NOT FOR PROFIT
In this week's Torah portion we read about the encounter that occurred between G-d and Moses at the burning bush. Here G-d provides Moses with the instructions regarding His plan to take the Jewish people out of Egypt.
In this week's Torah portion we read about the encounter that occurred between G-d and Moses at the burning bush. Here G-d provides Moses with the instructions regarding His plan to take the Jewish people out of Egypt. Upon receiving these instructions, Moses expresses his concern, "But they will not believe me and they will not heed my voice, for they will say, G-d did not appear to you" (Exodus 4:1). In order to assuage Moses' concerns, G-d instructs him to throw his staff to the ground whereupon it turns into a snake. The snake returns to its previous state (a staff) only after Moses grabs its tail. Additionally, Moses is directed to put his hand in his shirt and when he pulls it out, it is "leprous like snow" (ibid. 4:6). When Moses returns his hand to his shirt and pulls it out again it reverts back "to be like his flesh." G-d provides these signs to Moses in order to assist him in convincing the Jewish people that the course of action he was taking was from G-d's word and not his own.
The Beis HaLevi, one of the most brilliant Talmudists of the 19th century, relates a question pertaining to why G-d specifically chose the snake and leprosy as the signs to be utilized. In the case of the snake, the Beis HaLevi says that just as it is the way of the snake to bite and kill man, so to Pharaoh was attempting to bite and kill the Jewish people. As well, just as Moses' staff reverted back to a lifeless piece of wood, this would be the fate of Pharaoh and his people when they would wither away and die. The choice of leprosy is symbolizing the intent of the Egyptians and is also an indicator of what the ultimate outcome would be. A leper is considered tamei (impure) and causes others to be impure. The Egyptians were impure and causing the Jewish people to become impure. Similar to Moses' hand becoming clean from the impurity of the leprosy, the Jewish people would later become spiritually cleansed from the impurity of the Egyptians.
These two signs represented the dual intent of the Egyptians in their enslavement of the Jewish people. One was literally a physical assault on their bodies by subjecting them to brutally hard work. The other was an assault on their souls and their psyche, with the ultimate goal being the crushing of the Jewish people's resolve to remain separate from the impure ways of the Egyptians.
After relating this symbolism of the use of the snake, the Beis HaLevi states that there is a deeper message here. There are many dangerous animals that bite and kill their prey. What was Hashem trying to teach us with the choice of the snake? The Beis HaLevi teaches us that the choice of the snake reveals another dimension of the Egyptian's motivation to physically enslave the Jewish people. In most cases of slavery the primary purpose is profit, the amount of production that can be obtained from the work of slaves. That was not the case with the Egyptians' enslavement of the Jewish people. The primary purpose was to cause the Jewish people to drop to a lower spiritual level and to ultimately abandon their religion. The physical enslavement was just a means to an end. It was employed with the intent that the Jews would opt to leave their religion in order to lessen their workload.
When the Jews were circumcising their sons, the Egyptians questioned them about why they were continuing this practice. The Egyptians told the Jews that if they were to become more like them (by refraining from the practice of circumcision) their workload would be lessened. The Midrash also states that the Egyptians made the men do the women's jobs and the women were required to do the men's jobs. Again, this reveals that the primary intent was not in the profitability of the labor, but the sheer breakdown of the psyche of the Jewish people so that they will abandon their religion.
This intent of causing the Jewish people to lessen their commitment to their religion through physical labor is symbolized through G-d's choice of the snake. While other animals of prey kill for the purpose of eating what they have caught, the snake is solely motivated by the degree of damage it can inflict. In the use of the snake as a sign, G-d was hinting to Moses that Pharaoh was just like the snake and the primary intent of this enslavement was not for the profit he could gain, but for the spiritual damage he could inflict on the Jewish people.
Aaron Feldman writes from Atlanta.
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