A Sign of Faith?
Yeshivat Har Etzion
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A Sign of Faith?
By Rabbanit Sharon Rimon
In our parasha, Moshe and Aharon confront the Egyptian magicians in the challenge of turning a staff into a serpent. What is the meaning of this test? What is its purpose?
Let us review, briefly, the various commands pertaining to the signs, both in relation to Bnei Yisrael and in relation to the Egyptians.
In last week's parasha, Shemot, Moshe was commanded to perform signs before Bnei Yisrael: to turn the staff into a snake, to make his hand leprous, and to turn the water into blood. The purpose of these signs is explained there as follows (Shemot 4:5):
In order that they will believe that the Lord God of their forefathers the God of Avraham, the God of Yitzchak and the God of Yaakov appeared to you.
The signs are supposed to bring the nation to faith in God's revelation to Moshe. But do these signs represent any proof of prophecy? In Rambam's view (Yesodei ha-Torah, 8:1), faith that comes about through signs is not complete and wholehearted, but rather defective, since it is possible that the sign was performed through witchcraft. Bnei Yisrael believed in Moshe not because of the signs, but because of their experience at Mount Sinai:
Bnei Yisrael did not believe in Moshe Rabbeinu because of the signs that he performed, for one who believes on the basis of signs has a deficiency in his heart, since a sign may be performed through enchantment or sorcery. Rather, all the signs that Moshe performed in the wilderness were done out of necessity not to bring proof of his prophecy. It was necessary to drown the Egyptians and likewise all the other signs. On what basis, then, did they believe in him? Because of the revelation at Sinai, where our eyes saw and not those of a stranger, and our ears heard, and no other .
Why did Moshe then request the signs? Rambam explains:
When the Holy One, blessed be He, said to him at the beginning of his prophecy, at the time when he gave him the signs to perform in Egypt and told him, "That they may listen to you," Moshe Rabbeinu knew that one who believes on the basis of signs has a deficiency in his heart; so he considered and thought and was ready not to go [to Egypt], and he said, "But they will not believe me" until the Holy One told him, "These signs are meant only for until they leave Egypt. After they leave and stand at this mountain [Chorev-Sinai], the doubts that they entertain about you will depart."
In other words, Moshe himself knew that faith that is based on signs is not serious faith. But God told him that the faith in his signs was to be only a temporary state of affairs, so long as the nation was still in Egypt.
Indeed, Aharon performs the signs before the nation, and the signs are effective and the people believe (Shemot 4:31):
The people believed, and they accepted that the Lord had remembered Bnei Yisrael and that He had seen their misery, and they bowed down and prostrated themselves.
But the faith of Bnei Yisrael does not last long. In Parashat Va'era (6:9), "They did not listen to Moshe, out of anguish of spirit and hard labor."
Even if we posit that the signs were meant to provide an initial reinforcement of faith amongst the nation, we still need to clarify their purpose for Pharaoh and his magicians. Was the purpose the same for them? Did the signs lead to faith in God, or in Moshe as a prophet, in the eyes of Pharaoh and his magicians?
Why were the signs not performed at the first encounter?
Initially, Moshe is told about the signs in relation to Bnei Yisrael, but not in relation to Pharaoh. Only during Moshe's journey to Egypt does God appear to him and tell him to perform the wonders before Pharaoh (Shemot 4:21):
The Lord said to Moshe: When you are going back to Egypt, see all the wonders which I have placed in your hand, and do them before Pharaoh. And I shall strengthen his heart, so that he will not let the people go.
Here the purpose of the signs is not made clear, and Moshe is also told that Pharaoh will not change his stance in their wake.
In the first encounter with Pharaoh, Moshe and Aharon tell him to let Bnei Yisrael go but they do not perform signs for Pharaoh. Pharaoh rejects their request, and declines to acknowledge God: "Who is the Lord, that I should listen to Him?" He then makes the slavery of Bnei Yisrael even more unbearable.
Why do Moshe and Aharon not perform their signs for Pharaoh?
Let us look at their second mission to Pharaoh. At first, God reminds them once again of the signs and the wonders (7:3):
I shall harden Pharaoh's heart, that I may multiply My signs and My wonders in the land of Egypt.
In other words, the signs and wonders are
important in and of themselves "That I might multiply My signs
God then goes on to foretell that the Egyptians will recognize God: "The
Egyptians shall know that I am the Lord, when I spread My hand over
Let us now review the rest of the mission, and try to answer our question.
Is Aharon a better "magician"?
(8) The Lord said to Moshe and to Aharon, saying:
(9) When Pharaoh speaks to you, saying, "Give some sign for yourselves," then you shall say to Aharon, "Take your staff, and cast it before Pharaoh; it shall become a serpent."
(10) Then Moshe and Aharon came to Pharaoh and they did so, as the Lord had commanded them, and Aharon cast his staff before Pharaoh and before his servants, and it became a serpent.
(11) So Pharaoh likewise called for the wise men and the wizards, and they, too, did the same, with their secret arts.
(12) Each cast his staff and they became serpents, but Aharon's staff swallowed their staffs.
(13) But Pharaoh's heart was hardened, and he did not listen to them as the Lord had foretold.
Here we encounter for the first time an explicit command to perform a sign for Pharaoh, in turning the staff into a serpent. However, we see here that the performance of the sign is not meant to come about at the initiative of Moshe and Aharon, but rather at Pharaoh's demand: "When Pharaoh speaks to you, saying, 'Give a sign for yourselves,' then you shall say to Aharon " (7:9).
Why does Pharaoh request a sign? What is the significance of the signs that are given in response? Are they aimed and causing the Egyptians to believe in God's prophet? To believe in God? It is difficult to propose that either possibility is the case, since in reality the signs fail to convince Pharaoh. On the contrary the magicians succeed in doing exactly the same, using their magic arts!
But Aharon manages to do something that they are unable to do, and his staff swallows theirs. Moreover, his staff swallows their staffs after it has returned to being a staff: "Aharon's staff swallowed " (Rashi, ad loc.), and this is a "miracle within a miracle" (Shabbat 97a). However, is this sufficient reason for faith? Is the fact that Aharon a slightly more talented and successful "magician" enough reason to believe in God and in Moshe, His servant?
It may be possible that the signs were intentionally not impressive. The Torah tells us, at the end of this episode (7:13): "Pharaoh's heart was hardened, and he did not listen to them." What is the significance of this hardening of the heart? Perhaps it was a miracle, with God acting directly to harden his heart. However, it is possible that God caused his heart to be hardened as a result of seeing that his magicians were able to perform the same signs. This gave Pharaoh the sense that he could handle Moshe and Aharon, and even take on God, as it were. It may be for this reason that even the subsequent plagues did not deter him.
But why does Pharaoh demand signs? Seemingly, Pharaoh is not trying to find reinforcement for his faith. He is certain that their words are worthless. He tries to find some pretext by means of which to turn them away. By demanding signs Pharaoh is certain that he will prove that Moshe and Aharon are worthless, inferior even to the magicians.
In light of this, it is possible that although the signs only equate Moshe and Aharon with the magicians (with a slight advantage to the former), this is sufficient, for the objective is not to establish faith. Rather, it is a response to Pharaoh's demand, so that their status vis-א-vis Pharaoh will not be weakened (and perhaps will even be strengthened).
However, the entire process may also be understood differently. For this purpose, let us recall the other encounters with the magicians.
Magicians for dreams and magicians for serpents
Where do we meet the Egyptian magicians for the first time? We remember them, of course, from the story of Yosef and the dreams of Pharaoh. If we try to compare the two narratives, we discover a surprising similarity: in both cases, the magicians compete against Hebrews Yosef or Aharon. In both cases the Hebrew has the advantage over the Egyptian magicians, and in both cases the subject itself involves some body swallowing another body (sheaves and cows in Pharaoh's dreams; a staff in Aharon's case). In both cases the situation comes about as a result of Pharaoh's fears. In the first instance, Pharaoh is anxious about his dreams: "And it was, in the morning, that his spirit was uneasy" (41:8); in the second instance, Pharaoh is worried about Bnei Yisrael: "He said to his people, Behold, the nation of the children of Israel is greater and more numerous than we they shall fight against us and go up from the land" (Shemot 1:9-10).
Despite the seeming similarity, the ending is different. In Yosef's case, the confrontation leads to an acknowledgement of God: "Pharaoh said to his servants: Can there be found a man such as this, with God's spirit in him? And Pharaoh said to Yosef: Now that God has made of this known to you " (41:38-39). In our instance, in contrast, Pharaoh does not believe, and his magicians are similarly unimpressed: "He did not listen to them."
Nevertheless, if we pursue our chapter further, we discover that the conclusion is indeed the same. Pharaoh, admittedly, does not believe but the magicians, ultimately (in the plague of lice) come to recognize that "it is the finger of God"; they even tell this to Pharaoh (8:15). Let us consider the comparison:
1. Pharaoh's concern:
(Bereishit) "And it was in the morning that his spirit was uneasy" (41:8) anxiety because of the dreams
"The nation of the children of
2. Subject of the confrontation:
(Bereishit) Pharaoh's dreams
(Shemot) The staff and the serpent
3. The personalities involved:
(Bereishit) The magicians and Yosef:
called for all the magicians of
- "Pharaoh said to Yosef: I have dreamed a dream " (15)
(Shemot) Aharon and the magicians:
- "Aharon cast the staff" (10)
"The magicians of
4. Advantage of the Hebrews over the Magicians:
(Bereishit) "I have told it to the magicians, but none can explain it to me" (25). "And Yosef said and the matter was good in Pharaoh's eyes and in the eyes of all of his servants" (25:37)
(Shemot) "Aharon's staff swallowed their staffs" (12)
(Bereishit) "The thin sheaves swallowed the seven healthy sheaves" (7)
(Shemot) "Aharon's staff swallowed their staffs"
6. Recognition of God:
(Bereishit) "Pharaoh said to his servants: Can there be found a man such as this, with God's spirit in him. And Pharaoh said to Yosef: After God has made all of this known to you " (41:38-39)
(Shemot) "The magicians said to Pharaoh: It is the finger of God" (8:15).
What does all of this tell us? What is the meaning of the parallel between these two narratives?
The dreams parallel the signs! Perhaps this is meant to teach us that the signs were not meant to establish faith. They came, just like the dreams had come previously, to convey a message, to present a vision. The signs would teach the Egyptians the meaning of the struggle against Am Yisrael!
To grasp this concept more firmly, let us
try to understand the significance of a staff that turns into a serpent.
Yechezkel (29-32) records seven prophecies about the destruction of
(1) In the tenth year, in the tenth month, on the twelfth day of the month, the Lord's word came to me, saying:
(2) Son of
man set your face against Pharaoh, king of
(3) Speak and
say: So says the Lord God: Behold, I am against you, Pharaoh, king of
(4) I shall put hooks in your cheeks, and make the fish of your rivers stick to your scales, and I shall bring you up from the midst of your rivers, and all the fish of your rivers will be stuck to your scales.
(5) And I shall forsake you in the wilderness you and all the fish of your rivers; you shall fall upon the open fields, you shall not be gathered nor shall you be brought together. I have given you for food to the beasts of the land and for the birds of the sky.
(6) And all
the inhabitants of
The prophet calls Pharaoh "the great
serpent." Pharaoh presents himself as a great serpent, ruling over
everything, as having created the
In historical sources, too, Pharaoh is
portrayed as a serpent. Augustus's memorial coins show a crocodile (which
presumably was the serpent) as the symbol of
The great serpent is Pharaoh. The serpent seeks to swallow up the weakened, downtrodden Am Yisrael: "And Bnei Yisrael groaned from the labor, and they cried out" (Shemot 2:23).
Now the signs come into play. They show and clarify the true power of the serpent. First, they show that Am Yisrael, appearing like a dried-out and pitiful stick, is destined to become a living being and one capable of confronting Pharaoh, the serpent. Just as the staff is able to turn into a serpent, so Am Yisrael are destined to be revived.
The next stage sees Aharon's staff swallowing the staffs of the Egyptians. The arrogance of the serpent will be broken, and it will be Am Yisrael who will break it. The Midrash provides the following beautiful description (Yalkut Shimoni, Parashat Va'era, remez 181):
staff and cast it before Pharaoh' the Holy One, blessed be He, said: This
wicked one, in his arrogance, calls himself a serpent, as it is written, 'The
great serpent.' Go and tell him: See this staff it is dried-out wood, and it
becomes a serpent, with a life-force and a spirit; it swallows all the [other]
staffs and ultimately returns to being dried wood. Likewise you I created you
from a putrid drop, and gave you kingship, but you have become arrogant and you
say, 'My river is mine; I formed it for me.'
Behold, I shall return you to nothingness! You have swallowed all the
staffs of the tribes of
Am Yisrael will be revived and arise, while the great serpent will return to chaos and nothingness.
As we have seen, there is a parallel between the story of the magicians here, and their appearance in the story of Pharaoh's dreams. The latter may contribute to and enhance our understanding of the former. The message is not merely about dry wood that turns into a living being, and not only about the victory of one nation over another.
In Pharaoh's dreams, we saw that the thin sheaves swallowed the healthy sheaves, and the thin cows swallowed the fat cows. The same message comes through here: Aharon's staff a single staff stands alone against the many staffs of the magicians. Am Yisrael is a weak nation (perhaps great in number, but weak and downtrodden) against the strong Egyptians. But the staff of Am Yisrael is destined to swallow that of the Egyptians.
The clear, powerful sense of security in the present (satiation, rule, dignity, power, etc.) can be overturned in a moment; it can be swallowed up and disappear.
When Pharaoh sees the staffs of the
magicians being swallowed up by Aharon's staff, he is meant to remember the
dream of the previous Pharaoh, in which the king was made to understand that
the abundance and contentment would come to an end. He is meant to understand
that the situation of "satiety" in
In light of the above, we might say that there was no attempt to prove or inculcate faith by means of the signs. The signs did apparently strengthen the status of Moshe and Aharon, but did not lead to faith in God or in Moshe. The main function of the signs was their message.
The confrontation with the magicians was not aimed at testing whether Aharon and the magicians could perform the same wonders. There was no need to prove that Aharon was a better "magician." Rather, the challenge was meant to prove something else entirely.
Let us examine the third place in Tanakh were there is mention of the Egyptian magicians:
In the second year of the reign of Nevukhadnetzar, Nevukhadnetzar dreamed dreams, and his spirit was uneasy, and his sleep evaded him.
So the king commanded that the magicians, conjurers and sorcerers be called, to tell the king his dreams. And they came and stood before the king.
And the king said to them, I have dreamed a dream, and my spirit is uneasy to know the dream. (Daniel 2:1-3)
In the Book of Daniel (chaps. 1-2), a similar phenomenon is described. Nevukhadnetzar dreams a dream and does not know its meaning: "His spirit was uneasy and his sleep evaded him" just like Pharaoh, "And it was, in the morning, that his spirit was uneasy." The magicians try to interpret the dream but are unsuccessful, until Daniel comes and manages to interpret it. Here, too, we are explicitly told of a battle between Daniel and the magicians, and of Daniel's superiority (1:19-20):
(19) The king spoke with them, and among all of them there was none like Daniel, Chananya, Mishael and Azarya, so they stood before the king.
(20) And in any matter of wisdom and understanding that the king asked of them, he found them ten times better than all the magicians and conjurers who were in all of his kingdom.
In Daniel's case, too, the dream concerns
four kingdoms, with the last of them being the
The interpretation of the dream ends with Divine rulership over the world.
Of the three places in Tanakh where
representatives of Am Yisrael confront magicians, two deal with
interpretation of dreams, explaining how the future is going to look. In light
of our discussion above, it seems that the middle case, too the confrontation
between Moshe and Aharon and the Egyptian magicians also deals with a vision
of how the future will look with regard to the relationship between
Realistic vision and Divine vision
The signs in
What is the battle about? Pharaoh's dream
conveyed an important message. A simple view of reality would suggest that
everything was good;
In Daniel's case, too, the interpretation of the dream leads Nevukhadnetzar to the understanding that there is Divine revelation that is concealed behind reality (2:47):
The king spoke to Daniel and said: Of truth, your God is the God of gods, and the Lord of kings, and reveals secrets seeing that you revealed this secret.
The dreams show that there is Divine vision that is different from regular, human vision. There is a different reading of reality.
Getting back to the magicians and Moshe and Aharon: in a realistic view, Am Yisrael is on its way to becoming extinct, heaven forefend. The Egyptian empire rules everywhere; Pharaoh is the serpent of the whole world. Am Yisrael is a nation of slaves, despised and downtrodden. But the Divine view is different. It becomes apparent that there are things that lie beyond the regular forces of nature; that Divine rule extends even over things that appear all-powerful. Even the great serpent himself is transient; he, too, is destined to be swallowed up.
The Ran, in his Derashot (#3, "Ve-hateshuva al zeh") writes the following with regard to the magicians:
Because this was the land of magicians and enchanters, and what was going to be put to the test was one of the aspects of natural wisdom, therefore it was proper that it be believed that it was done by Divine power, with no doubt, and that that which is impossible in nature is not impossible for the blessed God.
The magicians tried to achieve wonders using "scientific" means (as they understood them), using "natural wisdom" which, they believed, only they possessed, over and above the regular knowledge of all the nation. What they did not understand was that there are forces beyond the forces of nature; they did not understand that there is a Divine view of reality.
The magicians were indeed good at what they did. They knew how to predict the future, in accordance with the reality at any given moment. But there were things that they were not able to foretell. They could not foretell the revolutions that God would generate in reality.
Therefore, they failed to interpret Pharaoh's dream. Only God's hand could turn the good years into bad years, contrary to all forecasts.
Similarly, only God's hand could overturn
the reality of Pharaoh's reign over all the world, to weaken Pharaoh and to
The issue at stake was a religious one, and therefore the challenge takes place between the magicians and Moshe and Aharon. Ultimately, it is the magicians who understand and declare, "It is the finger of God" the magicians, and not Pharaoh. This may be the result of the special hardening of Pharaoh's heart. But there may also be a different reason: Pharaoh knew that the magicians were capable of performing various special feats through their scientific powers, therefore he was able to attribute such "magical" powers to Moshe and Aharon, too. But the magicians were conscious of the limits of scientific powers, and at a certain stage were forced to admit, "It is the finger of God."
It is possible that for Bnei Yisrael, too, the signs were not a test of faith. This was not an attempt to prove that Moshe was a genuine prophet of God. The signs did provide a certain degree of reinforcement of faith, but this was not their purpose. For Am Yisrael, too, the signs were symbols of strength and encouragement: a sign that the inanimate staff was going to come alive, a sign that even a leprous hand could heal, a sign that the Egyptians were going to be punished through having their water turn to blood. These signs, along with God's encouraging promise, "I have surely remembered you," gave Am Yisrael hope and strengthened their faith that God was going to save them.
The signs were not meant to establish faith, but they nevertheless gave the nation a lesson in faith. They strengthened within the people the wonderful vision that arises out of a miserable reality. They strengthened their understanding that reality should be read differently, and the understanding that it is God's hand that decides, rather than the power of the serpent. Such "proof" strengthens our faith in God's future redemption of His nation, providing strength even in the most difficult of times. It gives the nation the sense that the promise, "I have surely remembered you" may be sensed even within the reality of "Bnei Yisrael groaned from the labor," giving hope and faith:
And the people believed, and they accepted that the Lord had remembered Bnei Yisrael, and that He had seen their suffering, and they bowed down and prostrated themselves.
 Is the sign also meant for Moshe, or only for the nation? The Rishonim are divided on this question. To Rambans view, the reinforcement of faith is meant for the nation and not for Moshe. For him, the signs are merely an indication that he is destined to perform original acts (or some other sign of punishment). However, it is possible that the signs are meant to strengthen Moshes faith that God is indeed giving him the power to carry out his mission (see Abarbanel).
 In contrast to Rambams view, the Kuzari (maamar 1, sections 11-13; 25; 80-87; 91) maintains that the signs performed in Egypt can establish faith.
 Are these the same signs that Moshe did for Bnei Yisrael, or was there another command concerning signs, which is not recorded in the text? The answer is not clear, but in any case the signs are not awarded central importance here, and we shall discuss this further below.
 While the Torah does not tell us that Pharaoh indeed requested such a sign, it seems that the Torah simply omits mentioning it. It seems clear that the demonstration of the sign did take place, in light of Gods words to Moshe. Ramban reaches this conclusion in the story of Shekhem (Ramban, Bereishit 42:34; Nechama Leibowitz, Shemot p. 120, note 4).
 In the plague of blood, too, we read, The magicians of Egypt did the same, and the commentators try to prove that the feat of Moshe and Aharon was greater. Ibn Ezra, for example, comments as follows: There is a great difference between Aharons act and their act, for Aharon turned the entire river that was before him, and all the water throughout the borders of Egypt which he could not see [into blood]. Moreover, he changed water that was not standing, but continuously flowing and being replaced with other water. And further: the plague lasted for seven days. The magicians were able to demonstrate only the changing of a small quantity of water inside a vessel [into blood], and just for one moment, until Pharaoh returned to his house.
 See Alshikh ad loc.
 The Rishonim are divided as to whether the magicians actually succeeded in performing any real feat. Rambam (Moreh Nevukhim, part III, chapter 37), insists that witchcraft has no substance, and some of the commentators adopt this view. However, Ramban (commenting on our chapter) and other commentators seem to suggest that there was some substance to the actions of the magicians. From the Ran it appears that their words did contain something real, based on real, scientific knowledge (but see also derasha #5 of the Ran; we shall not elaborate further here.)
 What appeared to Moshe was a snake, while for the Egyptians the staff turned into a serpent. These two animals are mentioned together in the verse, You shall tread upon the lion and the snake; you shall trample the young lion and the serpent (Tehillim 91:13). Perhaps the different manifestation was because of the conditions in the desert, where there is no water and where we find snakes, but not serpents. See Cassuto, Commentary on Sefer Shemot; A. Chakham, Daat Mikra Shemot, 7:9; Nechama Leibowitz, Iyunim Chadashim be-Sefer Shemot, p. 120. The Midrash quoted above emphasizes that the serpent was a symbol attributed especially and specifically to Pharaoh; perhaps this is the reason for the difference.
 The scope of this shiur does not allow for a lengthy discussion of the significance of the symbolism behind the signs.