Aaron’s Rod

Do you believe in magic? One of my Jewish Studies college professors asserted that there is magic in Judaism; the key is that “our magic comes from God and is good; others’ magic comes from man and is bad.” As we begin to read about the Ten Plagues in this week’s portion, I think a lot about divine magic. However, I want to start with the sign before the plagues, that of Aaron’s rod turning into a snake.

In most of the Torah, the snake is a bad animal. In Genesis, the snake talks Eve into disobeying God and eating from the tree of knowledge. In Numbers, the people are disobeying God and are struck by snakes, until a copper snake is mounted to heal them. Here, we have a snake as a sign of God’s presence.

What’s even more interesting is that Aaron’s rod can not only turn into a snake but also act on its own. When Pharaoh implores Aaron “show me a sign” and he throws his rod down and it becomes a snake, the Egyptian magicians are able to replicate this same act. The difference is that Aaron’s “snake” swallows theirs and then turns back into a rod. This is the start of the Israelite “magic,” under the control of God, superseding the Egyptian magic.

Why would Pharaoh ask Israel to show him a sign? Such a question is raised by Isaac ben Judah Abravanel.[1] Abravanel comments that it because Pharaoh has already questioned God’s existence. If Pharaoh does not believe in the Israelite God, but rather that he himself is god, why would he ask for a sign?

Furthermore after seeing the sign, why spurn Moses’ request to let the Israelites go-and not once but through 10 plagues! At least elsewhere, in the Book of Isaiah, King Ahaz of Judah spurns Isaiah’s attempts to show him a sign of God’s presence. Here Pharaoh asks for a sign but then disregards it. In Shemot Rabbah[2] Pharaoh clucks like a hen, saying “Such are the wonders of your God! Usually, people bring merchandise to a place where it is needed…Don’t you know that I am the master of all magic arts?” It is clear that neither Pharaoh nor his magicians were ready to embrace this magic, until the third plague when the magicians are forced to concede אצבע אלוהים, this is the finger of God!

Was it really the case that Pharaoh disregarded the miracle? Another Midrash in Shemot Rabbah[3] indicates that Pharaoh was shaken when he saw Aaron’s rod consume the others, thinking ‘what if he tells the rod swallow Pharaoh and his throne’? Pharaoh was forced to concede that this was a supernatural act, an inanimate object “swallowing” other inanimate objects. If a snake had swallowed another snake, Pharaoh could have conceded that it was following the laws of nature. We see later in the Torah other examples of Aaron’s rod acting supernaturally, like when it grows almonds on it in Numbers, indicating that he is the true High Priest.

Aaron’s rod is considered so great that according to Pirkei Avot (Ethics of the Fathers)[4] that “the rod”[5] was one of the ten wonders created at the beginning of the world. It was not an ordinary walking stick but rather something imbued with divine powers, utilized to give testament to God’s will.

We learn from Aaron’s rod that we do not need a magic carpet or a fairy princess with a wand to bring forth miracles; rather an everyday item, if imbued with the will of God, can produce the most fascinating of miracles. Magic in Judaism is a tool through which to recognize the power of God, as opposed to being utilized as an end to itself. The signs of God’s presence are in front of us; if only we choose to accept them. Ken yhi ratzon, may it be our will to do so.

[1] 15th Century Spanish and Portuguese commentator (until exiled to Italy under the Inquisition) who had great wealth and who supplied provisions for the royal army under Queen Isabella. On a number of occasions he gave large sums to allow Jews to stay in Spain until he was expelled by the Inquisition.

[2] 9:4

[3] 9:7

[4] 5:8

[5] It does not specify whether it was Aaron’s or Moses’ rod. Most commentators say it was Moses’, yet both rods were used to perform supernatural wonders.

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