Serpents And Snakes
The different miracles performed before the Israelites and before the Egyptians symbolize the different messages communicated to each group.
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When God appoints Moses and Aaron to lead the Jews' exodus from Egypt, the brothers are charged with a dual responsibility. On one hand, they must confront and negotiate with Pharaoh to secure the release of their people. On the other, Moses and Aaron must also convince the Jews to accept them as leaders and reliable bearers of God's word.
Each of these processes began in Parashat Sh'mot (which we read last week), and continues in this week's parasha, Vaera. Rather than rely only on oration or logical persuasion to accomplish their goals, Moses and Aaron perform miracles as well. An interesting contrast between one of the miracles performed in last week's parashah and one in this week's sheds light on the very different nature of the message being transmitted to the Jews from that being communicated to their Egyptian captors.
In Parashat Sh'mot, God appears to Moses and appoints him as the individual to lead the Jews out of slavery. In a lengthy dialogue, Moses protests that he is not suited for the task, while God maintains that Moses is destined for leadership. Among his many concerns, Moses expresses doubt as to whether the Jews will believe that God has appeared to him and appointed him to lead them out of Egypt. God responds by equipping Moses with several "signs" (miracles) to convince the Jews of his divine approval.
Different Images of Moses & The Snake
In one of these miracles, Moses is commanded to throw down his staff, and when he does so, it turns into a snake (nachash). God then tells Moses to grab the snake by the tail, and when he does so the snake reverts back into a staff. This miracle, along with two others, is used to convince the Jews that Moses is the legitimate messenger of God.
In Parashat Vaera, a similar miracle takes place. Moses and Aaron confront Pharaoh, bearing God's command that the Jews be set free. Not surprisingly, their request meets with cynicism and rejection. However, to demonstrate that they have, in fact, been sent by God, Aaron is commanded to throw down his staff, which turns into a serpent (tanin).
Unimpressed by this display, Pharaoh calls on his magicians, who also turn their staffs into serpents. However, Aaron's staff devours those of the Egyptians. (The medieval commentator Rashi notes that the verse says that the staff of Aaron devours the staffs of the Egyptians, rather than saying that the serpent of Aaron devoured the serpent of the Egyptians. According to Rashi, this is a "miracle within a miracle," because somehow the devouring took place after the respective serpents turned back into staffs.)