Pharaoh’s Wisemen and Their Staffs (Exodus 7: 8-13) Questions by Joel Cohen
The Ten Plagues are virtually impossible to understand — and maybe that’s the idea. They were simply “miracles,” that is, activities accomplished by God alone and outside the realm of conventional human experience. And as long as we understand them in that light, i.e., that “they only happened because God chose to perform them that way,” our understanding of them should work for us.
So, when God — and it had to have been God — converted Moses’ staff into a snake to impress Pharaoh that God was “behind” Moses, as indeed was the stated purpose, of course we can accept that too as yet another miracle. Fine!
But, if Pharoaoh’s magicians (or “necromancers” in Art Scroll lingo), were also able to convert their own staffs into snakes, it almost makes it seem that Moses’original accomplishment was no miracle at all. No “big deal” if pagan idol worshippers can also accomplish the same thing.
• What is this all supposed to mean for us? It almost seems like a fairy tale — Moses’ staff turns into a snake, then Pharaoh’s staffs turn into snakes, then Moses’ snake swallows them. Is God performing miracles at all here, if Pharaoh’s men can pretty much pull off the same stunt? (And please don’t say — “but, remember, Moses’snake ate all the rest,” since, as a skeptical friend of mine might say, “maybe Moses’snake was just hungrier.”)
• Or are we supposed to conclude that God was also intending and performing a miracle by causing Pharaoh’s snakes to turn into staffs? And, if so, why doesn’t the Torah simply tell us that?
Rabbi Adam Mintz
Joel—you are correct that the plagues are a very difficult section of the Torah. To add to your questions, why did God need ten plagues—He should have just killed the Egyptian first born and taken the Jews out of Egypt.
I believe that the key to understanding the plagues is to appreciate that there are two aspects of these plagues; one that relates to punishing the Egyptians and one that relates to teaching the Jewish people. In terms of punishing the Egyptians, God could have sufficed with one super-plague and taken the Jews out of Egypt. This would have removed some of the drama from the story but would have simplified matters greatly.
However, there is another aspect to the plagues. The Jews in Egypt had become so consumed with their lives as slaves that they had all but forgotten God. The amazing Midrash suggests that when God told the angels to save the people at the Sea, the angels asked God “which people” as both the Jews and the Egyptians were idol worshipers. In this light, we can understand that God needed to educate the people to recognize God and His power before they entered the barren desert at God’s command. As we know, even after this education, the people sinned in the desert.
How did God educate the Jews in Egypt? The answer is gradually. For a people who did not “know” God, God first introduced them to a miracle that could be replicated by the Egyptian magicians. Impress the people but don’t shock them. Then God began with the plagues each one increasing in its level of inconvenience and then torture culminating with the Plague of the Killing of the First Born. The Jews gradually came to understand and appreciate both that God was all powerful and that Moshe was his representative. Only then were the Jews ready for the experience of the exodus from Egypt.
Moses and Aaron came before Pharaoh, and they did as G-d had commanded: Aaron threw his staff before Pharaoh and before his servants, and it turned into a serpent. Pharaoh summoned also [his] wise men and sorcerers… each cast his staff, and they turned into serpents; but Aaron’s staff swallowed up their staffs.
Joel, you ask what is the lesson in this story of the swallowing serpents? It is interesting that the Torah emphasizes that it was Aaron’s staff that consumed the serpent-staffs of the Egyptian sorcerers. Our sages explain that since it is natural that a snake swallow another snake, G-d made that Aaron’s staff should swallow the others after it had reverted to its original, inanimate form, thereby demonstrating the impotence of Egypt’s idols in a manifestly miraculous way.
But the miracle of the swallowing stick is more than a sign and warning to Pharaoh; there is also a lesson here, to each and every one of us, on how to confront the various “Pharaohs” we must deal with in the course of our lives. Aaron not Moshe engages in this duel with the Egyptians as the Mishna in Avot says “Be of the disciples of Aaron: one who loves peace, pursues peace, loves G-d’s creatures and brings them close to the Torah.”—our mission is to create light, not to battle darkness. Nevertheless, there are times when we are forced to resort to battle, as in Gaza recently, when we must vanquish those who seek to destroy us. Thus Moses, the gentle shepherd of Israel, and Aaron, the epitomic man of peace, found themselves in the role of “judge and chastiser of Pharaoh” and the Egyptians, crushing them and obliterating, one after another, their icons and myths.
But even when we wage war, the Jew is in essence not a warrior. Even when we must resort to violence we cannot allow the violence to overtake us. Even when we consumes the serpents of our enemy, we cannot become hatemongers. As Aarons victorious serpent returned to wood, so to we need to ensure that we always keep our emotions in check, never losing ourselves to the temptation of revenge.
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