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Shiurim & Adult Education
THOUGHTS ON PARASHAT SHEMOT BY JONATHAN BERNSTEIN
The first miracle performed for Moshe was the transformation of his staff into a snake. Immediately before this occurs HaShem spoke to him from the burning bush, detailing His intention to liberate Bnei Yisrael, that He has chosen Moshe for this task and that He will be with him throughout the process. To a G-d who is speaking to him from the miracle of a burning bush that is not consumed by the fire, Moshe then expresses doubt:
וַיַּ֤עַן מֹשֶׁה֙ וַיֹּ֔אמֶר וְהֵן֙ לֹֽא־יַאֲמִ֣ינוּ לִ֔י וְלֹ֥א יִשְׁמְע֖וּ בְּקֹלִ֑י כִּ֣י יֹֽאמְר֔וּ לֹֽא־נִרְאָ֥ה אֵלֶ֖יךָ ה’׃
But Moses spoke up and said, “What if they do not believe me and do not listen to me, but say: The LORD did not appear to you?”
It is clear from Rashi’s commentary, based on the Midrash Shemot Rabbah, that HaShem sees this comment as slandering Bnei Yisrael, as lashon harah and a rejection of His Divine guarantee. Had Moshe believed in HaShem the liberation of Bnei Yisrael would have occurred without wonders. Rashi, in referencing the Midrash, explains that HaShem points to the staff in Moshe’s hand as the implement by which he should be punished. In its transformation into a snake HaShem was saying that just as the snake had slandered HaShem, so Moshe had slandered Bnei Yisrael and he deserved punishment just as HaShem had punished the snake in the Garden of Eden. Moshe flees from the snake because through sinning with speech he fears the snake will bite him. Had he not sinned he would have no need to fear its bite.
This idea is portrayed in Masechet Berakhot (TB 33A) when Rabbi Chanina ben Dosa is bitten on his heel by a snake, but it is the snake that dies. The gemara makes clear that Rabbi Chanina survived because he was free of sin. He takes the snake to the Bet Hamidrash where he advises his pupils that it is not the snake that kills but the venom of sin.
The Midrash offers another explanation for the symbolism of the staff and snake. The staff turns into a snake, representing Paro who is compared to a snake that bites Bnei Yisrael. Moshe is told to grasp the snake by the tail and it returns to its original state. So, says the Midrash, Moshe will strike Paro with a staff and transform him in to a piece of wood that can no longer bite.
In a D’var Torah I heard from Rabbi Dovid Moshe Lieberman, (father of Rabbi Zvi Lieberman at Edgware Adas), he pointed out that not only was the miracle of the staff the first miracle shown to Moshe but it was also the first miracle shown by Moshe to Paro. Homiletically, the staff represents the creation of the world and the extension of Divine power. It is the mateh Elokim (staff of G-d). The whole of creation is an extension of this force of G-d. As we say everyday in the first bracha before the Shema:
הַמְחַדֵּשׁ בְּטוּבו בְּכָל יום תָּמִיד מַעֲשה בְרֵאשִׁית
He renews in His goodness every day eternally the maaseh breishit, the works of creation.
Once you disconnect the Universe from its origin, it is as if you throw down the staff and it becomes like a snake because it denies its origin, so denying the Creator. The very creation that should testify to the existence of HaShem is used to deny His existence because people only see the creation and not the Creator. So the purpose of all the miracles and wonders was to show the mateh Elokim, the extension of G-dly power. Hence it is the first miracle HaShem does to impress upon us that nothing exists on its own but is an extension of the mateh Elokim. This miracle contains the idea of all the other miracles in showing G-d’s power to Moshe, to us and to all of Egypt.