When Paroh speaks to you, saying “Provide a wonder,”…take your
staff and cast it down before Paroh. It will become a snake…Paroh, too,
summoned his wise men and sorcerers, and they, too…did so with their
Be’er Yosef: A midrash has it that Paroh not only was unimpressed by this
great “wonder” that Moshe performed, but that he used it to mock and deride
Moshe. Not content to replicate the “miracle” through his wise practitioners
of the occult, he turned to laypeople to do the same. Before the encounter
with Moshe ended, Paroh had four and five year-old children turning staffs
into snakes. Paroh’s wife did the same! This was supposed to impress him?
So what, then, was actually the point? What was gained by a demonstration
that fizzled rather than sparkled?
A midrash teaches that this “wonder” was not intended to prove Moshe’s great
magical powers, but to convey to Paroh a message without having to use words
that perhaps could not be uttered. Through this episode, Moshe relayed that
Paroh had become the snake! He and his people were thorough evidloers; they
could be represented by the ancient symbol of evil, the primordial serpent.
Specifically, the snake message alluded to what certainly would be a cynical
objection by Paroh and his court to any suggestion that the Egyptians were
mistreating the Bnei Yisrael. Why should they be faulted, if the Jews
themselves had a tradition that G-d foretold of a 400-year exile and
oppression? Surely they were only following Divine instruction in carrying
out the plan He had announced to Avrohom at the bris bein habesarim!
The question, raised by Rambam2 , is addressed by many
commentators. The Raavad (joined by Ramban) writes that Hashem decreed only
that the Bnei Yisrael be “afflicted” in exile. The Egyptians greatly
exceeded this decree, subjecting them to harsh labor conditions that broke
them and killed them. This was not called for in what Hashem conveyed to
Avraham. In going beyond His mandate, they assumed responsibility for their
Here we arrive at Moshe’s message in the failed “wonder.” Paroh was slated
to be nothing more than a mateh, a staff which is sometimes wielded for
mild, humane punishment. Instead, they themselves turned the mateh into a
serpent, heaping evil upon evil. They had earned and justified whatever
punishment G-d would now visit upon them.
Another important message was communicated in this episode. A midrash
reports that Aharon’s mateh did not change in appearance, despite its
swallowing up heaps of staffs cast down before it by all of Paroh’s
sorcerers. Its girth did not expand; one could not tell that it had
swallowed anything at all.
This may sound familiar. It paralleled Paroh’s dream of the lean cows
swallowing the fat ones.3 There, too, the gaunt cows showed no
signs of changed appearance after their hearty meal. Yosef’s interpretation
was that the famine would be so severe, that it would entirely erase the
memory and positive effects of the years of plenty.4
Moshe and Aharon delivered the equivalent message to Paroh. The blows from
Hashem delivered through Aharon’s mateh would be so severe, that all of the
blows that the Egyptians had rained down upon the Bnei Yisrael would be
insignificant relative to the makos. No one would pay any further attention
to that period of time. The painful effects of the ten makos – symbolized by
Aharon’s mateh – would be so severe, that they would remains a topic of
attention and conversation. No one would bother speaking about any other pain.