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After Moshe confronted Pharaoh with the famous message "Let My people go, so that they may serve Me" Pharaoh caused even greater suffering by withholding straw from the Israelites (Shemot 5:7-9). By the way, I think it's interesting that only the first part of this message [let My people go] is quoted by Jewish organizations when confronting an oppressor, but the second part [that they may serve Me] is never quoted. Hashem sent Moshe and Aharon back to Pharaoh's court again to confront him. This time, however, Egypt would not have the luxury of choices; Hashem's plan for the destruction of Egypt's military and spiritual power would go into effect and Egypt would be a pawn in the outstretched Hand of Hashem.
"But I shall harden Pharaoh's heart and I shall multiply my signs and my
wonders in the land of Egypt. Pharaoh will not heed you, and I shall put
My hand on Egypt; and I shall take out My legions - My people the Children
of Yisrael - from the land of Egypt, with great judgments."
The Passover Haggadah explains the meanings of phrases like; the mighty hand, the outstretched arm, and other signs and wonders. But we are not limited to only those definitions, there are hundreds of examples of Hashem's signs and wonders that can be discovered.
One possibility is that these signs and wonders were the ten plagues. In our Parsha this week we see the effects of seven of these plagues. But even before the plagues began, one of the greatest wonders was revealed.
In last week's Parsha Moses was instructed by Hashem to ask Pharaoh for a three day leave, so that the B'nai Yisrael could worship Him.
"Moshe responded and said, 'But they will not believe me and they will not
heed my voice, for they will say, "G-d did not appear to you".' And Hashem
said to him, 'What is in your hand?' and he said 'A staff.' He said, 'Cast
it on the ground,' and he cast it on the ground and it became a snake
(Nachash). And Moshe fled from it."
Moshe is ordered to show the wondrous powers of Hashem, proving that Hashem and only Hashem controls nature, for He alone is the Master of The Universe. What is the first wondrous sign that Moshe must show? He must throw down his staff and it will turn into a Nachash, which we properly translate as a snake.
However, when the Torah describes Moshe coming before Pharaoh's court, it says:
"And Moshe came with Aharon to Pharaoh and they did as Hashem had
commanded; and Aharon cast down his staff before Pharaoh and his servants,
and it became [a Tenin] a snake."
While all commentators and translators understand this "Tenin" creature to be a snake, a different Hebrew word was used to describe the creature earlier in Shemot 4:3 when Hashem told Moshe to "'...cast it on the ground,' and he cast it on the ground and it became a snake (Nachash)."
Why is the creature described in one verse as a Nachash and in the other a Tenin? Rashi doesn't really answer the question, he just says that the creature is a reptile and presumes that the words are interchangeable. The Siftei Chachamim (a commentary on Rashi) informs us that the Nachash is a land creature and that a Tenin is a similar creature that lives in water. But why is the Torah inconsistent in the choice of names for this creature?
As students of the Torah, we are familiar with Nachashim (snakes). Adam and Chava encountered a Nachash, a snake in the Garden of Eden. And, according to Rashi quoting the Midrash, when Moshe failed to circumcise his child at the proper time, he encountered a snake that nearly swallowed him alive (Shemot 4:24-26). In both cases, the Nachashim that were encountered were demonic and represented evil. In Jewish teachings these Nachashim were physical manifestations of Satan, or the Yetzer Hara (the Evil Inclination).
I heard from Reb Aharon Liefer Shlit"a (an Hebrew abbreviation for - May he live a long and good life), the Nadvorner Rebbi of Tzefat, that the creature appeared in different forms to the various onlookers. When Moshe and Aharon saw the Nachash, they saw a snake; demonic in nature, the root of evil, with the ability to corrupt. With the appearance of the Nachash, Moshe and Aharon knew that they must be wary of its corruptive power, "...and Moshe fled from it." (Shemot 4:3). But when Pharaoh and his court saw the Tenin, they saw a crocodile, the symbol of Pharaoh [who claimed to be] the god of the Nile.
Let us see how Pharaoh is likened to the god of the Nile in two related places. A few verses ahead, as the first plague is about to be discharged, Hashem tells Moshe;
"Go to Pharaoh in the morning - behold! He goes out to the river - and
stand opposite him at the river bank, and take the staff that became a
Nachash in your hand."
"He goes out to the river - to relieve himself. For pharaoh pretended to be god [of the Nile]...he would arise early in the morning and go to the Nile and secretly tend to his bodily needs."
The second place is in the Parsha's Haftorah. Hashem castigates Israel for aligning themselves with Pharaoh of Egypt against Nebuchadnezzar of Babylonia. Hashem tells Ezekiel;
"Son of Man, set your face against Pharaoh, king of Egypt, and prophesy
against him and against all Egypt. So says Hashem/Elokim; 'Behold! I am
against you Pharaoh, king of Egypt, [who claims to be] HaTenin - the great
crocodile that crouches in its rivers and claims to have made the river and
So, when Aharon cast down his staff, he and Moshe saw the snake and all that it symbolized. But, the Egyptians only saw the Teninim that Aharon and the court sorcerers made Teninim. When Aharon's staff ate all of theirs, in other words, when the G-d of Moshe ate up their gods, they saw the first of the many great wonders that would humble Egypt.
At the Passover Seder we recite "Dayenu." One verse reads,
"If You would only have passed judgment on them [Egypt], but would not have destroyed their gods, Dayenu (it would have been enough).
The objective of the plagues and the Exodus was not only to make the Egyptians pay for the misery that they had caused the B'nai Yisrael, it was also to rid Egypt of the notion that many gods rule the world.
From the time that Aharon first cast down his staff and it became a snake/crocodile, one of Hashem's main objectives took hold, namely, to destroy the gods of Egypt. If you were Jewish, the Nachash reminded you that one must insulate one's self from evil. If you were Egyptian, you saw your all powerful god, the source of all life, being swallowed by the G-d of Israel.
We all have our false gods that we worship, to realize that they are but illusions is the beginning of spiritual clarity.
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