The other day, I was scrolling through my newsfeed, when I saw a rather striking link someone had posted about an art exhibit depicting various world leaders sitting on the toilet. Besides for being quite obviously visually provocative, it occurred to me that in a bit of “hashgacha pratis”, this link was actually very relevant to a medrash on this week’s parsha.
To introduce the first of the 10 plagues, that of blood, Moshe is told by God (Shemot, 7:15):
לֵךְ אֶל פַּרְעֹה בַּבֹּקֶר הִנֵּה יֹצֵא הַמַּיְמָה וְנִצַּבְתָּ לִקְרָאתוֹ עַל שְׂפַת הַיְאֹר וְהַמַּטֶּה אֲשֶׁר נֶהְפַּךְ לְנָחָשׁ תִּקַּח בְּיָדֶךָ
Go to Pharaoh in the morning; behold, he is going forth to the water, and you shall stand opposite him on the bank of the Nile, and the staff that was turned into a serpent you shall take in your hand.
So, we may ask, why is it important that Moshe go to him in the morning, by the river? Additionally, the language is a little interesting. Go down to the river and, behold! Pharoah’s gonna be there! There seems to be an element of the unexpected in Pharaoah being there at that particular time.
Rashi, quoting the medrash, is sensitive to these linguistic nuances, and puts forth this interpretation, which seems to me a justifiable peshat:
הנה יצא המימה: לנקביו, שהיה עושה עצמו אלוה ואומר שאינו צריך לנקביו ומשכים ויוצא לנילוס ועושה שם צרכיו
behold, he is going forth to the water: to relieve himself, for he had proclaimed himself a god and said that he did not need to relieve himself; so, early in the morning he went out to the Nile and there he would perform his needs. — [from Mid. Tanchuma, Va’era 14; Exod. Rabbah 9:8]
Many of you no doubt have heard this explanation before, because its a favorite of grade school teachers desperate to get the fickle attention spans of 8 year olds. It also made its way into “The Interview” as a running gag about the mythology Kim Jong-Un puts up around himself, which makes me think there was some Jewish guy in the writers room. But it seems to me that there is actually an interesting point to be made about this interpretation.
Let us ask, why would it be a problem if Pharaoah, as an alleged deity, went to the bathroom? Certainly our own objections to such an idea as impossible for an incorporeal God would not have applied to the polytheism of Ancient Egypt. Nor would such an idea be particularly morally troubling, either because going to the bathroom is a morally neutral act, (and possibly a positive one, if health is considered morally positive), or from the fact the Egyptian gods particularly moral individuals.
Rather, the problem raised by going for the bathroom for Pharaoh is that it is unseemly for a god, a religiously significant figure, to be involved in activities so mundane and so human. Religion, to Pharaoh, is primarily concerned with the greatness and awesome power of the gods, and devotion and worship thereof. For religion to get involved in the mundane and nitty-gritty details of daily life, of going to the bathroom, and perhaps, by extension, the way one treats one’s slaves, is immaterial to the religious pursuit. Religion, to Pharaoh, is an obligation primarily to Gods that is discharged on special occasions, not something that guides the way one acts in his daily life. He can go to the temple, offer his sacrifice, and order the subjugation of an entire people without any contradiction.
Moshe, by surprising Pharaoh during his morning bathroom break, is not just breaking the mythology around Pharaoh, he is making an ideological point about religion. Your religion may see your mundane activities as incommensurate with religiosity, your religion may allow to enslave and oppress an entire people as long as it does not impede your worship, but in our religion, there is no such divide. Your daily life is not just religiously relevant, but it is of the primary importance that you not just come to Shul on shabbos and hear a sermon, but live your life guided by religious principles and religious law, including, yes, halachos of going to the bathroom. You cannot hide yourself from the nitty-gritty details, you cannot have a split personality of your religious self and your day-to-day self, you cannot secretly go to the bathroom in the morning and proclaim yourself divine in the afternoon.
There is a quote attributed to the Kotzker that was apparently a favorite of R. Yehuda Amital’s, on the passuk, (Tehillim 115:16) ” הַשָּׁמַיִם שָׁמַיִם, לַיהוָה; וְהָאָרֶץ, נָתַן לִבְנֵי-אָדָם, The Heaven belongs to God but the earth belongs to humanity” The Kotzker speaking for God, says: “Angels, I have enough of. What I want is human beings!” God wants us not to be angels, not belonging to this earth, with a religion that concerns itself only with matters of spirituality. He wants human beings, with all our flaws and all our temporality, both our physical and spiritual selves, to involve themselves totally in the work of perfecting the world he placed us in.