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We are all familiar with chai, the Hebrew word for life. Chai has a numeric value of eighteen, which is why it is common for Jews to donate to charity in multiples of eighteen. The Talmud tells us that charity saves us from premature death.[1] When we donate in multiples …

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Home » Vaeirah

Vaeira: Seeking The Truth

Submitted by on January 11, 2010 – 4:54 pmNo Comment | 1,331 views

Snakes and Sticks

Sticks are straight and unbending. They neither deceive nor mislead; they are what they appear to be. Snakes are serpentine; twisted and curved they slither silently and slyly conceal their approach. Dishonest people are colloquially described as snakelike whereas honest people are described as straight; as the expression goes, straight like an arrow.

Moses carried a staff, but when he entered Pharoh’s chamber G-d instructed him to throw his staff to the ground, where it turned into a snake. This can be metaphorically understood as G-d telling Moses not to expect Pharaoh to treat him with honesty; Pharaoh would be cunning and deceptive.

Pharaoh understood the symbolism and took up the challenge. He instructed his magicians and necromancers to transform their sticks into snakes. Our sages taught that Pharaoh gathered a large group of men, women and even children and instructed them 2to discard their sticks. Hundreds of sticks were discarded and all were transformed into snakes.
 
This can be metaphorically understood as Pharaoh throwing down the challenge. This is Egypt, his gesture said, and snakelike deception is our way of life. We deceived you into working for us and we will continue you to hold you in our grasp. Whatever you try we will have a ready response; every attempt at escape will be met, every thrust will be parried. You cannot overcome it; the snakelike pattern is embedded in our national psyche.

What is the proper response to serpentine behavior? At first glance one would suppose that under such conditions it is best to dispense with honesty and adopt a wily approach of intrigue. G-d considered this suggestion, when He instructed Aaron to transform his staff into a snake, implying that it might be best to adopt a snakelike attitude, but ultimately rejected it. By turning the snake back into a staff, G-d determined that despite Egyptian dishonesty, Moses and Aaron were to respond with honesty.

Would such a response succeed? Can honesty overcome deception? To answer this question G-d performed yet another miracle. Aaron’s staff swallowed the Egyptian snakes and remained slim as it was, giving no appearance of having swallowed hundreds of sticks. The message here was that falsehood is not lasting; it stumbles along for a while, but ultimately wilts under the uncompromising glare of truth. So clear is the superiority of truth that, when confronted by it, falsehood is discredited, leaving no sign of its former influence. Its arguments are completely discarded and the discerning mind is left with no doubt. (1)

Misled By A Serpent

The Biblical serpent was guilty of many sinful vices. seeking the truth - innerstreamHe coveted the forbidden, incited others to sin, and was deceitful, disrespectful, arrogant, skeptical, and aggressive. He used convoluted arguments to justify these vices and though the arguments were weak he spun them masterfully, leaving Eve with no response. He was a shrewd, crooked and skilful manipulator; truly serpentine.

We are capable of the same. When we indulge in shameful behavior we tend to perform the same kind of mental gymnastics. So cunning is our formulation, so brilliant our presentation that our arguments appear foolproof; we convince everyone, even ourselves.

This is the Pharaoh within us. The prophet described Pharaoh as a great serpent because he cunningly led the Jews to believe they were his partners, all the while playing them for fools, till he enslaved them. (2)

Our inner Pharaoh does the same. It spins masterful arguments until we are convinced that our inappropriate decisions were correct. It shifts blame onto others, twists facts to our benefit and covers up our misbehavior. We are drawn to these arguments because in them we are vindicated; we embrace our inner pharaoh as our protector and partner. But just as Pharaoh did unto our ancestors, so does our inner Pharaoh do unto us. It slowly weaves a web of intrigue that soon entraps us too. What began as an innocent experiment results in our own imprisonment. We become slaves to our vices, chained to our weaknesses and incapable of freeing ourselves.

Finding the Stick

It is important to catch ourselves before we become enslaved. We do this by liberating ourselves from our own arguments. Not by trying to outwit them, but by confronting them. As G-d told Moses, you don’t overcome a serpent with a serpent; you overcome it with a stick. Not with cunning, but with truth.

Don’t argue with your own arguments; instead, subject them to the test of truth. You can do this by answering a simple question, what is my objective? Am I seeking the truth or justifying my behavior? If my argument is the reason for my behavior, I know I am pursuing the truth. If my behavior is the reason for my argument, I know I am twisting the truth. (3)

This is not an easy question to answer for such truth is elusive; hidden beneath layers of self deceit and trapped in a labyrinth of lies. Nevertheless, we must pursue it with relentless dedication and be scrupulously honest with ourselves; straight like an arrow and firm like a stick. When we do, the false arguments will fall away and leave no trace of their former existence.

Footnotes

 

  1. Exodus 7: 10-12. See Midrash Rabbah and Tanchumah ad loc. As to whether the snake returned to be a staff before swallowing the others and whether the others returned to be staffs before being swallowed, see Likutei Sichos vol. 26, p49. This essay follows the view that Aaron’s staff swallowed the Egyptians snakes.
  2. See Ezekial 29: 3. See also Midrash Tanchumah, ch. 4. Pharaoh was compared to a snake because of his deceit. First he invited the Jews to work for pay and even worked alongside them. Slowly, he withdrew himself from the workplace, then the Egyptian noblemen and finally their pay. Soon the Jews found themselves enslaved.
  3. The Midrashim ad loc reference the Halacha that one is forbidden to interrupt the Amidah even if a snake crawls up one’s leg. We can interpret this metaphorically to relate to the Yetzer Hara, who attempts to interrupt our concentration during prayer. The Halacha instructs us to pay the snake no heed. Similarly, it is best to avoid entangling ourselves in arguments with the Yetzer Hara and devote ourselves solely to the truth.

 

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