Man Versus the Evil Inclination
It is written, “Moses responded and said, ‘But they will not believe me and they will not heed my voice, for they will say, “The L-RD did not appear to you.” ’ The L-RD said to him, ‘Mazeh [What is that] in your hand?’ and he said, ‘A staff.’ He said, ‘Cast it on the ground,’ and he cast it on the ground and it became a snake. Moses fled from it. The L-RD said to Moses, ‘Stretch out your hand and grasp its tail.’ He stretched out his hand and grasped it tightly, and it became a staff in his palm” (Exodus 4:1-4).
These verses raise a certain number of questions that we will examine individually:
1. Why did Moses hesitate to carry out his mission, and why did he question whether the Children of Israel would believe in him? Had G-d Himself not commanded Moses to go before Pharaoh and demand that he liberate the Children of Israel from Egypt? How could Moses dare ask if they were ready to listen to him? Did he not know that they had long been awaiting the messenger of their deliverance?
2. Why did G-d, for Whom everything is revealed, ask Moses: “What is that in your hand?” Moreover, why did the staff not change into a serpent while it was still in Moses’ hand? What allusion is hidden in that?
3. An even more difficult question is asked by Rabbi Yonathan Eibeshutz in his book Ya’arot Devash: Why did G-d specifically choose a snake as a sign, since He had cursed the snake, as it is written: “Cursed are you…above every beast of the field” (Genesis 3:14). Moreover, how could Moses (who was not afraid of the Heavenly archangels – see Shabbat 88b) have backed away from a serpent? Do our Sages not teach that even if a serpent enwraps itself around a person’s ankle while he is praying, he should not interrupt his prayer (Berachot 30b)? How could Moses, standing before the King of kings, back away from such an animal? Even if it bit and killed him, that would have only been a physical death, which is preferable to the death that a person experiences when he is standing before G-d and flees while talking with Him. Finally, why did G-d ask Moses to grasp the serpent by its tail rather than by its head?
The author himself states that when the Arizal wanted to reveal the secret of this mystery to one of his disciples, he was condemned to death. The Zohar proposes some extremely profound solutions to these questions (Zohar II:28a), yet since the Torah has 70 different facets (see Bamidbar Rabba 13:15), we shall now present some of our own:
When G-d told Moses to go and liberate the Children of Israel from Egypt, Moses was surprised and said, “Who am I that I should go to Pharaoh?” (Exodus 3:11). In other words, “I am but dust and ashes. By what merit can I speak for my Creator?” Moses was therefore not acting arrogantly towards G-d.
G-d then asked Moses, “Mazeh [%'/ “What is that”] in your hand?” In other words: “You are only a man – adam – whose numerical value is 45 [%/], yet because of the extra soul that you possess, and which is given to man for Shabbat – meaning the Divine portion found within you – you are able to overcome the advice of the evil inclination.” The soul is part of G-d and His Name (yud-hei-vav-hei) – miluy alfine – whose numerical value is also 45 (Zohar I:25b). As for the letter ' (7), it alludes to Shabbat, the seventh day of the week (Betzah 16a).
“A staff [mateh],” replied Moses. This means that Moses admitted that he seemed to have fallen below (matah) his level for having dared refuse the Divine mission of liberating the Children of Israel.
Hashem then said to Moses, “Cast it on the ground.” In other words: “Drop these thoughts. You will then see that the evil inclination has left you.” Moses then saw and fled from the serpent, which alludes to the forces of evil (Zohar I:148a). This is also what the serpent (the evil inclination) did before the holiness of Moses. Hashem then told Moses, “Stretch out your hand and grasp its tail.” In other words: “Above all, do not let go of it. You have no reason to be afraid, for you are in no way connected to it. You will conquer it, and it will no longer defeat you. Grasp it, for otherwise it will attack you. Grasp it and ‘drag him to the house of study’ [Sukkah 52b].”
Many believe that because they are simple Jews (food for “maggots and worms” – Perkei Avoth 3:1), they cannot do battle with the evil inclination and conquer it. Nevertheless, they should realize that these thoughts and doubts are the work of the Satan, whose only aim is to make them fall into a trap. A man who possesses a holy soul should never experience such fears.
For this, a person should regularly study Torah, which is the best remedy against the evil inclination (Kiddushin 30b). When a person is clear of all these evil thoughts, the serpent – the evil inclination – will be no longer frighten him.