Moshe and the snakes: The staff that dreams are made of

Exodus 1:1-6:1
Isaiah 27:6-28:13, 29:22-23

When I was a child, a family friend used to ask me, “Judah, what’s that in your ear?” I would say, “What are you talking about?” He would proceed to pull a quarter out of it. This was amazing and amusing for a while, and ultimately became a bit stale. I wonder if all of our families had that friend.

I was reminded of this in looking at the beginning of the fourth chapter of this week’s Torah portion.

In it, HaShem asks Moshe, “What’s that in your hand?” Moshe responds, “It is a staff.” HaShem says, “Throw it to the ground.”

Moshe does so, and it becomes a snake. Moshe’s response to this is most natural when facing a snake: He runs away.

HaShem then instructs him to take it by the tail. (Please note that is highly inadvisable to pick up a dangerous snake by the tail unless you have training or HaShem tells you to do so.)

Moshe follows orders, and the snake turns back into a stick.

I was left wondering, what is the point of HaShem’s question?

Of course he knows what Moshe has in his hand!

What is the point of this demonstration?

In order to understand this conversation, we may need to examine the larger context of the episode.

HaShem asks Moshe to go to Egypt and lead the Jewish people out of slavery.

Moshe is reluctant — Pharaoh won’t listen to him, the Jewish people won’t listen to him, he can’t do it.

Consequently, there are many who interpret this episode as a message to Moshe that HaShem can give and take away life.

Moshe need not worry whether Pharaoh will listen or not — that will be HaShem’s problem.

There may, however, be a deeper level to this conversation.

The Talmud (Berachot 33B) quotes Rabbi Chaninah as stating that “all is in the hands of heaven, except for the fear of heaven.”

This means that we incorrectly assume that we determine the outcome of events.

What is in our control is the ability to make choices. To choose between right and wrong, between courses of action. Whether our intended outcome will occur is in HaShem’s hands.

With this in mind, Reb Nachman of Bratslav has a different reading of the text.

He points out that the word for a staff (“mateh”) may be the same root as “l’hatot,” to lean or choose between different paths.

Thus, HaShem asks Moshe, What is in your hand? What is truly in your hands? And Moshe answers, I see: What is in my hands is “mateh,” the choice. Not the outcome.

So the message to Moshe is “don’t worry about whether you think that you can make it happen.” That is not in your hands anyway. But if you have a dream of freeing the Jewish people, then what is in your hands is the ability to choose to follow that dream.

Make the choice to do this, says HaShem, and I will make it happen. But you have to choose to try.

This message speaks to the dreams that we all have.

We all have hopes for ourselves, our families, our communities. Dreams of spiritual growth and achievement.

The message sent by the Torah here is that we should not be deterred by our concerns that we may not succeed — that is not in our hands anyway.

What is in our hands is to try — and may HaShem grant us success in those endeavors.

Rabbi Judah Dardik is the spiritual leader at Orthodox Beth Jacob in Oakland. He can be reached at [email protected].