The Egyptian Pharaoh received troubling news. A baby was to be born, his astronomer revealed, who would lead the enslaved Israelite nation to freedom. He was adamant to confront the threat. He commanded his men to seize the newborn babies and throw them in the Nile River.
For millennia, commentators have struggled to understand the Pharaoh’s bizarre choice. Did the repressive Egyptian regime lack ways to end life? Was there a shortage of executioners? Why choose to drown the victims?
The answer, the Rebbe suggested, lies in the location: the Nile River.
Rainfall in Egypt is almost non-existent. It was the fertile Nile that gave rise to early Egyptian civilization. Its currents regulated Egypt’s economic prosperity, and the river stood as a symbol of Egypt’s material wealth and world domination.
The Torah also hints several times to the Nile’s centricity. In Pharaoh’s dream about the upcoming famine, cows emerge from the Nile. The famine ends when Jacob blesses Pharaoh that the waters of the Nile rise toward him – undoing the basic cause of the drought. And when G-d strikes the Egyptians, the Nile is the focus of the first plague.
Pharaoh wanted to conquer the souls of the Israelites. He wanted to drown them in the materialism that Egypt represented, to forget their moral standing in the face of possible economic success. It was more than a punishment; it was a message that their best future lie in Egypt, the epicenter of materialism, and that they needn’t seek the spirituality they experienced elsewhere. Therefore, he chose the Nile.
Jewish tradition teaches that the stories of our sojourn in Egypt serve as a lesson for our people in every exile they experience.
In an era when Jews experience immense economic success, when all doors are open and the possibilities are endless – that is the time to pause and reflect: Are we drowning in the Nile? Have we fully adopted Pharaoh’s message?
The Jewish attitude to life has always been one of family first, career second. In traditional Yiddish, there is no proper word for career; one makes a parnassah, a livelihood to support one’s family and allow them to grow in Jewish traditions. The best gift we could give our children is the message that the most important thing in their lives is to raise a Jewish family, and that should guide even the economic aspects of their lives.
The answer isn’t to jump out of the water. We just need to learn how to swim.
Rabbi Mendy Greenberg is the spiritual leader of Twinsburg Chabad, which he founded along with his wife, Mussie, in 2017.