Parshas Vaeira - Are You A Staff Or A Snake (Article and Audio at the end)
Updated: Jan 12, 2021
"The Lord spoke to Moses and Aaron, saying,"When Pharaoh speaks to you, saying, 'Provide a sign for yourselves,' you shall say to Aaron, 'Take your staff, [and] cast [it] before Pharaoh; it will become a serpent.' "[Thereupon,] Moses and Aaron came to Pharaoh, and they did so, as the Lord had commanded; Aaron cast his staff before Pharaoh and before his servants, and it became a serpent.[Then,] Pharaoh too summoned the wise men and the magicians, and the necromancers of Egypt also did likewise with their magic. Each one of them cast down his staff, and they became serpents; but Aaron's staff swallowed their staffs." (Shemos 7:8-12)
It is interesting to note that the Torah doesn’t say Arons snake swallowed the snakes of the Egyptian sorcerers but rather that Arons staff swallowed their staffs. The Medrash Rabba picks up on the subtlety of this nuanced language and explains that Arons snake had returned to its original staff form before swallowing the other snakes. Had Arons snake merely swallowed the other snakes this would not have been much of a miracle as it is the natural order for one snake to swallow another. By turning back into a staff before swallowing the other snakes it was clear that the might of Hashem was greater than any power the sorcerers of Mitzrayim could conjure up.
The Torah is not simply a collection of stories. It is an eternal lesson that we must always learn from. While this is certainly a miraculous story, one where the clear implication is that God’s power is infinite, what lesson can we learn from this? How does this story translate into an actionable service that we can perform for God in this world?
You're Nothing Special
“Hashem said to Moshe and Aharon, saying “When Pharaoh speaks to you saying ‘Provide a wonder for yourselves,’ you shall say to Aharon, ‘Take your staff and cast it down before Pharaoh – it will become a snake’”
Why is Hashem so sure that Pharaoh will ask to see a miracle? Is it because God is all knowing and is telling them the future? What message Hashem is sending Pharaoh by having him throw down his staff so that it will become a snake? Is this such a powerful miracle that surely Pharaoh will then let Klal Yisrael go, indeed his own sorcerers were able to replicate it?
However, more puzzling than any of the questions we have asked is, we don’t find that Pharaoh ever asks Moshe to provide a sign??? Is Hashem chas vishalom wrong? Why is he preparing Moshe for something that would never happen?
In order to understand the deeper message we must take a step back. We often view the conversations between Moshe and Pharaoh on a surface level. Moshe said let my people go and Pharaoh refused. In truth there is much more to these conversations. Pharaoh was an intelligent man with thoughtful objections to Moshe’s plea. I would like to suggest that Pharaoh’s objection to Moshe was, what makes Klal Yisrael worthy of leaving Mitzrayim and serving Hashem? Pharoah looks at this enslaved nation and sees nothing miraculous about them. Indeed we could argue that Pharaoh may have even wondered, if this nation is so beloved by God, why would he allow them to be enslaved by me in the first place?
Pharaoh never asked Moshe to provide him with a miracle to prove his worthiness but Hashem tells Moshe that this is what is really going on behind the scenes. Hashem is revealing to Moshe the inner nature of the challenge that would lie ahead of him. How can Moshe communicate to Pharoah (and by extension to Klal Yisrael now and for every future generation to come) that Klal Yisrael is worthy of redemption? In fact, Pharaohs claim is echoed throughout history. The Jews were the chosen nation but now they have been replaced. God would not allow a chosen nation to suffer so immensely. Because of the many sins of the Jews they are no longer beloved to God. These are just some of the many claims that we Jews have heard throughout history. What is our response?
Impacted By Our Surroundings
A staff in the Torah represents more than just a walking stick. It is an instrument of leadership. A Jew is meant to be a leader in this world. It is our responsibility to teach the world about the one true God. It is our responsibility to uncover the Godliness in this world and reveal its inner nature. This is our natural state. It is why we were put on this earth. It is our design. But when we are thrown down before the Pharaoh's of the world, sometimes we turn into snakes. It is not who we truly are but it is sometimes how we behave. From an external perspective one may look at the Jew in his fallen state and mistakenly believe that this is who we truly are. As the malachim said when the Egyptians were drowning in the sea, "Why are the Egyptians dying and the Jews are being redeemed? After all they both worshiped avodah zarah?" It is a question that many of us ask about ourselves. How many times can I say I am sorry for an aveira I have done when clearly I am going to keep doing it again? We are tired of feeling like frauds. Doing teshuva feels disingenuous. We come to the inevitable conclusion that this must be who we really are. Yes, we have inner ambitions to be more but at the end of the day we are judged not by our good intentions but by our actions. And as chazal say, one aveira leads to another. With the mentality that we are sinners it becomes a self fulfilling prophecy and the gravitational pull towards a life that doesn't include a passionate service of God is all but a foregone conclusion. After 210 years of slavery, it was the conclusion that most Jews had come to. This is who we are. We know we are unworthy of redemption. But in truth it is exactly the opposite. It is only because we are in golus that we behave this way. If we would be in our homeland, with a rebuilt Beis HaMikdash, a Sanhedrin etc... In other words, if life were as it is supposed to be we would not behave this way. We are not snakes. We are staffs. It is only in Mitzrayim, when we are subjugated by Pharaoh that we appear to be snakes. The message that God is sending Pharaoh, Moshe and Ahron, Klal Yisrael (then and for eternity) is, do not believe you are the worst version of yourself. Our surroundings impact us. They do not reveal our true essence.
Snakes and Staffs
But Pharaoh's sorcerers replicate the miracle! Yes, we Egyptians act like snakes when we are thrown down into the harsh realities of Mitzrayim. The Egyptian sorcerers are making the same argument. Why is Klal Yisrael more worthy of redemption than anyone else? You say that you only behave this way because you are here with us in Mitzrayim but we too only behave this way because we are in Mitzrayim. If God will redeem us and give us the Torah we too can be the chosen nation!
In the context of this argument we are now better prepared to understand the Medrash cited above. Ahron's snake did not eat the Egyptian snakes. His staff swallowed the Egyptian snakes.
"Moses answered and said, "Behold they will not believe me, and they will not heed my voice, but they will say, 'The Lord has not appeared to you.' "And the Lord said to him, "What is this in your hand?" And he said, "A staff."And He said, "Cast it to the ground," and he cast it to the ground, and it became a serpent, and Moses fled from before it. And the Lord said to Moses, "Stretch forth your hand and take hold of its tail." So Moses stretched forth his hand and grasped it, and it became a staff in his hand." (Shemos 4:1-3)
Earlier, when Moshe asked for a sign he was told to throw down his staff whereupon it became a snake and then to pick it up again so that it would return to its staff form. In our story we do not see that Ahron picks up his staff. It seems that the snake returned to being a staff all on its own. The message is clear. Yes, we are the truest version of ourselves when our leaders lift us up but that argument can't convince Pharaoh. After all, perhaps the Egyptians would do the same exact thing. No, the difference between the Klal Yisrael and the Egyptians can even be seen when we are snakes on the ground. As we have said, our job is to reveal Hashem here in this world. Even in the lowest places like Mitzrayim we are obligated to reveal Hashem's presence. When we have fallen into the abyss, when we are acting like a snake, we are presented with the perfect opportunity to reveal Hashem in the lowest aspects of our lives. One moment you see a snake and the next moment you see a staff. Whereas the Egyptian mentality argues that we are a victim of circumstance, the Jewish mentality is that we are always perfectly positioned to find God. On the outside we may be acting like a snake but deep down we never lose faith in the mission for which we were created. In a moment we can become a staff and our genuine teshuva will be accepted by God. Will we fall again? Most likely. And when we do we draw upon our faith in God that no matter how far we have fallen there is no place that is devoid of Godliness in this world. Our staff will always swallow the Egyptian snakes of the world.