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by Daneal Weiner
Yaakov and the Brothers descended to Egypt. Those generations died. Thinking they’ve lost the merit of their fathers in the eyes of the Egyptians, the Jews of the ghetto of Goshen fear rejection and leave their safe haven to make their mark in Egyptian society. For the good of Israel, of course. As a great Rebbe once said, "When the Jews don’t make kiddush, the gentiles make havdalah." Once assimilated into Egyptian culture it was only a matter of time before anti-Semitism would surface and the Jews would find themselves abused and oppressed. Hashem then heard the cries of His people and Moshe is destined to redeem them. Moshe encounters a burning bush, Hashem’s first open revelation to him. Hashem tells him his mission. Moshe will ask Pharaoh for the Jewish people to be set free. His request will be denied. Only through a strong hand will the Jews be taken out of Egypt.
verses 4:1-4 say, "Moshe responded saying, ‘They [Israel] will not believe me and won’t heed my voice for they will say, "Hashem did not appear to you."’ Hashem said to him, ‘What is that in your hand?’ and he said, ‘A staff.’ He said, ‘Cast it to the ground,’ and he cast it and it became a snake. Moshe fled from it! Hashem said to him, ‘Stretch out your hand a grasp it from the tail.’ He stretched out his hand and grabbed it tightly and it became a staff in his palm."
Hashem is about to unleash upon Egypt a number of miracles that are going to show the world He is sole Ruler and Proprietor of every facet of creation. The snake was just the first miracle in the series. In Judaism we know that what is first is never just first, only related to what comes second by having preceded it. Rather we call what’s first the ‘head’ because it not only precedes but it also contains the expression of all that will follow. How does the miracle of the staff turning into a snake portend every miracle that will follow?
The Hebrew word for staff, mateh, also means ‘branch.’ Mateh further means ‘tribe.’ (Matos, plural.) Lastly, it shares a root with lehatot which means ‘to tilt’ or ‘to lean’.
Shevet, the more commonly used word for ‘tribe’ also means branch. When the tribes are referred to as Shevatim (pl.) it draws attention to them being a branch of a trunk. An extension of their father, Yaakov. When they are referred to by Matos, it redirects are attention away from their source and points us where they are going. They are now ‘leaning’ or spreading out to new areas where Yaakov, himself, had not gone. The branches of a river divert the river’s resources to places the river does not go.
In verse 4:20, Moshe packs up the wife and kids and heads for Egypt being sure to take the mateh Elokim- staff of G-d with him. Using our previous insight into the word mateh, we can’t say that mateh Elokim connotes branches spreading Hashem out to places where He can’t go. Rather the implication here is in the other direction. Bringing the world in towards G-d. The branches of a river give out-of-reach areas a relationship to the river. For right now, this mateh Elokim, as in a staff, just became a snake which sent Moshe fleeing.
Moshe was raised and trained as a warrior in the palace of Pharaoh. He was able to kill an Egyptian by uttering a Name of Hashem. It can’t be he fled from fright at the sight of a snake. What was so horrifying to him that even in the secure presence of G-d he went awol? And what is meant by Hashem telling him to grab it by the tail?
Tradition tells us that along with the staff turning into a snake, the deep opened up before Moshe, as in Genesis, 1:2, "And darkness was on the face of the deep." Moshe was suddenly face to face with utter chaos. Even for a Moshe Rabbeinu that was a tad frightening.
King Solomon, the wisest of all men, wrote in Proverbs (30:18-19), "There are three things that are beyond me… The way of an eagle in the heavens, the way of a snake on a rock and the way of a ship in the heart of the sea." Rock- Tsur is a term very often used for Hashem. Our Sages explain that tsur is at the root of tsurah- form. Hashem is called Tsur because He is the One Who had formed all. Tsur does not just connote Hashem as strong and steadfast in His promise to us but also Him being the source of everything.
What King Solomon means by the way of a snake on a rock being beyond him is how does the Rock, that is, Hashem, the Source of all good, give form to the snake, the epitome of all evil? Nothing evil descends from above yet this world is filled with it. How does it get here? It must be that some good sent down goes through some kind of metamorphosis so that by the time it gets here its turned evil.
Not only is the shortest distance between two points a straight line. When you walk a straight line from your point of origin, all you have to do is look over your shoulder and you’ll see exactly where you came from. The surest connection to your source is a straight from it. If our world stayed on a straight course then all we’d have to do is look back and we’d see “Breishis barah Elokim”- In the beginning G-d created. That is our source. Having strayed off the path, having taken a turn, when we look back we no longer see our true source. We have a delusion we see our source but it is the source of the new path.
It is brought down in Jewish law that when a king is walking down a road and the path turns to circumvent someone’s field, the king is allowed to continue walking straight even if it means breaking a fence placed as protection around the field. How is such a law possible? Because the King of kings only knows a straight path! (so to speak.) Our king, our quintessential role model of walking in Hashem’s ways, his job is to get the message across, loud and clear, "Yidden! Walk a straight path!"
Once we’ve gotten off that path, we don’t look back and see "Breishis barah Elokim" anymore. We see primordial slime, amoebas, monkeys, spaceships… Hey, was that Elvis?
Yaakov’s tsurah (-image in this context) was emes- truth. As the slang expression goes, he was straight. Honest. Lavan, on the other hand, was crooked. Yaakov never let Lavan get him ‘bent’ out of shape because Yaakov always knew Who was just over his shoulder. He never veered of the path. When Yaakov left Lavan and encountered the angel of Eisav, the angel blessed him that his name would be Yisrael, whose first three letters spell yashar- straight. Another name for the nation of Israel is Yeshurun, again, its first three letters spelling yashar- straight. The Shevatim- tribes of Israel are branches of the tree of Yisrael. Although we turn out from the trunk we are always to remember it is our source, our image. And as Matos we are supposed to bring the idea out to the rest of the world. Bring the resources of Yisrael to places he could not go. Turn nations in, to an awareness of Hashem.
Between Shevet, a connection to the source, and Mateh, reaching outward, it is Mateh which carries with it the threat of assimilation. The mateh turned into a snake. Not once off the path one will encounter the snake. The turning off the path IS the snake. You think your doing the world a favor? Maybe your bringing it back to “darkness over the face of the deep”? And at the very same time, the snake frightens a person to get back onto the path! Scared straight!
Applying these new concepts to old ideas, Avraham and Noach were both men who ‘walked with G-d.’ They stayed on the path of the King when the entire world went off. Only through them did the world merit its existence and was not reverted back to a state of chaos.
Tradition says the snake in the Garden of Eden walked upright. It once stood straight. It once had arms and legs, branches reaching out from the trunk of its body which, undoubtedly, were tools for it to accomplish its purpose. He was the most cunning. Maybe he had the greatest ability to lean others in towards Hashem but he used his abilities to turn them away. Measure for measure he lost his limbs. He no longer stands straight. Now, even to travel a straight line the snake is constantly bent. I think we’re on to something.
Not until next week are Moshe and Aaron going to be standing in front of Pharaoh to perform the miracle with the mateh Elokim. In verse 7:9, Hashem says to Moshe and Aaron that when Pharaoh challenges them, to see some G-dly signs, Moshe is to tell Aaron to take the mateh and throw it down before Pharaoh and it will become a snake. On this verse the Midrash says, "It is written in Psalms (30:2), ‘Hashem will dispatch the staff of strength from Zion,’ which means that Hashem rules over the wicked with a staff. [A stick.] Why a stick? Because the wicked are compared to dogs. As it says (Psalms 59:7), ‘They return at evening, they howl like a dog,’ and just as one beats a dog with a stick, likewise will Hashem ‘dispatch the staff of strength.’ G-d said to Moshe and Aaron, ‘Pharaoh is wicked. When he challenges you beat him with a stick.’ Say to Aaron, ‘Take the staff.’ " Why a dog and why a stick?
The Gemorah Bava Kama says that the owner of a dog is responsible if his dog digs into someone’s house and does damage. The nature of the dog is that closed doorways are really open to him (via digging underneath) so the dog owner has the responsibility of containing his dog. In other words, the nature of the dog is to go wherever it wants. Even when all other paths are closed except for the straight path, the dog will simply tunnel its way onto a different path. The stick is to scare/beat the dog straight.
After Moshe and Aaron do their thing, the Torah says, “And Pharaohs heart was hardened… And Hashem said to Moshe Pharaoh’s heart is kaved- heavy.” Kaved also means liver. The Midrash says Pharaoh became angry based on a Gemorah in Berachos which says that kidneys advise, the heart understands, the tongue forms…. and the liver causes anger. Since the liver is the seat of anger, the Torah tells us Pharaoh’s became kaved- angry. On a deeper level, the literal translation of the Midrash is that Pharaoh’s heart actually became liver! That certainly begs for explanation.
Man is composed of three systems. The highest is knowledge, the middle is emotions and traits and then the lowest system, physical desires. Knowledge originates in the Mo’ach- brain. Emotion stems from the Lev- heart. Desires are related to the Kaved- liver. When a person has his priorities set, his Mo’ach at the helm, his Lev is on call and his Kaved is at bay. The acronym for this order is MeLeK [Melech]- king! The laws revolving around the king all are matters of honor. When a person controls his lower based desires he leads an honorable life. One who lets his liver do the driving reverses the order. Then the acronym becomes KaLeM which means shame! The antithesis of honor.
Furthermore, the Gemorah says the liver is entirely made of blood. Blood only knows itself. When things don’t go its way it gets angry. The “blood boils!” Bloods borders are very defined. It attacks all intruders. Let’s say it’s got a one-track mind. This is very unlike emotions and knowledge which are both open, undefined, interactive and influenced by the things around them. Pharaohs heart ‘becoming liver’ says not only that he is far removed from honor, not only that he is a man driven by physical desires, it also says he has a one track mind- meaning- he doesn’t see or hear what is going on around him. In other words, he has no free will! Since the Torah and our Sages are telling us Pharaohs heart ‘replaced’ by his liver indicates the loss of his free will, this means that of the three systems, the heart and not the mind, is the source of free will. This information is important for later on.
Very often the Gemorah juxtaposes a king and a dog. They are two ends of the same spectrum. Dog is KeLev. Our Sages say this is a contraction of kulo lev- all heart. Perhaps that’s why he’s man’s best friend. But more to our point, Using our acronym from above, Kelev starts with the K for Kaved- liver. That’s not good. Then it has the whole word Lev- heart. The dog has its liver before its heart, like the KaLeM, which we said was shameful. But our Sages a dog is "all heart!" Unlike Pharaoh whose heart became a liver, the dogs liver becomes a heart. That sounds a like tremendous thing! As with its lowest system in charge it elevates to a positive level. That’s the very opposite of a wicked person! Why are the wicked called dogs?
Because the dog hasn’t the knowledge. The M for Mo’ach is missing. Even though we said free will is sourced in the heart, without knowledge there is no formulation or expression. In other words, the dog is just as free-will-less as the wicked. Neither can make a choice. They are both function at the level of their base desires which is to do what they want. No door is off limits. And that’s why we take out a stick! A stick to scare them or beat them back onto the straight path. Hashem created us and gave us a path and the free will to stick to it or turn off. We can choose to turn off. But if we do, we may loose our ability to turn back on.
Hashem cursed the snake that it would be at our heel and we would crush its head. The way to defeat the snake is right at the onset, right at its head. We are shevatim and we are matos but we must use our hearts and minds together and control our base desires. Otherwise we may become lost. If we don’t crush it’s head, depending on the size of the snake it may be a long time to get to the tail. By then we for sure have lost our free will. We will have to wait for a redeemer to be grab it by the tail and turn it and us back into matos Elokim.
Our Sages say Moshe was the first redeemer and a spark of his soul will be the final redeemer. What sent Moshe off in horror was not the snake but the magnitutde of it. As a the future redeemer he was shown how so much of Israel went so far off the Kings straight path.
This miracle is the first miracle because it is the message of every exile to come. It’s up to us. It’s always our choice. We will reap the rewards or pay the consequences of that choice. Nachash- snake is the same numeric value of Mashiach because avoiding one gets the other AND through the one we’ll be scared or beaten back to the other.
When Aaron cast down the staff and it turned into a snake Pharaoh called his magicians and they performed the same miracle. Then, it says, "the staff of Aaron swallowed the others." Rashi points out, the STAFF ate the others’ snakes. After Aaron grabbed it by the tail and turned it back into the mateh Elokim, that’s when it swallowed them! The nachash and the mateh Elokim are one in the same.
These parshas of the exile and redemption from Egypt are a depiction of our lives this very day. The more we realize that, the more we empathize with it, the closer well be to meriting he who will grab the snake by it’s tail and turn us back into a mateh Elokim and Shevtai Kah. Bimhayrah biyamainu!
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