Moses and his famous staff are almost synonymous. Nearly every illustration portraying the great leader depicts him with his staff in hand. That staff was an agent of the miraculous throughout Moses’s life. It triggered most of the Ten Plagues of Egypt, split the sea, brought forth water from rocks and much more.
Yet in this week’s Torah reading Vaera, in the presence of Pharaoh, that staff became a snake. It was, of course, intended to intimidate Pharaoh and show him that Moses was no ordinary adversary. Moses came with the power of God behind him. Still, that the stealthy, slithering serpent, which has always been seen as a symbol and metaphor for evil, temptation and even death itself, should be a tool in the holy Moses’s arsenal to redeem the enslaved Israelites seems mystifying.
One of the great Polish pre-war rabbis was Rabbi Meir Shapiro, founder and head of the respected Chachmei Lublin Yeshiva and creator of the Daf Yomi daily Talmud study program that has become increasingly popular in recent years. This is the gist of his take on this matter:
In the hands of Moses, the staff is indeed a miraculous agent of the Almighty. But as soon as Moses casts it down in the presence of Pharaoh, it becomes a slimy snake. Then, again, when Moses picks up the serpent in Pharaoh’s court, it reverts to being his trusted staff. Thus, in the hands of the holy prophet, the staff is a Godly tool and an agent of positive change. But in the presence of the unholy, it too can come to represent all that is evil.
According to tradition, Moshe’s staff was an extraordinary object. It first belonged to Adam and had the sacred name of God engraved on it. It is mentioned in Ethics of the Fathers 5:8 as one of the 10 things created by God at twilight on Sabbath eve at the beginning of Creation.
The snake, on the other hand, is also prominent in the story of Creation as the epitome of evil that brought sin into the world by tempting Eve to eat the forbidden fruit. Thus, it has become a symbol of sin, slander and Satan himself. Lashon hora, bad-mouthing others, is synonymous with the slithering serpent spitting its toxic venom.
To Rabbi Shapiro, everything depends on the environment. We are profoundly influenced by our surroundings. When our communal culture and social settings are appropriate and conducive to goodness, kindness and Godliness, then we thrive. In an immoral and profane environment, however, we may well be dragged down by those corrupt influences.
Maimonides (Deos 6:1) goes so far as to say that if a person finds himself in a morally unhealthy community, he should pick himself up and move. If he is unable to find or reach a better community, he should go to a desolate, uninhabited place rather than allow himself to be influenced by the behavior of immoral neighbors.
The Jews are firm believers in freedom of choice. We believe that we all have the power to choose our path in life. We can become the crown of creation—as God intended humanity to be—or we can degrade ourselves, becoming crass, cretinous creatures mired in mediocrity or worse. Prophet or tyrant, staff or serpent, saint or sinner—the choice is ours. But that choice is influenced by the environment we live in and in which we raise our children.
Today, much of the world has gone “green.” We are supremely sensitive to the environment. Ever conscious of the dangers of pollution, we are trying to safeguard our ecosystem from anything toxic.
Our spiritual environment demands no less concern and commitment. The atmosphere our children breathe will affect them intellectually, emotionally and spiritually in significant ways. The moral and ethical health and well-being of the next generation will depend on the cultural atmosphere in which they grow up.
We have recently witnessed graphic demonstrations of the poisonous influences at leading American universities. The academic environment and, of course, the atmosphere and upbringing at home have molded the minds and hearts of young people everywhere in the most corrupt ways.
Whether our children will reflect the sacred staff of Moses or the sinful serpent of Pharaoh will largely depend on the quality control we exercise in their immediate environment. Beyond the ozone layer, we need to safeguard our own spiritual ecology, too.