Moshe was filled with anxiety at the very thought of approaching Pharaoh to demand that his people be freed. In response, God presented Moshe and his brother Aharon with a sign to perform before Pharaoh to convince him that their mission did indeed have God’s imprimatur:
And the Lord said to Moshe and to Aharon, saying: “Should Pharaoh speak to you, saying: ‘Give you a portent,’ you shall say to Aharon, ‘Take your staff and fling it down before Pharaoh, let it become a serpent.’” (Exodus 7:8-9)
When Moshe and Aharon performed this feat, Pharaoh’s sorcerers followed suit and enacted the very same wonder; at which point, Moshe and Aharon’s serpent, after having been transformed back into a staff, swallows up Pharaoh’s serpents.
The rabbinic sages did not take this “magic act” for granted and in the following drasha try to tease out its significance. This midrash is of the type called a “Halakhic Petikha,” namely it opens with a legal question and only towards the end with an attempt to answer our particular textual inquiry. We will here present an excerpt from this drasha, examining it section by section:
Teach us, our masters whether a man who is bitten by a serpent while praying the Amidah (the standing prayer) may stop praying. Our masters teach us [in a Mishnah (M. Berachot 5:1)]: A man praying the Amidah may not respond to the greeting of a king, nor may he stop praying when a serpent wraps around his heel. Once a particularly poisonous snake attacked and bit Rabbi Hanina ben Dosa while he was standing in prayer and his disciples fled in fear. Upon their return an hour later, they found the snake lying dead near its den. They cried out: “Woe to the man whom a snake bites, but woe to the snake that attacks Rabbi Hanina ben Dosa…” (Adapted from Tanhuma Vaera 4)
The drasha opens by asking about the proper response of a person who is praying the Amidah, which required the utmost intention (Kavana), if confronted by a king or when bitten by a snake, both of which are potentially life-threatening situations. This question, raised on account of the Mishnah which is brought as its answer (since the Mishnah precedes the question as an earlier source), is immediately answered by quoting the strict opinion of the Mishnah without comment or modification, though one might consider the story of Rabbi Hanina ben Dosa as a retreat from its absolutist answer, since none of us measure up to Rabbi Hanina’s piety.
What is notable from our perspective, though, is the author’s perceptive association between the poisonous snake and a king, found in the Mishnah, and the staff turned snake and Pharaoh-king found in the Torah’s story. This nexus provides the connection between the above halakhic discussion and the conclusion of the drasha:
What prompted the comparison between the kingdom of Egypt and the snake? Just as the snake winds its way about (literally: walks crookedly), so, too, the ways of [the Egyptian] government are devious [literally: crooked]. Hence the Holy One, blessed be He, said to Moshe: Just as the serpent is cunning, so too is the wicked Pharaoh. When he is about to deal cunningly with you: “Say to Aharon: ‘Take your staff, and fling it down before Pharaoh’ (Exodus 7:9), hanging it before him, as if to warn him, you (Pharaoh) will be smitten with this…” (Ibid.)
In the Mishnah, the crooked snake is both a danger and an impediment to proper intention in prayer. So, too, in the Torah’s story Pharaoh’s crookedness is a danger and obstacle to the people’s well-being and its relationship with God. The midrash would have it that God will “straighten out” Pharaoh’s crookedness. The “staightened” staff will ultimately swallow the “crooked” snake. Evil will be overcome, chaos exiled and cosmos restored. This is our ongoing prayer in these troubled days. May this prayer soon be fulfilled.