Why 1 Serpent is Better Than 100

This week’s parsha reminds me of the kid’s game rock-paper-scissors.

When I was growing up in Los Angeles, here is how we described the winner of each round:

  • Rock breaks scissors
  • Scissors cuts paper
  • Paper covers rock

No matter what choice you make, you might win or you might lose. Sure, if you both make the same choice, then the game is a draw. But I always played to win :-).


Before the first plague, Hashem sends Moses (Moshe) to Pharaoh (Paro). The basic message to Pharaoh is to send the Jewish people out of Egypt (see Exodus 6:10).

Also, Moses and his brother Aaron (Aharon) are told to show Pharaoh a sign. This is recorded in the Torah as the incident of the staff turning into a serpent.

Here is the Judaic Classics translation of Exodus / Shemot 7:8-13:

Exodus Chapter 7

8. And the Lord spoke to Moses and to Aaron, saying,

9. When Pharaoh shall speak to you, saying, Show a miracle; then you shall say to Aaron, Take your rod, and throw it before Pharaoh, and it shall become a serpent.

10. And Moses and Aaron went to Pharaoh, and they did as the Lord had commanded; and Aaron threw down his rod before Pharaoh, and before his servants, and it became a serpent.

11. Then Pharaoh also called the wise men and the sorcerers; now the magicians of Egypt, they also did in like manner with their enchantments.

12. For they threw down every man his rod, and they became serpents; but Aaron’s rod swallowed up their rods.

13. And he hardened Pharaoh’s heart, that he listened not to them; as the Lord had said.

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One of the problems raised in this week’s parsha is free will. Does Pharaoh have free will? In other words, does Pharaoh have the capacity to say to himself,

“Yes, I understand what Moses and Aaron are telling me and showing me. I am now convinced that Hashem is God. Because I have this clarity, I now know that the proper course of action is to allow the Jewish people to leave Egypt.”

My approach in understanding the beginning of Sefer Shemot is that Pharaoh did have free will.

Later, during the actual plagues, there is a strong basis for saying that his free will was taken away. But now, especially at this incident with the serpent, I understand that Pharaoh had complete free will.

Also, is Pharaoh faced with two competing claims that are equally convincing? If one claim is clearly superior to the other, then not much of a choice is involved.

We need to understand exactly the nature of the choice that Pharaoh was facing.


I asked a number of questions earlier this week. Let’s try to answer a few of them.

The first time Moses spoke to Pharaoh the outcome was not so positive. Pharaoh proclaimed:

Who is Hashem that I should listen to Him to send away the Jewish People? I don’t know Hashem and also I will not send away the Jewish People. (Exodus 5:2)

Pharaoh had no problem with the concept that the Jews should have their own god. Everybody else did, so why not them?

He did have a problem with why the Jewish god should make any demands on him.

In this week’s parsha, Pharaoh requests, “Give for yourself a wonder.” He was asking for Moses and Aaron to authenticate the one who sent them. They claimed to come as Hashem’s messengers. So, prove that Hashem has power that should be respected and obeyed.

The answer to this challenge is that Aaron tossed his staff on the ground and it became a tanin.


What is a tanin?

The word is often translated as snake or serpent. However, the word is used in Tanach to refer to an aquatic creature. Also, the word is used in Yechezkel 29:3 in reference to Pharaoh:

Speak, and say, Thus says the Lord God: Behold, I am against you, Pharaoh king of Egypt, the great crocodile (tanin) that lies in the midst of his streams, which has said, My river is my own, and I have made it for myself. (Judaic Classics translation)

We see that the tanin is a large aquatic creature, probably a crocodile.

Aaron’s staff has turned into a crocodile. How did Pharaoh react? He called for his wise men, sorcerers, and magicians. All of them threw their staffs on the ground and they also became crocodiles.

So now the score is tied. Nothing has been proved.

Who Swallowed Who?

But the Torah adds one more phrase: Aaron’s staff swallowed their staffs.

The verse does not say that Aaron’s crocodile swallowed their crocodiles. Why not?

The Netziv in his commentary HaEmek Davar explains the nature of sorcery. After its affect wears off, the object returns to its natural state. The Egyptian’s operated with the power of sorcery, so their crocodiles turned back into inanimate staffs.

Aaron’s staff had turned into a crocodile. But not via the power of sorcery but via the power of Hashem to transform the natural world. It also turned back into a staff, but it was still animated and able to swallow the Egyptian staffs.

This is the key point in the whole demonstration. Now it is up to Pharaoh. Does he accept that what he just saw could only come from Hashem, God who controls nature. Or, does he say, “Yeah, that was good. Their sorcery is just that much better than ours.”

To go back to the kid’s game, Pharaoh said to himself, “This time I chose scissors and they chose rock. OK, they won. Next time, I’ll choose paper.”

Did Pharaoh have free will? Yes, and he used it to rationalize away the great demonstration of Hashem’s power that he had just seen.

Make It Personal

What steps can you take to ensure that you accept and acknowledge the truth when you see it?

What do you think? Agree? Disagree?

Please share your thoughts in the comments.

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Photo Credit: from Flickr by Ecstatic Mark.

A Note on the Translations
The translation of Bible verses is based on the Judaica Press Tanach.
The translation of Gemara is based on the Soncino Talmud.
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