Beware of Crocodiles!

Rabbi Zvi Teichman

Moshe and Aharon are told by G-d to confront Pharaoh once again, warning him to release the Children of Israel or face the consequences of the plagues. 

In their first attempt to impress upon Pharaoh the power of their message, G-d instructs them that when Pharaoh will request of them to “provide a wonder for yourselves”, Aharon should take his staff, cast it down before Pharaoh and יהי לתנין, it will become a tannin.

Aharon proceeds to do as he was told and indeed his staff transforms into a tannin. Pharaoh then directs his sorcerers to duplicate this ‘trick’ and they succeed in doing so. Aharon’s staff eventually swallows up the all of their staffs and despite that remarkable feat, Pharaoh remains unimpressed hardening his heart and refusing to free the Jews.

What was intended in this introductory episode before the onslaught of the ten subsequent plagues? There was no punishment afflicted upon them merely an attempt to impress Pharaoh with the power of G-d that Moshe and Aharon represented. But it didn’t work and there seems no obvious message inherent therein. Although the plagues didn’t accomplish their goal either until the very last one, nevertheless there was a clear progression in the message being conveyed; G-d’s total mastery over sea, land, sky and beyond. What then was the objective in transforming a staff into a tannin?

Most commentaries translate tannin as ‘snake’. Yet when Moshe was told by G-d to display a similar miracle before the Children of Israel it refers to the more common word nachash, in describing how the staff turned into a ‘snake’. Why is the use of ‘tannin’ used here?

The Ibn Ezra and others imply that perhaps the serpent depicted here was no simple snake but rather a crocodile. The Prophet Yechezkel describes Pharaoh as: Pharaoh, King of Egypt, התנים  הגדול — the great ‘serpent’ that lies in the midst of his rivers, that has said: “My river is mine own, and I have made myself. (יחזקאל כט ג) “

In ancient Egypt the crocodile was deified as the very source for the mighty river Nile that it inhabited. Its image became the hieroglyphic for ‘monarchy’ as the verse indicates the Egyptian rulers viewed themselves as the ‘Great Crocodile’ who created his own image and the river as well. These creatures were mummified, enshrined and worshiped.

The Holy Cohen of Tzefas, Rabbi Mordechai HaCohen, in his remarkable work, Sifsei Cohen, avers that G-d actually transformed Pharaoh into a veritable crocodile. He points out on the verse previously cited that foretells how after Aharon will cast his staff to the ground it will turn into a tannin, it states ‘יהי לתנין’, in the grammatical form of a command to turn into a tannin: ‘and it shall be a tannin’, rather than using the more accurate wording, ‘ויהי לתנין’, simply predicting how at that future encounter it will turn into a tannin. He therefore understands G-d’s words as an order to Pharaoh, not only the stick, to transform into a crocodile, יהי לתנין, and ‘he’ shall become a crocodile. 

This, he suggests, was the method by which G-d assured Pharaoh would remain stubbornly hard-hearted and not easily give in. He would have to transform him from his formerly fragile human form into the mightily resistant crocodile who would never readily succumb. He points out that the word תנין, serpent, is numerically equivalent to the word תיק, which in the cypher system known as ‘את בש’ — where the first letter of the aleph beis, (א) corresponds to the last(ת) , the second letter(ב)  to the next to the last(ש) , (thus called את בש,) and so on with each subsequent letter — תיק corresponds accordingly to the letters אָ-דָ-ם, man, thus intimating his metamorphosis from man to beast. 

Only the aggressive and greedy crocodile would lock its most powerful jaw in utter refusal to release its prey — the Jewish nation, from its grip.

The great nineteenth century Hungarian rabbinic figure and scholar, Rabbi Aharon Fried, in his work Zkan Aharon, explains the evolution of the Egyptian thinking that led to the deification of crocodiles. Quoting from the Sefer ha-Ikkarim, the popular tome of fifteenth century philosopher, Rabbi Yosef Albo, he describes how the people observed how the natural world generally functions without struggle, fear or worry. Animals are born equipped with clothing, food and shelter naturally available to them. There is no need for production of clothing, processing of food, nor complex building of shelter. Acting out of instinct and being part of the ecosystem of nature, they exist in calm bliss. Man though from the moment of his frail birth must ward off the elements, fight for his bread, and compete for his space, living in conscious fear and anxiety as to how he will possibly survive. They concluded that man must be despised by the gods for how else can one accept the life of travail he must face. They therefore loyally committed their allegiance to the powers of nature, seeing in the Nile that source of life, the mighty crocodile who instills fear in all who enter its space as the symbol to emulate in a world where ‘force’ and ‘might’ reign supreme. It is man’s right, nay, duty, they claimed, to assert his authority in controlling the weaker elements within the natural world under his domain. That is the natural order for life. They venerated this notion and considered those who would be vassals of the state as fortunate to be part of ‘ecology’ of the Egyptian state.

This would shed light on another anomaly in the verse. G-d refers to Pharaoh’s eventual request of ‘תנו – לכם – מופת’, literally translated as to ‘provide a wonder for yourselves’. Wasn’t Pharaoh challenging them to provide a sign that would impress him and his cohorts; ‘give me a sign of your might’, and not for the sake of Moshe and Aharon?

There was a major philosophical polemic taking place. Pharaoh claimed that the Jewish nation were happy to be part of the ecosystem of Egyptian society and were already consumed within its reality. The forces of nature under which he claimed the world pledged allegiance had absorbed them into its ‘clamped jaw’, and they were helpless in extricating themselves from its inevitable grasp. 

It was the evidence of the stick, from the strata of vegetative growth, which was able to elevate itself to the next level of animative life, which would seek to expose Pharaoh’s fallacy. Moshe sought to introduce Pharaoh to the notion that each level of the four categories of the natural world: the inanimate; the vegetative; the animal; and the speaking humans, raises itself by serving each subsequent higher level until one reaches the driving force behind this hierarchy, the absolute ‘will of G-d’ that generates the power within this marvelous machine, drawing them all to a supernal purpose.

This lesson was indeed a wonder that reflected on the greatness of man and his ability to inspire a world by allegiance to the word of G-d. 

Pharaoh would eventually shed his crocodile suit and come to terms with this new realization. But in the first foray in deconstructing Pharaoh’s crocodile philosophy, it was vital for this very significant demonstration to assert this contrary belief.

The Kabbalists point out that this enemy’s very name מצרים, Mitzrayim, is a contraction of the two words, מיצר, confined space, and ים, the expansive sea. This represents their limited view that confined their world to the edges of the natural world, as far as one can see, but never making the next natural association in observing the color of the sea, that is similar to the color of the sky, that is reminiscent of the hue in the Throne of Glory above.

We all live, in a manner, in ‘crocodile infested waters’. We feel constrained by our nearsighted vision that refuses to accept our potential for growth. We despair that we are limited by our deficient intellect, poor skills or weak social position. Our failures in the past only convince us that we cannot succeed. We often allow ourselves to be consumed by the ‘bigger fish in the sea’ submitting to all the mighty crocodiles that lurk in the darkness.

The great and illustrious Rabbi Meir Shapiro adds another layer to this important message.

The transforming of the holy staff that had the Ineffable Name of G-d etched into it would become a contaminated serpent in the company of Pharoah and his lackeys. However, the minute Aharon HaKohen would retake it, it returned to its natural holy state. This was instructive to the Jewish nation in teaching them that their despair stems from being in the clutches of the jaw of that crocodile state Egypt. The second they are willing to accept their greatness; their mission; their inherent worth and connection to G-d they can escape and achieve all that they truly desire to.

We too fall victim to the poisonous forces of the society we live in and its values. If we are to extract ourselves from its powerful grip we must elevate ourselves to newer and higher realities.

Crocodiles have the mightiest jaws in the world able to apply 5,000 pounds of pressure per square inch. Yet ironically its jaw’s opening strength is so meek that its jaws can be held shut with a simple rubber band.
The lesson is clear. Never be exposed to the clutches of these dangerous attitudes. All it takes is a simple commitment to keep that trap shut. If we stay away we are guaranteed to flourish naturally, basking in G-d’s benevolence and kindness, growing unimpeded in our avodas Hashem.

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