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staffs and snakes


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)


As 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.

Behold 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.]

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….” (I Kings 17:1[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” (Ezekiel 29:3,9).[2]

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 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.

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 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.”)

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 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.]

[1] See Zohar 3:68b.

[2] Thus is the verse understood in Chasidic texts. It is more commonly translated as “I created the river myself.”


From a discourse of Rabbi Shneur Zalman, "the Alter Rebbe."

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.


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