The Shabbos Table – Va’Eira: R’ Y. Sacks Shlita: Staff or Snake?

This D’var Torah should be a Zechus L’Ilui Nishmas my mother Chaya Rochel Bas Dovid Tzvi A”H, my sister Kayla Rus Bas Bunim Tuvia A”H, my maternal grandfather Dovid Tzvi Ben Yosef Yochanan A”H, my maternal grandfather Dovid Tzvi Ben Yosef Yochanan A”H, my paternal grandfather Moshe Ben Yosef A”H, my paternal grandmother Channah Freidel Bas Avraham A”H, my uncle Reuven Nachum Ben Moshe & my great aunt Rivkah Sorah Bas Zev Yehuda HaKohein,

It should also be in Zechus L’Refuah Shileimah for:

-My father Bunim Tuvia Ben Channa Freidel

-My grandmother Shulamis Bas Etta


-Mordechai Shlomo Ben Sarah Tili

_R’ Simcha Yitzchak Ben Mirela Yudka

-Chaya Rochel Ettel Bas Shulamis

-Yonatan Menachem Mendel Ben Orly, Eli Aharon Michel Ben Chaya

-It should also be a Z’chus for an Aliyah of the holy Neshamos of HaRav HaGa’on V’Sar HaTorah Shmaryahu Yosef Chaim Ben HaRav Yaakov Yisrael Kanievsky A”H, Dovid Avraham Ben Chiya Kehas—R’ Dovid Winiarz ZT”L, Miriam Liba Bas Aharon—Rebbetzin Weiss A”H, as well as the Neshamos of those whose lives were taken by terrorists (Hashem Yikom Damam) and other tragedies.


-It should also be a Z’chus for success for Tzaha”l as well as the rest of Am Yisrael during this dire time, in Eretz Yisrael and in the Galus.

-The wounded should experience Refuah Shileimah, the captives should be returned safely, the fallen should experience Kevurah and Aliyah for their Neshamos and Nekamah for their Dam, their Krovim should experience Nechamah, the Chayalim should be Matzliach and Minatzei’ach, and Am Yisrael should experience Geulah.







Be”H, I will be translating / transcribing / paraphrasing Divrei Torah of my Rebbi, HaGaon R’ Yonason Avner Sacks Shlita. (Any inaccuracies, whether added, misrepresented, or due to omission and/or points lost in translation or context should be attributed to me alone. * = My addition.)








“Staff or Snake?”




Based on:


“Ani Katzafti Me’at V’Heimah Azro L’Ra’ah” (Yomim MiKedem – Parshas Shemos, Page 192)

(“I was slightly angry, but they assisted for evil” – Zechariah 1:15)

Parsha Shiur – Shemos: Bechirah (December 2013)—-bechira



How was Pharaoh Culpable?


The Rambam, in Hilchos Teshuvah (6:5), discusses the broad issue of Bechirah (free choice), how Hashem knows all, and yet, we each have our own Bechirah. More specifically, the Rambam addresses the culpability of Pharaoh despite what was already known at the time of the Bris Bein HaBisarim. There, he writes:


וַהֲלֹא כָּתוּב בַּתּוֹרָה (בראשית טו יג) “וַעֲבָדוּם וְעִנּוּ אֹתָם”, הֲרֵי גָּזַר עַל הַמִּצְרִיִּים לַעֲשׂוֹת רַע… וְלָמָּה נִפְרַע מֵהֶן?


“And was not written in the Torah (Bereishis 15:13) [during the Bris Bein HaBisarim], ‘and they will subjugate them, and they will afflict them’? Why, He decreed upon the Egyptians to do evil… so why does He exact retribution from them?”


In other words, how is it possible to punish Pharaoh? Couldn’t Pharaoh just turn around and argue, “This was forewarned in the Bris Bein HaBisarim! I was merely a tool B’Yad Hashem”? And yet, Pharaoh and the Mitzrim were punished.


Rambam: *The Script & the Cast


The Rambam answers as follows:


לְפִי שֶׁלֹּא גָּזַר עַל אִישׁ פְּלוֹנִי הַיָּדוּעַ שֶׁיִּהְיֶה הוּא… כָּל אֶחָד וְאֶחָד מֵאוֹתָן הַמְּצֵרִים וְהַמֵּרֵעִים לְיִשְׂרָאֵל אִלּוּ לֹא רָצָה לְהָרַע לָהֶם הָרְשׁוּת בְּיָדוֹ. שֶׁלֹּא גָּזַר עַל אִישׁ יָדוּעַ אֶלָּא הוֹדִיעוֹ שֶׁסּוֹף זַרְעוֹ עָתִיד לְהִשְׁתַּעְבֵּד בְּאֶרֶץ לֹא לָהֶם. וּכְבָר אָמַרְנוּ שֶׁאֵין כֹּחַ בָּאָדָם לֵידַע הֵיאַךְ יֵדַע הַקָּדוֹשׁ בָּרוּךְ הוּא דְּבָרִים הָעֲתִידִין לִהְיוֹת”


“Because He did not decree upon any specific, individual person that he should be the one [who sins]… of each and every individual one of the Egyptians and those who dealt evil to Yisrael, had he not wanted himself to do bad to them, the option was in his hand (within control), because He did not decree against any specific man, rather He merely informed him [Avraham] that eventually, his offspring were destined to be subjugated in a land not their own; and we already stated it is not within the capacity of mankind to know how the Holy One Blessed is He knows matters which will be the future.”


In other words, the Rambam explains that the subjugation and affliction was part of a broader Gezeirah, while the players or the participants acted with their own Bechirah (free choice).


Ra’avad: “M’galg’lin Chovah Al Yidei HaChayav” – An Indicator of Pharaoh’s Evil


And the Ra’avad records two additional Tirutzim (solutions), two Ta’amim (reasons) as to why the Mitzrim were worthy of punishment.


The first is the concept that “M’galg’lin Chovah Al Yidei HaChayav” (lit., “We roll out the obligation through the hand of the obligated”). There are certain events that transpire in life that are beneficial, others that are detrimental. However, if you are the cause of good, that is a reflection of who you are, and similarly, if one is the cause of bad. For example, it was in the Zechus (merit) of the B’nos Tzelafchad that their Kashya (question) to Moshe would become the “cause” of a whole Parsha (section) in the Torah. And it was the guilt of Pharaoh that he became the catalyst for She’ibud Mitzrayim. Yes, it was preordained, but the fact that he was the cause is an indicator of who he was, that he was evil himself and that he was deserving of punishment.


Ra’avad / Ramban: Pharaoh’s Overreach


The second answer is that although there was certainly a Gezeirah that the oppressors would “subjugate” and “afflict” the B’nei Yisrael; however, the Avodas Perech (backbreaking labor) was beyond the pale. That which we read in Parshas Shemos, the casting of every baby boy into the river was not a necessary condition of the Bris Bein HaBisarim. That was an initiative of Pharaoh and the Mitzrim, and ultimately, they were punished for the intensity.


The Ramban writes, somewhat similarly to this second suggestion of the Ra’avad, that the Chozek HaShe’ibud, the intensity of the Galus, could be blamed on the Mitzrim, and that for that, they were punished.


Ramban: What was Pharaoh’s Motive?


Ramban adds a further and perhaps related Teretz, that Pharaoh was punished for his personal motivation. If you were to stop Pharaoh and ask him, “Why did you do all of this?” Would Pharaoh honestly answer that, “I acted to fulfill the Bris Bein HaBisarim”? Obviously not. And as such, the Ramban explains that whether or not Pharaoh could be punished depends on the intent, the “why” question.


The Staff into a Snake – What was the Purpose?


Based on the above, we could understand Hashem’s instructions to Moshe and Aharon in this week’s Parsha (Shemos 7:9); they were told to go before Pharaoh and perform an “Os,” sign, a wonder, to show him that they mean business (*The Chumash uses the word “Mofeis”; see Rashi who defines it as an “Os”). They were to take a Mateh (staff) and turn it into a Nachash (*The Chumash uses the word “Tanin”; see Rashi who defines it as a “Nachash”). But, when they perform this sign, Pharaoh completely dismisses it. Any of Pharaoh’s Chartumim (necromancers) were capable of duplicating the trick. What was the purpose of the Os? To show the greatness of HaKadosh Baruch Hu? Why was all of this necessary? Apparently, the purpose was not to show the Gadlus and Gevurah of HaKadosh Baruch Hu. So, what was the purpose of that Os?


R’ Sacks Shlita: What is the Difference between a Mateh & a Nachash?


Originally, the Ramban asked that Pharaoh could have challenged HaKadosh Baruch Hu, “Why are you faulting me? You should pat me on the back for carrying out the Ratzon Hashem.” Ramban answers that challenge by quoting the following Pasuk from Yishaiyah (10:5):


“הוֹי אַשּׁוּר שֵׁבֶט אַפִּי וּמַטֶּה הוּא בְיָדָם זַעְמִי”-“Woe is to Ashur, the rod of My anger, and my fury is a staff in their hand”


Ashur was compared to a staff in the hand of Hashem. Sometimes, when Kneses Yisrael is punished, the Umos HaOlam function as a stick which is controlled by the Yad Hashem. That is the Mashal, the metaphor. When a person wields a stick, a gun, an arrow, or a club, and then suggests that “I didn’t do it. It was the bullet, the arrow, or the club.” We immediately dismiss that nonsense, as the object was a tool, a weapon. The person is the Rotzei’ach (murderer), not the weapon. Now, suppose one incites a snake, and the snake bites a person, whereupon the victim dies. The Gemara (Bava Kama 23B, Sanhedrin 78A) states in the name of the Chachamim that the person is not considered a Rotzei’ach, because it was the Eres, the poison, not the person, that killed. Tosafos (Sanhedrin 77A; S.V. “Sof Chamah Lavo…”) explains at length that the fact the person incited the snake is considered a Grama (causation).


Be’er Yosef: A Staff B’Yad Hashem vs. Snake with a Life of its Own


What emerges is that the Mateh is a weapon, while a Nachash is an independent aggressor. The Nachash is a Rotzei’ach, the Nachash is killed. The bullet, the arrow, and the club are weapons. That is the difference between a Mateh and a Nachash.

R’ Yosef Salant (Be’er Yosef, Shemos 7:9) explains that Pharaoh comes along with the argument that he is a Mateh, a Sheivet, a mere weapon in the hand of Hashem to punish Kneses Yisrael, that he is not culpable. In response, Moshe performs the very first sign, where the Mateh is converted into a Nachash to answer that “Your role, Pharaoh, is not that of a Mateh, but of a Nachash. What you are doing is an independent act of aggression. You are not a rod in the hand of Hashem, but you are the Rotzei’ach.”


Ramban’s Two Answers – “Ba Zeh V’Limeid Al Zeh”


How do we know that indeed, Pharaoh acted as a Nachash and not mere staff in the hand of Hashem? When we consider the Ramban’s two answers to our original question, it becomes clear. On the one hand, there was a Bris Bein HaBisarim, however Pharaoh overreached and subjected Kneses Yisrael to Avodas Perech. And yet, in the second answer, Ramban suggested that if you were to catch Pharaoh at an honest moment, his motivation was not to fulfill Ratzon Hashem, but to magnify his own kingdom.

I would suggest that these two answers are not independent, but rather, “Ba Zeh V’Limeid Al Zeh” (lit., this one comes and teaches about [informs] the other”); they are each indicators of a single reality, namely, whether or not Pharaoh acted as a weapon B’Yad Hashem or as an independent aggressor. How do you determine if a person is being motivated by that which is pristine or if one is being motivated by self-interest? How do you determine if a person’s excuse is legitimate or if it is a fabricated Amasla (“alibi”)?


One indicator is consistency and deviation. If a person deviates even in the slightest bit, even one iota from the Ratzon Hashem, that is a clear indicator that he is not motivated by Ratzon Hashem, but by his own agenda. And that fact that Pharaoh not only took his own initiative (answer #2) and went above and beyond the Bris Bein HaBisarim (answer #1) is the greatest indicator that he was not being governed by the Bris Bein HaBisarim.



We should be Zocheh to act in accordance with Ratzon Hashem and to do so L’Sheim Ratzon Hashem, and Hashem should act on our behalf, deliver us from our current Galus toward the ultimate Geulah with the coming of Moshiach, Bimheirah BiYomeinu! Have a wonderful Shabbos!