The War of the Reptiles


The Zohar on Parashat Bo offers a mysterious and most profound explanation why God told Moses “Come to Pharaoh” instead of “Go to Pharaoh.” In a mystical allegory, Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai describes how the Almighty brought Moses through rooms within rooms, until he reached the upper tanin (תַּנִין), a type of fearful spiritual reptile. When Moses saw that the tanin, Pharaoh’s soul root, had such a profound spiritual source, he feared it and did not approach it and God took the task of fighting the great reptile Himself, “Here am I upon you, Pharaoh, king of Egypt, the great tanin that lies in its rivers.” Then God said to Moses, “Come [with Me] to Pharaoh.”

What was it about Pharaoh, that great reptile, which made Moses so afraid to approach him?

Kabbalah teaches us that Moses corresponds to the level of wisdom, while Pharaoh’s spiritual source is rooted in the level of crown that is above wisdom. This was why Moses feared Pharaoh.

Chassidut explains that the sefirah of wisdom is the initial spark of consciousness that enters the psyche, yet the flash of wisdom itself cannot be grasped as is and must be contained and developed by the next sefirah, the sefirah of understanding in order to be internalized in our consciousness. However, the sefirah of crown, representing the superconscious, is completely unfathomable to human consciousness, resting above it just as a crown rests above the head.

The crown contains an inner dimension and an outer dimension, which feed the conscious sefirot, beginning with wisdom. Wisdom is like a spring flowing with water, while the superconscious crown is the underground source that feeds the spring. The inner dimension of the crown gently nourishes the spring of wisdom drop by drop, but accessing the waters of the crown’s outer dimension is liable to bring down a flood of destructive forces that are better left alone. Pharaoh drew his powers from the outer dimension of the crown and it was accessing this treacherous torrent that Moses feared until God promised him special assistance. Once we realize that God is with us, we need not fear even the most powerful forces and we need not fear even the forces that lie unaccessed in the innermost depths of our souls.

A meeting of reptiles

The Egyptian riverside is infested with various different reptiles: snakes, crocodiles, alligators, etc, and sometimes they are interchangeable, as we saw in the two Torah portions that precede Parashat Bo when on one occasion Moses’ staff turned into a serpent (and even then, Moses fled from it) and on the second occasion, his staff became a tanin. In the Torah account of creation, Rashi also associates the “great reptiles” (הַתַּנִּינִם הַגְּדֹלִים) with the leviathan (לִוְיָתָן). By meditating on these different creatures, we can advance our understanding of Pharaoh’s power and why Moses feared it.

“On that day God will visit with His harsh and great and strong sword upon the leviathan lock-serpent and upon the leviathan warped-serpent and He shall kill the tanin in the ocean.” The “leviathan lock-serpent” is straight, like a lock that goes through one end and reaches the other, while the “leviathan warped-serpent” is curved around until its tail is in its mouth. This pair of reptiles is associated with the basic Kabbalistic pair of “circles” (עיגולים) and “line” (יושר). The circles represent the world of nature which is a closed system that revolves in cycles and never introduces new energy, as dictated by the law of energy conservation.

Pharaoh, the great reptile, the “leviathan warped-serpent” of Egypt represents this cyclical form of natural philosophy. He worships the powers of nature and attempts to identify himself with them, claiming that “Mine is my river and I have made it.” Pharaoh believes only in God as Elokim (אֱֿלֹהִים), which has a gematria of 86, the value of “nature” (הַטֶבַע), but he is by no means prepared to acknowledge God’s Name Havayah and the fact that the Almighty can control nature as He wills it. Although Pharaoh’s perception is false, nonetheless, it is rooted in a very high spiritual level in which the Almighty appears to the world by power of the circle. Within the sefirot, this is the sefirah of crown, which surrounds the head like the circumference of a circle.

In contrast, Moses represents the line, which has a beginning and an end. Unlike a circle on which every point is identical, a line has a distinct beginning and end. Philosophically, a line is a scale that begins with one extreme and ends with another. The two extremes can represent good and evil, permitted or forbidden, holy or secular, pure or profane. In the world of a straight line, whether you are at the top of the line or at the bottom makes a big difference and it is here where freedom of choice comes into play.

The straight line within the natural world is the Torah, which was given via Moses. In the sefirot the straight line of Torah begins from wisdom and descends through all the sefirot. Moses is the “leviathan lock-serpent,” the initial line of Divine revelation that descends level by level and penetrates down into the very lowest levels of reality. At first, Moses was afraid of a head-on collision with Pharaoh, of being captured in the suffocating cyclic pattern of the “warped-serpent” but, accompanied by God’s own Divine assistance, Moses succeeded in infiltrating Pharaoh’s domain and penetrated the cyclic forces of nature with his straight line, until Pharaoh’s circular crown rested upon Moses’ upright head.

From Rabbi Ginsburgh’s class 4th Shevat 5767




  1. The warp serpent is often referred to as ‘the worm Ouroboros’ in European culture. It was worshipped in ancient Europe by pagans. Moses defeating the warped serpent , showing that Hashem was with him. My question is the phrase ‘come to Pharaoh is it implied that G-d is with Moses when he confronts Pharoah?

  2. Dear Rabbi Ginsburgh, Thanks for answering my questions. I have a lot of questions, but you have answered the most important ones. You are one of the few people in this world with a clear understanding of Kabbalah who can make it accessible to those who are trying to gain a greater knowledge of the subject. I will try to keep my whining to myself.

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