Adapted from a discourse of Rabbi Shneur Zalman, "the Alter Rebbe."
by Rabbi Yossi Marcus
For their first meeting with the Egyptian monarch, Moshe
and Aharon were instructed by G‑d to demonstrate a miraculous feat:
Aharon 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, Aharon’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 Moshe and to Aharon…”Take your staff and cast
it before Pharaoh and it shall turn into a snake…(Ex. 7:9-13)
is known, the sparks of Tohu descended throughout the world. This is alluded to
in the verse (Gen. 2:10,11), “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…” 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.
Just as 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 parsa [a parsa is approximately
two and a half miles], 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.
it is written (Ex. 12:36) that the Israelites “emptied Egypt”—vayinatzlu es
Mitzraim. The Talmud points out that the word for emptied (vayinatzlu)
shares a root with the word for the depths (of the sea) (metzulah),
suggesting that the Israelites emptied Egypt and left it like the depths of the
sea that contain no fish (Berachos 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.]
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….” (I Kings 17:1)—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.
In a similar way, the sparks of Tohu fell from an all-encompassing awareness
of the Divine and descended into the kelipos of the lower worlds.
The kelipos 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
kelipos, 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”
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 kelipos, the
kelipos must be shattered. When the kelipah 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.
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 know (viyeidu) can also mean break
(see Judges 8:16). The verse then can be understood to refer to the breaking
of the kelipos, 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.”)
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 kelipos”
by showing that in truth even the kelipos constantly receive their existence
from holiness—that in truth the kelipos are not an independent existence
but are rather entirely nullified to the Divine light that sustains them. It is
the numerous veils and intense concealments that eventually allow for a being
that sees itself as separate, “the river is mine and I created myself.” Thus when
a bright light that transcends the concealments is revealed, the concealments
become null and void.
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, sheivet, connotes movement and transmission
as in kochva d’shavit, “a shooting star.” The Staff, then, symbolizes
the inclining and transmission of holiness throughout the structure of all worlds.
The snake, or tannin, on the other hand, is a symbol of the source
of the kelipah of Egypt, as in the verse (Ezekiel 29:3) “the great tannim,
crouching in its rivers.”
By turning the staff into a snake, Moshe and Aharon
showed Pharaoh that the “snake” ultimately owes its existence to the “staff”—to
the order of holiness through which the Divine energy descends through myriad
concealments to give life even to kelipah. They then showed him how the
snake turns back into a staff and Aharon’s staff swallows the others. This symbolized
the fact that ultimately the snake, the kelipah, is subsumed in holiness
with the raising of the sparks. They thereby showed Pharaoh and to Egypt that
kelipah 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 and summarized
by Rabbi Yosef Marcus from Torah Ohr.]
From a discourse of Rabbi Shneur Zalman, "the
Rabbi Yossi Marcus is
director of Chabad outreach activities in S. Mateo, California. He is
also the editor of the Q&A database at AskMoses.com and is one of the
translators at Kehot Publication Society.