Serpents And Snakes

The different miracles performed before the Israelites and before the Egyptians symbolize the different messages communicated to each group.

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Yet while Moses and Aaron must "educate" the Egyptians about God's existence and grandeur, they face a very different task with the Jewish people. The Jews, enslaved for more than 200 years, and strangers in a foreign land for even longer, have predictably been influenced by their surroundings and grown distant from God.

When Moses returns to Egypt to lead the Jewish people, he must do more than establish his own legitimacy. He must rekindle the people's flame of belief and faith in God. Thus, one of the symbols that he presents to the people is that of the nachash, hearkening back to Genesis II and its portrayal of the intimate, parent-progeny relationship between God and man.

At first glance, however, it seems strange to resort to this symbol, because the nachash was blamed for causing the sin of Adam and Eve, and thus it created distance between man and God. Why, then, would Moses evoke this symbol?

Perhaps the answer is that, whereas the Torah does not detail how Aaron converted the tanin back into a staff, it explicitly states that God commanded Moses to grab the nachash by its tail, and then it would turn back into a staff (Exodus 4:4). Thus, Moses demonstrates mastery over the very creature that once brought distance between man and God. Moses' message is that it is time for the Jews to re-enter into an intimate relationship with God.

Recognizing the Meaning of the Exodus

This analysis of the dual messages borne by Moses and Aaron help us more clearly understand not only the details of the miracles they performed, but also the very purpose behind the entire Exodus. The Jews were not freed from Egypt simply to restore their human rights. Rather, they were liberated with the purpose of fulfilling God's word--to enter into a close relationship, or covenant, with God.

Similarly, the punishments inflicted on Egypt were not due only as retribution for their maltreatment of the Jews. Rather, the process of the 10 plagues and the splitting of the Red Sea was to establish, beyond the shadow of a doubt, God's dominion over the entire world.

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Yossi Ziffer works in the interactive services department of UJA-Federation of New York.