כִּי יְדַבֵּר אֲלֵכֶם פַּרְעֹה לֵאמֹר תְּנוּ לָכֶם מוֹפֵת וְאָמַרְתָּ אֶל אַהֲרֹן קַח אֶת מַטְּךָ וְהַשְׁלֵךְ לִפְנֵי פַרְעֹה יְהִי לְתַנִּין
When Pharaoh speaks to you, saying, “Provide a sign for yourselves” you shall say to Aaron, “Take your staff, and cast it in front of Pharaoh, it will become a snake.”
Moshe and Aharon came to Pharaoh claiming to be messengers from an almighty God. Quite skeptical, Pharaoh demanded they show some feat that would prove that. Knowing this in advance, Hashem prepared Moshe and told him to have Aharon throw down his staff, whereupon it would turn into a snake. Pharaoh’s own magicians copied this, and then Pharaoh brought in his own wife, as well as children as young as four and five who were also able to do so. Pharaoh was saying that clearly the God who sent them wasn’t all that powerful.
Many commentaries wonder why Hashem told Moshe to begin with this sign if it was one that wouldn’t further their cause, after all they were trying to impress Pharaoh and instead got made fun of for their pitiful attempt? Rabbi Yosef Tzvi Salant says that this sign was never intended as a show of power, rather as a symbol and mussar to the Egyptians, as well as an explanation for why they were about to get punished so harshly.
The Rambam asks why the Egyptians deserved the ten plagues, Hashem had told Avraham many years beforehand that his descendants would be exiled into slavery and suffering? The Raavad answers that Hashem just said they would suffer, the Egyptians however made them suffer greatly, as well as trying to kill and rob them. (“I commanded a little, and they jumped in excitement and added on to the pain.”) It seems that had they acted in accordance with Hashem’s decree, nothing would’ve happened to them.
Moshe was attempting to show them they were supposed to act simply as Hashem’s rod (staff), doing His bidding only without adding on, instead, they acted as snakes. The reference to a snake follows a Midrash that says that at the end of days all animals will demand from the snake why it acted as it did. Other animals kill for food and sustenance, the snake doesn’t need to kill for food, but still does. Similarly, the Egyptians had the Jews building and rebuilding Pitom and Ramses, both of which had highly unsteady ground where no buildings would last. They enslaved the Jews for fun, not any benefit.
In the end, Moshe’s staff-snake ate all the snakes made by the Egytians. Hashem’s staff would return to punish the Egytian snakes.
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