Portion of the Week / Yakov Z. Meyer |

Serpents, Rods and Wonders / Parashat Va’era

Yakov Z. Meyer
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Yakov Z. Meyer

Before Moses and Aaron are to appear before Pharaoh, God commands them: “And the Lord spoke unto Moses and unto Aaron, saying: ‘When Pharaoh shall speak unto you, saying: Show a wonder for you; then thou shalt say unto Aaron: Take thy rod, and cast it down before Pharaoh, that it become a serpent’” (Exodus 7:8-9). Pharaoh is the first biblical figure who immediately refuses to accept God’s words. Perhaps in light of Pharaoh’s declaration, at the end of last week’s Torah reading – “Who is the Lord, that I should hearken unto His voice to let Israel go? I know not the Lord, and moreover I will not let Israel go” (Exod. 5:2) – God knows in advance that the Egyptian ruler will demand to be shown a “wonder” (mofet, in Hebrew) that will prove the validity of the message that is being delivered to him. For that reason, God instructs Moses and Aaron how they must conduct themselves when they make their initial appearance before Pharaoh.

As can be deduced from the above, a “wonder” is a small miracle. Aaron throws down his staff at Pharaoh’s feet and the staff turns into a serpent. On seeing this wonder, Pharaoh responds with a wonder of his own: “Then Pharaoh also called for the wise men and the sorcerers; and they also, the magicians of Egypt, did in like manner with their secret arts. For they cast down every man his rod, and they became serpents” (Exod. 7:11-12). Pharaoh’s magicians are apparently capable of conducting such a metamorphosis and transforming a rod into a serpent. So, Pharaoh scores a tie in the first quarter of this game.

In bringing in his magicians to imitate Aaron’s actions, the Egyptian leader is seeking to create a balance of power. If they can buttress their message with a single wonder, Moses and Aaron’s power can be shown to be greater than Pharaoh’s, and the Egyptian ruler will be forced to free the Israelites. On the other hand, if he can provide a counter-wonder of equal magnitude, he will not feel obligated to free them.

In the picture of the balance of power that Pharaoh imagines, the presentation of a wonder followed by the presentation of a counter-wonder of equal strength will, in essence, recalibrate the balance of power between himself and God, and will therefore free the ruler from the obligation of obeying God’s word. Although God initiates the wonder of the rod being transformed into a serpent, Pharaoh, in bringing in his sorcerers to perform the same wonder, thinks that he is calling the shots in this game.

Since the serpents metaphorically confront each other and since the power of Aaron’s wonder seems to have been equaled by that of the magicians’ counter-wonder, the matter seems to be settled according to the rules of the game established by Pharaoh. Now, however, the paradigm is shattered: “but Aaron’s rod swallowed up their rods” (Exod. 7:12). At this moment, the limited game of mutual presentations that Pharaoh has constructed becomes a farce. While Aaron’s serpent “follows” the very rules of the game that Pharaoh thinks he has dictated (according to which, each serpent expresses or reflects the power of its owner’s words), the tables are actually turned on Pharaoh: The moment the wonders are essentially balanced out, their significance as embodiments of power is canceled and they become representations of their respective owners.

The scene then shifts from a display of wonders to the manifestation of a mythological power struggle between Pharaoh and God. The metamorphosis turns the space in which Moses, Aaron, Pharaoh and Pharaoh’s wise men, sorcerers and magicians operate into a stage. This space, which is a parallel of reality, embodies that reality, reflects it and perhaps even prophesizes its future.

Pharaoh’s reaction is predictable: “And Pharaoh’s heart was hardened, and he hearkened not unto them; as the Lord had spoken” (Exod. 7:13). Here as well, just as in last week’s Torah portion, the moment the rules of the game that have been established by Pharaoh collapse, he refuses to recognize the new situation.

The victory of Aaron’s rod over those of the magicians does not lead to any catharsis being experienced by the reader or to any change of heart on the part of Pharaoh. Just as he did when Moses and Aaron first appeared before him, the Egyptian ruler decides to ignore the message they now deliver. A comic effect is created because of the gap between the reader’s perception of the situation and Pharaoh’s perception of it. Unlike the ruler who seems unwilling to recognize the meaning of the demonstration of Aaron’s rod-turned-serpent swallowing up the rods-turned-serpents of Pharaoh’s magicians – the reader already comprehends how this demonstration symbolizes Pharaoh’s ultimate and necessary demise.

However, there is perhaps an additional stratum in this demonstration. The swallowing up of Pharaoh’s serpents is an allusion to an image appearing in chapter 41 of Genesis, when Pharaoh has his dreams of the thin cows swallowing up the fat cows and the thin sheaves of wheat swallowing up the fat sheaves. His dreams trouble him deeply, and rightly so.

Generally speaking, cannibalism appears in nature when a threat looms over the horizon: Only when they feel a present and immediate danger to their very lives do animals attack and consume their own kind. The dreams seen by Pharaoh, ruler of the “eternal” Egyptian kingdom, express an abnormal reaction to a threat; the threat, however, is invisible, and Pharaoh needs an interpretation that will grant meaning to the dream in another fashion. In Joseph’s interpretation, the cows and the sheaves of wheat do not attest to a crack in Pharaoh’s eternal kingdom but are simply presented as different time sequences. “The kingdom is not eternal because nothing human can ever be eternal,” is what Joseph is, in fact, telling Pharaoh. “The good years will pass and will be replaced by bad ones and thus – the solution is so simple – the abundance of the plentiful years must be saved for the lean ones.” Joseph replaces Pharaoh’s vision of a threat to his eternal kingdom with a dynamic picture of a changing reality in which one must prepare for the future.

The swallowing up of Pharaoh’s magicians’ serpents by Aaron’s serpent is an allusion to Pharaoh’s dreams, as described in Genesis 41. When Aaron throws his rod down at Pharaoh’s feet and it becomes a serpent, Pharaoh instructs his magicians to follow suit. In this manner, he hopes to achieve a balance of power. At this moment, however, he sees before his very eyes what he thinks is the embodiment of the dreams of his predecessor on the Egyptian throne.

This time, the swallowing-up image is the precise reverse of Joseph’s interpretation. In this week’s Torah reading, it is not a call to prepare for the future in order to ensure the Egyptian kingdom’s survival, but rather the expression of the inherent fissure in Pharaoh’s stable picture of his world. The history of the Egyptian kings becomes a literary tool in Aaron’s hands: Through the scene that Pharaoh stage-manages, Aaron – or rather, God, who has sent him – creates the allusion to the dreams of the previous Pharaoh, and reminds the present one “who knew not Joseph” (Exod. 1:8) of Joseph’s interpretation. Pharaoh is given the hint that time is a dynamic entity: The future swallows up the present, just as Aaron’s serpent swallows up the magicians’ serpents, and Pharaoh’s time will come.

"Moses and Aaron before Pharaoh" by François II de Dinteville (1537).Credit: Wikimedia Commons