For their first meeting with the Egyptian monarch, Moses and Aaron were instructed by G‑d to demonstrate a miraculous feat: Aaron was to cast his staff before Pharaoh whereupon it would turn into a snake. So he did - but was quickly matched by the Egyptians wizards who performed the same trick. Then, after all the snakes had reverted to their original status as staffs, Aaron's staff swallowed the staffs of the wizards, ending the contest. This discourse discusses the inner significance of the staff-snake-staff sequence and why this was the sign chosen to introduce Pharaoh and Egypt to what was for them a new reality.

And G‑d said to Moses and to Aaron…"Take your staff and cast it before Pharaoh and it shall turn into a snake." (Ex. 7:9-13)

As is known, the sparks of Tohu descended throughout the world. This is alluded to in the verse: "And a river goes out from Eden to water the Garden and from there divides into four heads. The name of the first is Pishon…" (Gen. 2:10:11) The river that leaves Eden refers the divine light of the world of Oneness - hence one river - that descends into the world of Separateness and divides into separate rivers.

Rivers differ one from another; one river may contain sweet and clear waters, a second river not so. They may differ in size as well; one river may be 200 Persian Miles long, another 100, etc. Similarly, the supernal rivers also differ from one another, so that the river of Pishon, which represents the Nile (and the spiritual being of Egypt) received more of the sparks of Tohu than did that of Babylon etc. Thus the length of each of Israel's exiles in foreign lands is determined by the amount [and quality] of sparks present in the specific place of exile. The Israelites emptied Egypt and left it like the depths of the sea that contain no fish…

Behold it is written that the Israelites "emptied Egypt" (in Hebrew "vayinatzlu et Mitzraim (Ex. 12:36)). The Talmud points out that the word for "emptied" (in Hebrew, "vayinatzlu") shares a root with the word for "the depths (of the sea)" (in Hebrew, "metzula"), suggesting that the Israelites emptied Egypt and left it like the depths of the sea that contain no fish. (Berachot 9b) [On the literal level, this refers to all the riches the Israelites took with them as they left Egypt, but the deeper meaning of this is that] the Israelites gathered the sparks of divinity that had fallen at the beginning of Creation from the world of Tohu and were embedded in the Land of Egypt. Not one spark remained after the Israelites departure. [This, in fact, was the purpose of their descent into Egypt: to elevate the sparks buried there. Once that goal had been accomplished, they were ready to leave.]

The Soul Metaphor

Let us understand the idea of the fall of these sparks and their elevation by comparing them to the soul. The soul of man, prior to its descent into a physical body, exists in a state of utter transparency in the presence of the Infinite Light. Hence the verse "[I swear by the life of] G‑d, before Whom I stood…." (Kings I 17:1, see Zohar III:68b) - stood, past tense, referring to the soul's earlier position of standing before G‑d, i.e., before its descent into a body. At that point of its existence, no barrier of concealment and darkness stands between it and its Source, and it therefore is fully aware of its Source and nullified to it. Once enclothed in the physical body, however, the soul no longer "stands before G‑d". The corporeality of the body distorts its vision, and the world and its contents appear as independent from the divine reality. The soul does not see the nothingness of the worlds in relation to the Infinite Light, which continually dictates their existence, and without which they are naught. The only way to extract the fruit from the shell is to break the shell…

In a similar way, the sparks of Tohu fell from an all-encompassing awareness of the Divine and descended into the kelipot of the lower worlds. The kelipot then cloak the sparks in a veil of darkness from all sides so that they can no longer sense the divine reality - hence the name "kelipot", meaning "shells", which surround and obscure the fruit, like the shell of a walnut. The sparks then gain a sense of self and separateness. As Pharaoh proclaims: "It is my river; I created myself" (Ezekiel 29:3 and 9, translated as understood in Chasidic texts; it is more commonly translated as "I created the river myself.")

Shattering Shells

The only way to extract the fruit from the shell is to break the shell. So, too, in order to extract the sparks from the kelipot, the kelipot must be shattered. When the kelipa is broken, the spark can once again perceive divinity and be subsumed within it.

This shattering took place through the miracles and the plagues that Egypt witnessed - hence the verse "And Egypt shall know that I am G‑d". (Ex. 7:5) Through the demonstration of miracles and wonders, as well as the plagues, Egypt would come to know the divine reality. The word for "and know" (in Hebrew, "viyeidu") in the above verse can also mean "break". (see Judges 8:16) The verse then can be understood to refer to the breaking of the kelipot, which would allow the sparks embedded in Egypt to once again "know G‑d". (Indeed, the Israelites themselves did not need these miraculous demonstrations, since they are "believers, children of believers".)

Staffs and Snakes

Now we can understand the significance of the first sign shown to Pharaoh, which served as an introduction to all the miracles and plagues that were to follow. As explained, the miracles "shattered the kelipot" by showing that, in truth, even the kelipot constantly receive their existence from holiness - that in truth the kelipot are not an independent existence but are rather entirely nullified to the divine light that sustains them. It is the numerous veils and intense obscurity that eventually allow a being to see itself as separate, i.e. "the river is mine and I created myself". Thus when a bright light that transcends the obscurities is revealed, the obscurities become null and void. The snake ultimately owes its existence to the staff…

This is the concept of the miracle of the staff. "Staff" in Hebrew is "mateh", which can also connote "lean" or "incline". Another word for "staff", "shevet", connotes movement and transmission, as in the term for a shooting star, "kochva d'shavit". The staff, then, symbolizes the direction and transmission of holiness throughout the structure of all worlds.

The snake, or "taneen" in Hebrew, on the other hand, is a symbol of the source of the kelipa of Egypt, as in the verse "the great taneem, crouching in its rivers". (Ezekiel 29:3)

By turning the staff into a snake, Moses and Aaron showed Pharaoh that the "snake" ultimately owes its existence to the "staff", i.e. the order of holiness through which the divine energy descends through myriad concealments to give life (even to kelipa). They then showed him how the snake turns back into a staff and Aaron's staff swallows the others. This symbolized the fact that ultimately the snake, the kelipa, is subsumed in holiness with the raising of the sparks. They thereby showed Pharaoh and Egypt that the kelipa is not an independent being. Rather, it must receive G‑dly light every instant for its existence, albeit a light that conceals itself well. When that light is revealed, the snake reverts to its true nature.

Indeed, this was the meaning of all the miracles, so that "Egypt would know that I am G‑d."

Adapted from Torah Ohr

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