join Geoffrey Stern and Rabbi Adam Mintz recorded on Clubhouse on December 30th 2021 as we use an innocuous reference in Rabbinic Literature to Pharaoh’s personal hygiene to explore the unique disposition of Judaism to the physical body and bodily functions and contrast it to other religions and cultures.
Sefaria Source Sheet: www.sefaria.org/sheets/372485
Welcome to Madlik. My name is Geoffrey Stern and at Madlik we light a spark with shed some light on a Jewish text or tradition. We also host Madlik Disruptive Torah on clubhouse every Thursday at 8pm. Eastern. And this week with Rabbi Adam Mintz, we learn that old King Pharaoh not only had a hard heart, but he also had bowel issues. We use this discovery to explore the unique disposition of Judaism to bodily functions and contrast it with other religions and cultures. So join us as we follow Moses down to the Nile and record our episode entitled, holy crap.
Geoffrey Stern 00:47
Well, welcome everybody, hope I didn't scare you away with a little bathroom humor and talk about something that we don't normally talk about, we do joke about a lot. We are going to focus on a very, esoteric comment that the rabbi's make about one verse in this week's parsha. But I do think that it will open up discussions not only regarding the subject matter, which is what is Judaism's approach to body and bodily functions, but also maybe focus on what Egypt represented. So I think it is, while small and trivial. It does relate to the bigger picture of Exodus and Egypt. So we begin on Exodus, chapter 7, verse 15. And it says, "Go to Pharaoh in the morning, as he is coming out to the water, and station yourself before him at the edge of the Nile, taking with you the rod that turned into a snake." So this is the beginning of the first of the plagues. And Moses is instructed to go down by the Nile because surely he will meet the Pharaoh bathing in the Nile. So Rashi, quoting the Midrash says as follows. "He went unto the water to ease himself, for he claimed to be a god and asserted that because of his divine power, he did not need to ease himself. And therefore he used to rise early and go to the Nile. And there eased himself in secret." So as we shall see there is not much in the Toba that relates to the bodily function, relieving oneself, even though it seems and if you google this, you'll find a lot of material. Jews love to joke about bodily functions and moving their bowels. So even that could be a good question to to begin our discussion today. But Rabbi, what is your impression of this? And before I let you speak, I do think that there's very little in Exodus that talks about the Egyptian religion. You know, we talk about them as taskmasters, as oppressors, in previous weeks, we've talked about their eating habits and their diet. But in terms of what Egypt is famous for the pyramids.... building these major edifices for a life to come and the Jews were they are building it, there's very little mention of what the belief was of the ancient Egyptians. And is this an opportunity to jump in?
Adam Mintz 03:46
It might be I mean, my question, Geoffrey, is what leads Rashi to say what he says, the Torah doesn't say it. Why does Rashi feel the need to kind of add that Midrashic twist to this?
Geoffrey Stern 04:01
Well, I think and as I was reading it, I was thinking this, he says, go to Pharaoh in the morning. And [laughs] I don't want to lower the level of the discussion to Jewish jokes, but the first thing you do in the morning is you move your bowels. But besides that, I think it's a very good question. And it's almost as though the commentary and it's not Rashi. As I said before, this same story is, is even mentioned in a little bit more detail in both the Midrash Tanchuma and Shemot Rabba. The Jewish sources saw it there. So I think the question can be reflexive as well, which is what did they see? Or what were they attempting to say? But I think it's a good question.
Adam Mintz 04:55
Yeah, no, it's a very, very good question. You know, but I'm just kind of I'm distinguishing between that which is explicit in the Torah, and that which, which is Midrashric. And there's a basic rule. And that is that the Midrash if it elaborates on something, that's not explicit in the Torah, there's a reason for it. It's trying to teach us something. And I wonder here, what it's trying to teach us. That's what I'm raising what they're trying to teach us. What is the Midrash, adding, that is important for us to know.
Geoffrey Stern 05:32
So let's parse it a little. First of all, it says that Pharaoh claimed to be a god in Russia, his version, it doesn't give any commentary in the Midrash, it says, Pharaoh Harasha, the evil one. So it's almost saying, putting him down, but he claimed to be a god. And that's one thing that the rabbis could want to point out. Another thing that they could want to point out is that gods don't defecate and that was an assumption that was made. And they don't seem to be arguing with that. So that raises the question of, well, what about we humans, who are spiritual beings created in the image of God... What does that say about us? So I don't think I'm answering your question. I do think that anyone who has studied the Talmud and the Jewish texts know that the rabbi's love to use any excuse to talk about what's on their mind, and this seems to be what was on their mind that morning.
Adam Mintz 06:43
So if you parse Geoffrey, there really are two things. One is the issue of Pharaoh thinking that he's a god. Now, that obviously is very important in the story. Because Moses and Aaron going before Pharaoh, it's a different story, if they go before, the king, who's just the king, or the King, who actually thinks that what he's doing is what is god doing? I mean, it gives a lot more, it adds, I think, something to the story, it also gives a lot more Chutzpa to Moses and Aaron, they're actually confronting a God, Hey, that's pretty impressive that they're willing to confront a god isn't it?
Geoffrey Stern 07:22
So I think that's a great point. And I think what that resonates with me is that we always think that if someone says they're a God, they're literally a god. But because the Egyptians are in a world of polytheism, and there are many levels of the Divine retinue, if you will, you know, there are points of that we've read in previous parshiot that says that Aaron will be the spokesman and Moses will be like a god. (Exodus 7:1) So even to the Egyptians speaking in their language, so to speak, it does imply that if one has certain divine powers, if one has certain levels of spirituality, one could be considered a god. And if that's the case, then that really raises the level of my question, which is where do the rabbis stand on this? So that can you be god-like, and maybe that's what I'm trying to say? That saying that Pharaoh was a god could also be intended to mean he was god-like, as Moses was god-like, and there are verses that say that. And so therefore, what is the rabbi's opinion? And how do they react to this contradiction between a God who has an anus so to speak,
Adam Mintz 08:54
Right.... So that already is very interesting. And that is that Pharaoh is godlike. But it's almost as if the Midrash is making fun of him. How can it be a god because he defecates and therefore he's not really a god? We would say he's a god in his own mind, right? But that doesn't really mean very much. And haha, Moses caught him when he went out to see him in the morning, because he saw him being not a god.
Geoffrey Stern 09:28
So so there's a book that I read. It was published in the 60s or 70s, by a guy named Ernest Becker, who was a psychologist, and it's called The Denial of Death. And we'll get back to it a little more. He spends a lot of time on focusing on. This, this this chasm, this really dialectic between being a spiritual being and being a physical creaturely being And he says "excreting is the curse that threatens madness, because it shows man his abject finitude, his physicalness, the likely unreality of his hopes and dreams." And I'm just wondering whether the rabbi's were at all touching upon this issue of can we be godlike? And at the same time, can we be as physical as we are creating... Every day, every morning, every time we go to the bathroom a physical sign of our decay and death, if you will, Elise, what can you say?
Elise Meyer 10:45
So, okay, what I wanted to say is, um, like, the presumption that Pharaoh thought he was god, he was God to the people and to him, I mean, the, the pharaohs were believed to be gods on Earth, as other civilizations have that human deity kind of connections. So,
Geoffrey Stern 11:10
So there are gradations is what you're saying that for us, when you say God, we automatically think about one absolute being, but for the other polytheistic and in other religions that including the Egyptians, there were gradations.
Elise Meyer 11:31
Right... intercessive rulers.
Geoffrey Stern 11:34
Absolutely. And I think from that perspective, you could easily come away from this saying that the rabbi's were in, in basic agreement, that if you are truly a god, you can't crap. But I would love to explore how this plays out in In Jewish tradition a little bit, because I actually think that Judaism has a very unique approach to this. And one of the ways that we can find that approach is by studying other religions and other cultures, so I want to jump a little bit forward. You've probably all heard of the Dead Sea Scrolls. And you've probably heard that the people who are some of the people that might have written the Dead Sea Scrolls are called Essenes. And they lived in the Dead Sea. They were ascetics, they moved out of the urban areas they lived outside. Maybe John the Baptist was one they used to go into the mikvah into the purifying baths a lot. But Josephus has tells us something very strange about them. And Josephus us in the Jewish Wars says that they "not only do they abstain from seventh, day work more rigidly than any other Jews, for not only do they prepare their meals the previous day so as to avoid lighting a fire on the Sabbath. But they do not venture to remove any utensil or go and ease themselves." So he raises this thing that has really tantalized archaeologists for years looking for where the bathroom so to speak, where the Essenes are. Archaeologists have discovered that possibly the Essenes didn't eat on Friday so that they wouldn't have to ease themselves on Shabbat. When he refers to cooking on Shabbat. Our understanding today is they took the concept of a fire to the extreme, they sat in the darkness, they didn't believe you could even have light. So there's no question that they took what ultimately became Rabbinic Judaism and biblical structure. They took it way to the extreme. But the fascinating thing about what Josephus has says is that you had to go through a year-long orientation. And once you were accepted into the Essenes, they are gave you a loincloth, white garments, and a shovel to bury your feces. So this was something that was absolutely important to them. But important to the point where they had to defecate outside of the camp. There are scrolls in the Dead Sea scrolls that said that they believed you could not defecate within Jerusalem. They had a real problem with bodily function. And I think that as we transverse and move to what the Jewish position was on these things, you can't look at it from a vacuum. There were many ways that we could have gone. But this always seemed to be just so fascinating to me.
Adam Mintz 15:07
That is fascinating. What you make of that is the fact that defecating was something that was considered to be unholy. That actually is in line with the Midrash. That a god doesn't defecate, that works out well with the tradition we have in this week's parsha. It doesn't deal with Pharaoh. But it actually deals with defecation, which shows that we're human. And that's the piece that has to be done outside the camp. That's the unholy, part.
Geoffrey Stern 15:39
So I think you're absolutely right. And I think Rabbi, we have to be honest, the only reason why you and I are going down this road is we know of an amazing prayer. It's a prayer that the rabbi's created. That one says after one takes care of one's needs and leaves the bathroom. And I spent the last week while I was preparing for this, googling prayers, for bodily functions. And I couldn't find any from any cultures and I invite anybody...... There is an Islamic prayer that I found. It says "Praise be Allah Who relieved me of the filth and gave me relief." But other than that, I could not find any culture or religion that identifies moving one's bowels as a moment that required some sort of benediction, and by way of a benediction, some form of illumination. So I'm just going to read the prayer that we say it's called "Asher Yatzar" Who has created us, it's said, as I said, after one leaves out the bathroom, it is also said every morning, we get back to that morning trigger, that this is what one does when one wakes up in the morning. And it says "Blessed are you Adonai our God, King of the universe, who formed man with wisdom and created within him openings and hollows. It is obvious and known in the presence of your glorious throne, that if one of them were ruptured, or if one of them were blocked, it would be impossible to exist and stand in your presence, even for a short while. Blessed are you Adonai who heals all flesh and performs wonders." Now, before we discuss it, it's much more poetic in the Hebrew when it talks about openings and hollows. In the Hebrew it's Nikavim Nikavim, Halulim Halulim, those of you who know the Torah knows, when it is emphatic about something, if it wants you to follow justice, it says Tzedek Tzedek Tirdof, it says the word twice. If it wants you to heal somebody it says heal twice. And I have to think of Carl Sagan also. "Billions and billions and billions". These words are poetic, lyrical, but they are absolutely celebrating the myriad of valves and canals and vessels and veins in the human body. What is your thought of this prayer Rabbi Do you also think it's very unique?
Adam Mintz 18:45
It is absolutely unique and it shows the kind of the inside of the rabbis appreciating that we need to thank God for everything. And there's nothing that's out of the realm of what we need to thank God for. And anyone who's ever had trouble with, you know, the Nikavim Nikavim, Halulim Halulim... all of that understands and appreciates why we have to thank God for all of that.
Geoffrey Stern 19:12
And fascinatingly, it doesn't, it doesn't hide from the fact that we're doing all this so that we can stand in Your presence even for a short while. "L'amod Lifanecha afilu sha'a echat", in a sense, it's it's not ignoring our humanity, and the fact that we are born and we die, and all of that, and, and the other part of it is getting back to what Becker was saying about this dichotomy, this schism, this dialectic between the physical nature in our in our very human mortal animal created nature. The next prayer that we say in the morning is "Elokai Nishama s'natata bi" thanking God for the soul that God has given us that is pure. "You created it, you formed it, you breathed it into me and you preserve it within me, you will eventually take it from me and restore it to me in the time to come." So I don't think that the rabbis are even ignoring the dichotomy. They're actually addressing it straight on, which is fascinating.
Adam Mintz 20:29
Absolutely fascinating. There's no apology, generally speaking, the rabbi's don't apologize.
Geoffrey Stern 20:35
So the question is, how did the World see this blessing? Did it see it as we're talking about it today is something unique and fascinating or not? So I came across when I was studying philosophy, and I came across an early essay by Karl Marx, and it's the subject matter was The Jewish Problem. He is very much of a self-hating Jew in many senses. And he writes the following. "The monotheism of the Jew, therefore, is in reality, the polytheism of the many needs, a polytheism, which makes even the laboratory and object of Divine Law. Practical need. egoism is the principle of civil society." And he goes on and on, and basically, he's making the argument of the grubby Jew. And it's interesting from a number of aspects. Number one, how learned was Marx that he knew about this prayer. Number two, did he make this up himself? Was this a widespread canard of those who looked upon this strange process of making this blessing? Have you Rabbi or anyone in the audience ever come across any anti-semitic tropes or other ways that this prayer, if you're aware of the prayer has been used both for or against the Jews?
Adam Mintz 22:17
I have not. But that would be amazing if we could find something. Did you look around a little bit?
Geoffrey Stern 22:24
I googled it. I did. Because it's hard to believe that Marx would come up with something like this in our zone. Right? You know, he's basically repeating tropes that have maligned the Jews before. So it is fascinating. But of course, when you see something like this, it's kind of a reality check that makes you say, Look, maybe it's not just me, who says that this prayer is so unique and illuminating. It compares, in very iconic way against what the Essenes took to be the divine, the concept of the Divine. It's, it's taken by a MOCs, and he sees it at this. It just seems to me that Judaism as a whole has a very different and I would suggest even healthy perspective on and we can talk about bodily functions, but what we're all ultimately talking about is the body. What makes us an animal what makes us a living, breathing creature with needs?
Adam Mintz 23:45
Yeah, I think that that's absolutely fantastic. I mean, I don't think that it's an anti-Jewish trope. I mean, I actually think that this shows, you know, this shows kind of the sensitivity of the rabbis. I always compare this to the idea of Shiva. You know, if you read .... you were talking about Becker's book, The Denial of Death, when you talk when you read books about death, and how sensitive the rabbinic tradition is, by having the idea of Shiva, you see that Judaism, that the rabbis were willing to address the hard parts of life, that just not just the easy parts of life, and going to the bathroom and sitting Shiva are all parts of the hard parts of life. And they're willing to deal with that, which I think is amazing.
Geoffrey Stern 24:32
And it's amazing when they deal with it in a way that one doesn't expect because what I gather from this prayer and the juxtaposition of it in the morning to another prayer that celebrates the soul is that it is a real celebration of the human body as a physical, decaying, finite body. And you know, those of you who have been listening to Madlik for a while know that I'm very cynical about an early Israelite, ancient Hebrew concept of a world to come, which is never mentioned, of either a world after death or eschatological world in some time in the future, it just seems to be very much "Shamayim al ha'aretz" that this is as good as it gets, it's "heaven on earth". This is this is the way it is. But here, you do see this concept of dividing between a soul and a body. The soul is almost on loan, so to speak. But there's no question that who I am, who is the I in I, it is as much my physical body as it is my soul and somehow the rabbi's and Judaism have been able to navigate this maybe with a strong touch of humor, as well. And maybe that's where I did Google "bathroom humor and Jews". And it's a very popular discussion, I can tell you, there's, there's something about Jewish humor that relates to this subject, and maybe, you know, with humor, there's the addressing things that make ill at ease.
Adam Mintz 26:19
Did they did they give kind of a history of Jewish bathroom humor? Like, why do Jews have bathroom humor?
Geoffrey Stern 26:28
You know, again, I found I found some antisemitic stuff coming from where we come from, not a big surprise, but on the positive aspect. If anything, it was a little bit of what I'm discussing today, which is a very healthy perspective on the physicality of who we are.
Adam Mintz 26:50
So they're very positive about it.
Geoffrey Stern 26:52
I think that there are a lot of very positive comments about it. And and, you know, there's this, this thing of aging, too, you know, there used to be a website called "Old Jewish Men Tell Jokes". You know, the fact that we call an older person in pretty much every language, whether it's an "old fart", or an "AlterKaker". All of those words have to do with this being able to control one's body that we ultimately lose as we get older. And so maybe it also has to do with a healthy perspective on aging. And as I said before, you can't look at humor without looking at a very powerful tool for addressing things that are beyond our power to address.
Adam Mintz 27:46
I think that's good. I mean, I think It's amazing that what is basically a Midrash on this week's parsha turns into this gigantic topic, about how Jewish tradition and how the rabbis deal with things that most traditions, even most religious traditions, are generally afraid to deal with, and have euphemisms for it. Now, Judaism also has euphemisms. But it doesn't seem like in this regard, they really have euphemisms. They say it as it is, don't they?.
Geoffrey Stern 28:23
They do they do. And as someone who studies, the Talmud, you know, there's so much involved with bodily functions a lot has to do with the laws of purity. This case, not so much. But it's a very down to earth approach. That can sometimes be a little bit. I don't know the right word "numbing"? But on the other hand, if you if you look at it, if you look at the fact that Rabbinic Judaism, for sure, gets involved in the details of every minutia and small part of life. It does say something loud and clear that no manifesto and no mission statement could, which is the minutiae of our lives matter to us. The fact that all lives are not static, but that there's a beginning, a middle and an end, is not something that we ignore. You're talking this Shabbat about how Moses and Aaron took on this job very late in their life. There is no question that Judaism focuses at the different stages of life. And that each one is different. And it just is kind of fascinating, because it also mixes that up with with the spiritual.
Adam Mintz 29:51
Yeah, I think that's great. This is a this is a great topic. It really gives us something to think about. And what's really great about it is it's not the usual topic for Vayera... the usual topic of Vayera talks about the plagues and talks about Moses and Aaron and Pharaoh. And here we found something that really talks about something in a much bigger light. And it's a nice way to end the year and to begin a new year to understand how pervasive Judaism... Rabbinic Judaism is in so many different aspects. So thank you, Geoffrey, for this amazing topic. Thank you, everybody, for joining us. We have a really nice crew that joined us tonight. Happy New Year to everybody. Shabbat shalom. And we look forward to seeing you next week, as we lead the Jews out of Egypt with Parshat Bo, Shabbat Shalom,
Geoffrey Stern 30:39
Shabbat shalom, Rabbi, and I would just like to say that I started by saying that we spend all this time in Exodus looking at Egypt, but we don't really talk about the pyramids and the whole religion based on an afterlife. And so it off-subject but it's very much on subject. And as we approach a new year, we all want to leave behind all our pyramids, our Sphinx is our monuments... a sign that we were on this earth, and I think that we share with all humanity. And the question is where we find it. And I bless all of us, that we find it in all the right places and I invite any of you who want to stay on and talk casually in the after-party to do so. But otherwise, Shabbat Shalom and happy new year and the mic is open land. Michael?
Michael Stern 31:36
Well, you really made me love the Jewish people today. Because, you know, poop is the baby's first creation. And I've read psychologists who say that, that's the first creation, and then the baby watches it being washed down and annihilated and disappear. And their first creation, they lose. And then America is constipated, go to any CVS or Walgreens, there's a whole aisle for constipation. So something has gone wrong with our appreciation of the addressing it like us have taught us that the Jews address this whole process. And I also liked when the rabbi talked about Shiva and death because "dust to dust", there's nothing really dirty about our poop. It is in fact fertilizer. And today in sustainable living, one doesn't flush it down, one takes their bucket and makes a pile like manure. And this is a gift back to the earth. So I just think our Jewish people were really right on and thanks for bringing up this subject. Really healing subjects for our world today.
Geoffrey Stern 33:09
Well, thank you so much. So Michael Posnik. Welcome back to the Bima. How are you today?
Michael Posnik 33:17
It's good to be here. Thank you very much for this discussion. A number of things have come to mind during the discussion, including the odd phrase, "Let my people go". [laugh] And it seems that one could say from a psychological or point of view that Pharaoh is anal retentive character. He wants to hold on to whatever he's holding on to. And he's being invited to let go a little bit. So the other thing that came to mind was that this was an opportunity for Moshe to see Pharaoh as a human being acting like a human being defecating like a human being. And it seems to me if you'll forgive the expression, it gives him a "leg up" in the future conversations. He also grew up in the palace of Pharaoh. So basically, he knows that Pharaoh is not; quote a god. He's a man playing that role. So when he's invited to see that the future conversations that he's going to have with Pharaoh would take a very different turn if he thought he was talking to a god. So, just a thought.
Geoffrey Stern 34:38
I love that. Let my people go. I won't. I won't say it the same way again for the rest of my life. Thank you for that.
Michael Posnik 34:47
Thank you Geoffrey. Shabbat Shalom.
Geoffrey Stern 34:49
Shabbat Shalom. Yeah, and as I intimated, we talk a lot about God hardening the heart of Pharaoh, but this was a different aspect of him that we might not necessarily think about. But I think you're absolutely correct that he was anal. In this regard, he is the definition of anal. And so it really, in that one moment of him as a person and has is him as a nation, not permitting the Jewish people, this people of slaves to go. He is the personification of what is all bad about being anal and trying to control things, right.
Michael Posnik 35:37
And Moshe has just come from meeting with God. And so that beautiful phrase at the end of the prayer, that I'm not able to stand in front of you in your presence, Moses was in the presence of a God.
Geoffrey Stern 35:56
I would just like to conclude with one more paragraph from Ernest Becker that I really liked. It says anality explains why men yearn for freedom from contradictions and ambiguities, why they like their symbols pure, their truth with a capital T. The upsetting thing about anality is that it reveals that all culture all man's creative life ways are in some basic part of them, a fabricated protest against natural reality, a denial of the truth of the human condition and an attempt to forget the pathetic creature that man is", and ultimately, every faith system and every romance and every ideal is basically saying, Yes, I know I am that creature, and I know that the world is full of contradictions and ambiguities, but I embrace them. I'm not afraid of them. And I can live with that contradiction. So let's all have a wonderful new year. That is full of contradictions, but we are up to it. We are up to the ambiguities, and we can make beauty from it. So Shabbat Shalom and Happy New Year to you all
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Listen to last week’s episode: Moses – Reluctant Magician