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 most formidable spiritual reptile, the upper tanin (תַּנִין). This was Pharaoh’s soul root. When Moses saw that Pharaoh had such a profound spiritual source, he was afraid to approach it. When God said to Pharaoh, “Here am I upon you, Pharaoh, king of Egypt, the great tanin that lies in its rivers,” He took upon Himself the task of fighting the great reptile. Then God said to Moses, “Come [with Me] to Pharaoh.”

In Kabbalah, Moses corresponds to the level of chochmah (wisdom). Pharaoh’s spiritual source is rooted above chochmah, at the level of keter (the supernal crown). Pharaoh’s spiritual source is above that of Moses. This was why Moses was afraid to approach Pharaoh.

Chassidut explains that chochmah (the sefirah of wisdom) is the initial spark of consciousness that enters the psyche. The flash of wisdom itself cannot be grasped as is. In order to be internalized in our consciousness it must be integrated and developed by the next sefirah, binah (the sefirah of understanding). Keter (the sefirah of crown) represents the superconscious, which is completely unfathomable to human consciousness. The superconscious rests above the conscious mind as a crown rests above the head.

Keter contains an inner dimension and an outer dimension, both of which sustain the conscious sefirot. Chochmah, the first conscious sefirah is like a spring flowing with water. As such, keter is the underground source that sustains the spring. Only the inner dimension of the crown gently nourishes the spring of wisdom drop by drop. Accessing the waters of the outer dimension of keter is liable to bring down a flood of destructive forces that are best left alone. Pharaoh drew his powers from the outer dimension of keter. Moses feared accessing this treacherous torrent until God promised him special assistance. Once we are aware that God is with us, we need not fear even the most powerful forces, even those that lie un-accessed in the innermost depths of our souls.

A Meeting of Reptiles

The Egyptian riverside is infested with a multitude of reptiles: snakes, crocodiles, alligators, etc. In the two Torah portions that precede Parashat Bo on one occasion Moses’ staff turned into a serpent (and even then, Moses fled from it) and on a second occasion, Aaron’s staff became a tanin. In the Torah account of creation, Rashi also associates the “great reptiles” (הַתַּנִּינִם הַגְּדֹלִים) with the leviathan (לִוְיָתָן). Thus, these reptiles can be interchangeable. By meditating on these different creatures, we can develop our understanding of Pharaoh’s power and comprehend 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 passes from one side through to the other. The “leviathan warped-serpent” is coiled around until its tail is in its mouth. This pair of reptiles is associated with the basic Kabbalistic pair of “circles” and “line.” The circles represent the cyclic world of nature as a closed system that never produces new energy, as dictated by the law of energy conservation. The line represents the light of Torah and mitzvot, which constantly generate new energy.

Pharaoh, the great reptile, is the “leviathan warped-serpent” of Egypt. He represents the 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 recognizes the power of nature as God.  This is reflected in the numerical value of the Divine Name, Elokim (אֱ־לֹהִים), which is 86, the numerical value of “nature” (הַטֶבַע). But, Pharaoh is by no means prepared to acknowledge God’s Name Havayah, which relates to God’s power to override the laws of nature and control it as He wills it. Although Pharaoh’s perception is false, 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 keter (the sefirah of crown), which circumscribes the head.

In contrast, Moses represents the line. Unlike a circle on which every point is identical, a line has a distinct beginning and end. Philosophically, a line is a progressive 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, one’s location either at the top or the bottom is very significant. It is here where freedom of choice comes into play.

The Torah is the straight line that runs throughout the natural world. The straight line of Torah begins with chochmah (the sefirah of 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 the lowest levels of reality.

Moses was apprehensive of a head-on collision with Pharaoh. He was afraid of being captured in the suffocating cyclic figure of the “warped-serpent.” But, once he realized that God’s own Divine assistance accompanied him, Moses succeeded in infiltrating Pharaoh’s domain. He 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


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