This week’s Torah portion is rife with miracles. Moses ramps up the pressure on Pharaoh to release the Jewish people from bondage and begins a series of unnatural plagues on Egypt: The Nile turns to blood, frogs invade the country and dust turns to lice.
The 10 plagues are famously known. We mention them each year at the seder when spilling a bit of wine and they are also the colorful topic of children’s plays and performances.
There was however, a preceding miracle.
Before Moses and his brother, Aaron, approached Pharaoh to demand their people’s release, G-d instructed Moses, “If Pharaoh asks you for a sign, tell Aaron to throw down his stick and it will turn into a snake.”
The meeting proceeded as expected. Pharaoh asked for a sign, Moses told Aaron to cast down his staff, and G-d turned it into a snake. But Pharaoh wasn’t impressed. His court magicians threw down their own sticks and demonstrated that they can turn them into snakes as well.
But then there was an interesting twist. In an unplanned turn of events, Aaron’s snake swallowed the other serpents, demonstrating Aaron’s superiority.
There is a common mistranslation in this story: The Torah says, “And Aaron’s stick swallowed the other serpents.” Note that it says “stick,” not “snake.” This last element of the story took place after Aaron had reverted his snake to its natural state.
Rabbi Menachem Schneerson (known as the Rebbe), learned an interesting lesson from this last twist in the story. He was famous for his involvement in Jewish education, and for his advocacy for a more welcoming environment.
“But although a gentler approach is more effective,” he noted on one occasion, “there are times when a tougher stance is important and discipline is necessary.”
But to do that, he pointed out, you need to have two important qualifications:
• This is a job for Aaron, not Moses. While Moses was the leader of the Jewish nation, his brother Aaron was famous for his genuine love and concern for every individual. Discipline must come from someone who is trusted, someone who isn’t suspected of involving his own instincts.
• Allow the heat of the moment to pass. Instead of making a rash decision, the educator should contain him or herself until the personal emotions cool off and a rational decision could be made. The “snake” must first revert to a “stick.”
Rabbi Mendy Greenberg is the spiritual leader of Twinsburg Chabad, which he founded along with his wife, Mussie, in 2017.