This past shabbat’s Torah portion was the first six chapters of Exodus, telling how Moshe is born in Egypt, flees in fear after killing a slave-master, and then returns with God’s instruction to free his people. When Moshe returns to Egypt, God has him perform three miracles - not to be done before the Egyptians, but to convince the Hebrews to believe in his leadership.
Gods turns Moshe’s staff into a serpent, and tells him to grasp the tail to turn it back to wood. He then instructs Moshe to place his hand in his bosom, and when he draws it out, his hand is encrusted in “snowy scales,” mitsora’at kisheleg. God returns Moshe’s hand to healthy skin and tells him that if the Hebrews don’t believe theses two signs, he should pour Nile water on the ground and it will turn to blood. What is the significance of these miracles? How come they convince the Israelites that Moshe, and God, are worth believing in and following?
The Israelites realized that these miracles signify the coming rebirth of our people. The staff-serpent harkens back to one of our earliest stories, eating from the tree of knowledge in the Garden of Eden. However in this moment the snake redeems itself from the earlier act of defiance. It is now a key instrument in the freedom of the Jewish people - it is Moshe’s right hand, helping him walk as he leads the people from Egypt. And it appears later from Aaron’s staff to display God’s might to Pharaoh. Instead of aiding a woman to consume wisdom, it now supports two men in attaining freedom for their people.
The snake helped transform humankind from innocent garden dwellers to an imperfect, creative people - it is a force of transformation. It’s ability to shed skin and grow anew reflects the ongoing cycles of the creation, and makes the snake a powerful symbol of rebirth. God’s second sign reinforces this meaning - from placing his hand on his chest, Moshe’s skin is turned to scales, representing his ability to transform himself. The transformation comes from his bosom, khaeko, from the tender part of his body which covers his heart. God shows Moshe he has the power of rebirth, to free himself from his past, but he must do so with tenderness in order to lead his people to freedom.
The final miracle, Nile water turning to blood, is the renewing power of the Hebrew women. Just as a Jewish woman can immerse herself in the mikvah, in running water, to mark the end of her menstrual cycle, God demonstrates the connection of water and blood in Egypt’s life-force: the Nile River. The Nile and the love of three women ensured Moshe’s survival, which in turn enables the survival of the Israelites. Through this sign, God tells Moshe: women are central to the task. They are the instigators of change, the masters of renewal, the givers of life. Their love conquers all, and only together will you reach liberation!