Elli Schwarcz – Of Staffs and Snakes

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As this week’s Torah reading opens, Moshe Rabbeinu had finally accepted to become the leader of B’nei Israel, and Hashem was preparing him to confront Pharaoh, demanding in His name that the people be freed…

 

“When Pharaoh will speak to you, saying, ‘Give me a sign,’ you shall tell Aharon, ‘Take your staff, and throw it down before Pharaoh, so that it becomes a snake.’ ”
-Va’era, 7:9

 

Moshe and his brother Aharon entered Pharaoh’s palace, and Aharon threw his staff to the ground as planned. It indeed turned into a real snake– and it even ate the staffs of the scornful Egyptian sorcerers. This was indeed a great miracle, in a display that would have inspired any other leader.

Impressive a display as this was, we may still ask why Hashem chose this specific miracle for the brothers to perform. Why, out of endless possibilities, was it important to use a miracle involving a snake and a staff in order to convince Pharaoh?

Rav Meir Shapiro zt”l raised this question, and offered an incisive answer. Moshe Rabbeinu was attempting to show Pharaoh that the people he represented were a distinct group that did not belong in Egypt. Although B’nei Israel seemed to have sunken to the low levels of their wicked ‘hosts’- and were perhaps therefore unworthy of being singled out for redemption- Moshe and Aharon asserted that this did not reflect their true nature. Yes, B’nei Israel had fallen spiritually, but this was really largely due to the terrible influence of their surroundings- the most impure and immoral country in the world. If only they could leave this environment so that they might shake themselves from its negative effect, B’nei Israel would surely shine once more. This, Rav Shapiro explained, was what the staff stood for; it became an animal, a frightening snake, when thrown “before Pharaoh.” This symbolized the impact that this most evil place could have on whatever entered it, turning an innocent item into a destructive creature. What happened next, though, was the clincher: Aharon grabbed the snake… and it became a piece of wood once more. In the hands of the righteous person, removed from the toxicity of Pharaoh, the staff was cured. The message to the wicked king was clear: “Let the Chosen People go, and they will prove that they are in fact completely different than the people of your nation.”We learn important lessons from this episode. For starters, we see the power of one’s environment to influence him. B’nei Israel were, for the most part, terribly impacted by their surroundings.*

 
(Ironically, it was easier for B’nei Israel to recognize this truth the more the Egyptians oppressed them, reminding them constantly that they did not really belong. Tragically, though, most of the nation did not take this message to heart.)
The positive aspect of this assessment, of course, was experienced by those 20% of B’nei Israel who were deemed worthy of leaving Egypt, as they reached tremendous spiritual heights while basking in the glow of Hashem’s Shechinah, in the desert and beyond.
Secondly, we can also learn that even if one finds himself not doing well spiritually, God forbidhe can take comfort in the fact that there is a core, a deep inner point, that remains pure. Yes, he must put great effort into repenting, and into shedding negative influences- be they his native culture, a bad crowd, or the desires that pull him down. Yet he may also be assured that he can ultimately shake off these external forces, and merit to return to the proper path, with God’s help.
May we all make the right choices in our lives, and find the inner strength to admit when we need to change course!
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*Of course, one cannot really absolve himself by blaming all his bad behavior on his environment. A person is still responsible to avoid negative influences altogether- or at least to mitigate their impact as much as possible. The more we disassociate from our surroundings, relating less to the negative influences around us- the better chance we have of not getting pulled down by them. As such, B’nei Israel were not excused for their wrongdoings simply because of their bad surroundings. However, there was still an argument to be made that they were a separate nation, and would function on a higher level if given the opportunity.

Have a great Shabbat!

Elli Schwarcz
Elli Schwarcz is an alumnus of the Toras Moshe, Ner Israel, and Carteret Yeshivos, and has been involved in Jewish outreach for almost 15 years. He is a Hebrew School and English Language Arts teacher, and has a Master’s Degree in Counseling from Johns Hopkins University. Of all his pursuits, Elli most enjoys teaching high-level Jewish thought and Talmud to teenage boys, exposing them to the beauty and wisdom of their heritage while highlighting their own ability to engage in advanced Torah learning. Elli lives in Lakewood, New Jersey, with his wife and children.

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