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The War of the Reptiles

Excerpted from Rabbi Ginsburgh's soon-to-be-published book, "The Inner Dimension."

The Zohar[1] 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, as the Prophet Ezekiel states, “Here am I upon you, Pharaoh, king of Egypt, the great tanin that lies in its rivers.”[2] When Moses saw that Pharaoh had such a profound spiritual source, he was afraid to approach it, instead, God took upon Himself the task of fighting the great reptile. Then God said to Moses, “Come [with Me] to Pharaoh.”[3]

Moses was afraid to approach Pharaoh because he saw that Pharaoh’s soul root was higher than his own. Whereas Moses corresponds to the level of chochmah (wisdom), Pharaoh’s spiritual source is above chochmah, at the level of keter (the supernal crown).

Chassidut explains that chochmah (the sefirah of wisdom) is the first of the three intellectual powers of the psyche. It is the initial spark of consciousness that enters the psyche. In contrast, keter (the sefirah of crown) represents the unfathomable superconscious. It 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. Allegorically, it is the underground source that sustains chochmah, which is like a spring flowing with water. The inner dimension of the crown gently nourishes the spring of wisdom drop by drop.

The outer dimension of keter is a chaotic powerhouse of energy. Accessing these energies is liable to bring down a deluge of destructive forces that we would do better to avoid.

Pharaoh drew his powers from the outer dimension of keter. Before God promised him special assistance, Moses was afraid to access this treacherous torrent. 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: turtles, lizards, snakes, and crocodiles. In the two Torah portions that precede Parashat Bo, on one occasion Moses’ staff turned into a serpent (and Moses fled from it)[4] and on a second occasion, Aaron’s staff became a tanin reptile.[5] In the Torah account of creation, Rashi associates the great taninim with the leviathan.[6] These reptiles are thus 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.”[7] 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.[8] This pair of reptiles is associated with the basic Kabbalistic pair of igulim (“circles”) and yosher (“straightness”). 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.

The ancient nations of the world were well-versed in mathematics, and the Egyptian sages were particularly renowned for their knowledge of the natural world.[9] Pharaoh represents the cyclical form of natural philosophy. He is the “leviathan warped-serpent,” the great reptile of Egypt. He worships the powers of nature and attempts to identify himself with them, claiming, “Mine is my river and I have made myself.”[10] 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). He is not prepared to acknowledge God’s Essential Name God Havayah. This Name relates to God’s power to override the laws of nature and control it as He wills.

Although Pharaoh’s perception is false, it is rooted in a high spiritual level at which the Almighty appears to the world by power of the circle. Within the sefirot, this corresponds to keter (the sefirah of crown), which circumscribes the head.

Moses represents the Torah, which is the straight line that runs directly through the cycles of nature. Unlike a circle, on which every point is identical, a line has a distinct beginning and an end. Philosophically, a line is a progressive scale that begins at one extreme and ends at another. The two extremes can be good or evil, permitted or forbidden, holy or secular, pure or profane. The top of the line and the bottom represent two contradictory options. This is where freedom of choice comes into play.

The line begins with chochmah (the sefirah of wisdom) and descends through all the sefirot that follow. Moses thus represents the “leviathan lock-serpent”—the initial ray of Divine revelation that descends level by level to penetrate the lowest levels of reality.

A Geometry Lesson

When God told Moses to come to Pharaoh, He told him to pierce through the circle with his line and draw the diameter of the circle. The ratio between the diameter and the circumference of the circle is pi (π), as we know. Pi is a transcendental number, meaning that it cannot be expressed as a complete fraction. It is approximately equal to 3.14. Mathematicians today try to outdo each other in calculating miles and miles (literally!) of digits after the decimal point… So, as easy as it is to draw the diameter through a circle, the greatest mathematicians have found no simple formula to describe the exact ratio between the circle, the warped serpent, and the line, the lock-serpent.

This mathematical phenomenon reflects a profound truth that underlies all of creation. On the one hand, the world is cyclic, and on the other hand there is a direct path that cuts through the circles. Despite their proximity, we can never quite fathom the quantum leap required to connect the laws of the natural world with the Torah and Divine revelation. This is the secret of pi. It is this mystery that God transmitted to Moses when He accompanied him to Pharaoh.

It all began with the first sign that God showed Moses as he set out on his mission. His staff turned into a serpent and Moses fled from it. God told him to grab it by its tail and the serpent became a staff once more.[11] The cyclic nature of reality seems intimidating at first, but in order to defeat its suffocating clasp, we can and must take hold of it to reveal how it too is a revelation of God’s direct light.

Moses was apprehensive about a head-on collision with Pharaoh. He was afraid of being captured in the suffocating cyclic figure of the “warped-serpent.” Once he knew that Divine assistance accompanied him, he successfully infiltrated Pharaoh’s domain. He penetrated the cyclic forces of nature with his straight line until Pharaoh’s circular crown rested snugly upon Moses’ upright head.[12]

[1]        Zohar Shemot 34a.

[2]             Ezekiel 29:3.

[3]             Exodus 9:1.

[4]        Exodus 4:3.

[5]             Exodus 7:9.

[6]        Rashi, Genesis 1:21.

[7]        Isaiah 27:1.

[8]        See Baba Batra 74b and Rashbam ad loc

[9]        Metzudat David, I Kings 5:10.

[10]       Ezekiel 29:3.

[11]       Exodus 4:3-4.

[12]       For more about pi and its relationship to time, see our book, 137: The Riddle of Creation, pp. 296-300.

From Rabbi Ginsburgh’s class 4th Shevat 5767


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