We read in our Parasha: (7:9-13) ‘Hashem said to Moshe and Aaron: ‘When Pharoah speaks to you saying: Provide a מופת: a wonder for yourselves, you shall say to Aaron: Take your staff and cast it down before Pharoah - it will become a snake’.
‘Moshe came with Aaron to Pharoah, and they did so, as Hashem had commanded..Pharoah, too, summoned his wise men and sorcerers, and they, too..did so with their incantations. Each one cast down his staff and they became snakes; and the staff of Aaron swallowed their staffs. The heart of Pharoah was strong and he did not heed them, as Hashem had spoken’.
Let us note, that Hashem told Moshe and Aaron at the outset that Pharoah would ask them for a wonder: ‘When Pharoah’ asks this of you, not ‘if’ he asks.
So the intriguing question is what was the תכלית: the purpose of this wondrous episode.
This question becomes more intriguing , when we note the commentary of the Rambam, in The Guide to the Perplexed, as to how we are to understand that the sages of Egypt were, on a literal reading of the Torah, able to replicate the miraculous deed of Aaron, that they cast down their staffs, ‘and they became snakes’.
Expounds the Rambam:’ These sages were masters of sleight-of-hand and deception, to make those watching momentarily ‘see’ things - and, in this instance, to ‘see’ the staffs as snakes.
‘This is why, at the conclusion of the episode, the Torah states that Aaron’s staff swallowed their staffs’, NOT ‘their snakes’.
Our Sages elucidate, that even four and five year old children in Egypt mastered the ‘crafts’ of sorcery and ‘sleight-of-hand, and that, in fact, Pharoah brought these young children who also performed this ‘miracle, as did Pharoah’s wife.
The Malbim notes that the Torah does not say, of these sorcerers, that ‘they also did so’, to teach that their ‘miracle’ was fundamentally different from that of Aaron, in which his staff did, in fact, become a תנין’, which he translates as crocodile, and not, as Rashi understands, as a snake.
‘The Egyptian children, well schooled in creating illusions, covered themselves with the skins of dead crocodiles, acted out with their movements to make the viewers ‘see’ those ‘crocodiles’ moving; and when the Egyptian sages cast down their staffs, these ‘disguised crocodiles’ grabbed them and concealed them under the skins, making the susceptible viewers believe that the staffs had ‘become’ crocodiles.
‘And who were those under the skins? The young children who were ‘learning’ these ‘skills’ at the special academy that taught this craft. They were referred to as חרטומים: by the sorcerers, as this was their special schooling, and they were used by the sorcerers and incantaters, to achieve the deception.
‘This’, adds the Rav, ‘is why the ‘Torah states that ‘Aaron’s staff swallowed their staffs, when we might have thought that it should have said that ‘the תנינים were swallowed’- to teach that the staffs, WITH the children who were concealed inside the skins, all were swallowed.’
The Rav brings a wondrous Midrash to support his commentary: ‘Said Hakadosh Baruch Hu: if a תנין swallows another תנין, that id the way of the world; but if the תנין of Aaron, into which his staff had turned, reverted to being a staff, yet miraculously swallowed the תנינים of the Egyptians, that would truly be ‘a miracle within a miracle’; said Pharoah: if Aaron’s staff was told to swallow Pharoah and his throne, it will do so!’.
‘The relevance of this Midrash to the Rav’s commentary, is that, what brought this fear to Pharoah, was seeing Aaron’s staff swallow the Egyptian children with their concealed staffs.
‘If Aaron’s staff could swallow these concealed children, not just their staffs, it could also ‘swallow’ Pharoah!’.
Now we can endeavour to deal with the question we raised, in sharper focus: If the Egyptian sorcerers or conjurers, be they adults or children, could seemingly so readily replicate Aaron’s feat, what purpose could Hashem have had, for this whole episode, which, as we pointed out, was from the outset set into motion by the One Who knows outcome from at the outset?’.
The Be’er Mayim Chaim offers a ‘simple answer’: ‘Hashem commanded Moshe and Aaron to perform this ‘miracle’, that even the young Egyptian children could replicate, for that very reason - to lull Pharoah into dismissing it, and, as a result, to further harden his heart, so that Hashem could afflict him with the makot his evil misdeeds demanded.
And, if you then ask:True, the children ‘were able’ to replicate the ‘miracle’ of the staffs becoming תנינים, but how did he not react to Aaron’s staff then swallowing their staffs?
Answers the Netziv:’Pharoah ‘blessed’ himself in his heart, that this too was sorcery, and that the powers of sorcery of Moshe and Aaron were simply greater than those of his sorcerers - and therefore ‘he did not heed them’.
Rabbeinu Bahya expounds that ‘Hashem chose this miracle of the dtaff becoming a snake, at the outset - and not some other animal - because a snake sinned and caused Chava to transgress, by lashon hara, and, similarly, Pharoah sinned in his lashon hara, saying:’Who is Hashem that I should heed his voice’.
‘Therefore Hashem decreed that he should be punished just as the snake was punished. We find that whoever ‘casts words against the One Above’, is punished by being bitten by snakes, as we read:(Bamidbar 21:5-6)’The people spoke against G-d and against Moshe..The Lord sent against the people the venomous snakes, and they bit the people’.
‘Further, just as the snake is deceitful, and ‘changes’ by shedding its skin, so too, Pharoah on several occasions promised , yet did not keep his promise, to let Bnei Israel go, when afflicted, but immediately the particular affliction ended, reverted to refusal.’
‘Hashem chose the miracle of the snake, to allude to this’.
Rav Yosef Salant offers a beautiful exposition, both as to the allusion of the staff AND to the snake, expounding:’The staff of itself only does that which its user commands; of itself, it has no independent thought.
‘Pharoah was only permitted to carry out Hashem’s decree against Bnei Israel, not to independently add to it; yet, he went beyond being ‘Hashe’s staff’, and afflicted Bnei Israel for no reason other than his wickedness.
‘This is alluded to by the staff turning into a snake, as, as our Sages teach, at the end of days, all the other animals will turn on the snake, and accuse him, that, of all the animals, he is the only one that bites for no reason other than his wickedness, deriving no benefit or pleasure from so doing.
‘This is the allusion to Pharoah and his people, as to why they will be punished so severely, for their intentional, baseless wickedness.’
A parting gem from Rav Salant:’The additional miracle related here, Aaron’s staff swallowing the staffs of the Egyptians, yet, as our Sages relate, remaining in its original size, without any increase from the swallowed staffs, brings to mind a similar earlier episode.
‘In solving Pharoah’s dream, Yosef interprets the wondrous image of the ‘bad’ cows and the ‘bad’ sheaf of grain, swallowing the ‘good’ cows and the ‘good’ grain, without there being any outward sign in them, of having done so.
‘This, expounded Yosef, was because the bad years would be so harsh, that there would be no recollection of the preceding good years.
‘So too: the affliction of the Egyptians for their misdeeds, would be so harsh, that it would completely ‘wipe out’ the staffs with which they afflicted Bnei Israel.’
רפואת נועם עליזה בת זהבה רבקה ונחום אלימלך רפאל בתוך שאר חולי עמנו.
Danny Ginsbourg is a retired lawyer and Torah scholar who made aliya from Australia a decade ago. He has written five volumes of Torah thoughts in Hebrew,and was awarded the Jerusalem Prize.for the two volume Davsha shel Torah to which there are already several sequels.