Va’eira 5777

Sticks and Stones (and Snakes)[1]

כי ידבר אלכם פרעה לאמר תנו לכם מופת ואמרת אל-אהרן קח את-מטך והלשך לפני-פרעה יהי לתנין
When Pharaoh speaks to you saying, “Present for yourselves a wonder”, say to Aharon, “Take your staff and throw it before Pharaoh, and it will become a snake”[2]

After a failed attempt to get Pharaoh to release the Jews from slavery, Hashem commands Moshe to impress Pharaoh with a miracle: Hashem will turn a staff into a snake. This perhaps would inspire him to change his mind and let the Jews go. However, the plan doesn’t seem to go as expected. The story continues[3]: ויקרא גם-פרעה לחכמים למכשפים ויעשו גם-הם חרטמי מצרים בלהטיהם כן, Pharaoh also called to his wise men, the sorcerers, and they did the same [as Aharon]. The necromancers of Egypt did it as well with their incantations. Apparently, this wasn’t such a unique ability; these experts in the occult were also able to make their staffs into snakes.

The Midrash takes this a step further[4] and says that Pharaoh’s wife came and performed the same feat. Even the schoolchildren of Egypt, as young as four and five years old came and did it[5]! The Egyptians made a mockery of Moshe and Aharon. Egypt was well known at that time for its sorcery and interest in the occult. In fact, it was the world leading contributor of all things magic[6]. What Moshe and Aharon were trying to do would be, lehavdil, the equivalent of showing a famous hockey team that you know how to skate[7]. This begs the question, what was Hashem thinking? Why did he order Moshe and Aharon to do this seemingly meaningless demonstration?

It’s possible to say regarding the staff turning into a snake, that the miracle itself wasn’t meant to impress them. Rather, it was meant to symbolize something; to send the Egyptians and Pharaoh a message[8]. But first, some background information. There is a major discussion amongst the meforshim, major commentators, to determine the reason why the Egyptians were punished for enslaving the Jews. Hashem promised Avraham: ידע תדע כי-גר יהיה זרעך בארץ לא להם ועבדום וענו אתם, you should surely know that your descendants will be strangers in a land not theirs and they will enslave and oppress them[9]. The Egyptians were simply fulfilling the prophecy! Why should they be punished? There are various approaches to this issue[10]. One approach is that the Egyptians took things too far[11]. They were decreed to enslave the Jews and make their lives miserable. But that didn’t justify the bone-crushing labor[12] and infanticide[13], which was rampant during the enslavement. They went “beyond the call of duty”, and were thus punished with the ten plagues, and in the end were crushed by the sea.

This is what was alluded to in the Hashem’s demonstration to Pharaoh. The Egyptians should have made themselves into a staff. The prophet Isaiah[14] declared: הוי אשור שבט אפי ומטה הוא בידם זעמי, Assyria is the rod of my anger, in whose hand, as a staff, is my fury. Sometimes Hashem uses the nations of the world to teach the Jews a lesson. When they fulfill His will, they are acting like a staff. A staff only does as much damage as the one swinging it wills. It cannot do more. The Egyptians, instead of acting like a staff, acted like a snake. Their damage was indiscriminate, relentless, and full of cruelty. This is why Hashem punished them, and this is the message that was delivered to Pharaoh[15].

The miracle of the staff was just the beginning. This was the prelude to the ten plagues that were about to rain (some literally) on the Egyptians. Each plague may seem to be arbitrary, but there’s tremendous depth behind each one. Studying the meforshim on Chumash and the Hagaddah can unlock all the symbolism and messages behind each stage of the Exodus. They each have powerful lessons that can apply to our own lives.

Good Shabbos

[1] Based on Be’er Yosef to Exodus 7:9-12

[2] Exodus 7:9

[3] Ibid 7:11

[4] Shemos Rabbah 9:6

[5] The Torah uses the word גם, even, twice. Chazal understood that the word גם is always including something not mentioned in the text. The wording of the Midrash seems to imply the opposite order of chiddush (novelty): that it was more impressive that Pharaoh brought out his wife than to bring out the children. The Eitz Yosef ad. loc. explains because it wasn’t common for a king to summon his queen before the people

[6] Kiddushin 49b says that ten portions of magic were brought into the world and nine of them were given to Egypt

[7] I realize the American audience won’t appreciate this simile. I used a modern equivalent of the one the Midrash loc cit. uses (it’s also found in Menachos 85a and is brought by Rashi later in the parsha by the plague of blood): תבן אתה מכניס לעפריים, you’re bringing straw to Efriim (a place abundant with straw)?

[8] Shemos Rabbah 9:3-4 provides various other approaches to the symbolism behind the miracle

[9] Genesis 15:13

[10] See Rambam’s Mishneh Torah Hilchos Teshuvah 6:5, who answers that Hashem didn’t appoint a specific person to carry out this task. Any specific Egyptian didn’t have to sign up. Since they volunteered, they were punished. See as well Hasagos HaRa’avad ad. loc. where one of his interpretations is that if the Egyptians had listened to Moshe and freed the Jews, they wouldn’t have been punished. Their insolence is what led to their downfall

[11] Ramban to Genesis loc. cit.; Hasagos HaRa’avad loc. cit. Their problem with the Rambam’s approach is whoever fulfills the will of Hashem should be rewarded. Why would volunteering be cause for punishment?

[12] Exodus 1:13

[13] Ibid verse 16

[14] Chapter 10 verse 5

[15] See Be’er Yosef loc. cit. who says based on this there’s a new understanding of the miracle that ויבלע מטה אהרן את מטותם (Exodus 7:12)