Decoding the Three Signs

Inspired by a short conversation with Jeffrey Alhadeff of Seattle on Shabbat, Parshat Shmot, the 20th Anniversary of his Bar Mitzvah…….

Some Glaring Questions
A Novel Approach
Re-wind Required
Moses: An Unlikely Leader?
The Staff
Temporary Tzara’at
Water into Blood



One of the most perplexing passages at the outset of Sefer Shmot is the initial encounter between Moses and G-d at the burning bush.  At the start of Ch. 4, Moses hesitates to accept his new role, raising a concern that the Israelites will not listen to him:

“They will say, ‘God did not appear to you.’”

G-d’s response?

He tells Moses to throw his staff to the ground; it turns into a snake, and Moses flees for a moment.  G-d then instructs him to “reach out and grab its tail.” When Moses does so, it turns back into a staff.

“’This is so that they will believe that God appeared to you. The God of their fathers, the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob.’”

G-d then tells Moses to put his hand inside his robe; when Moses does so, his hand is afflicted with Tzara’at.  He then commands him to re-insert his hand into his garment. Moses does so, and when he removes it a second time, the skin returns to normal. 

“’If they do not believe you,’ [said God], ‘and they do not pay attention to the first miraculous sign, then they will believe the evidence of the last sign.”

Then, in verse 9:

“’And if they also do not believe these two signs, and still do not take you seriously, then you shall take some water from the Nile and spill it on the ground. The water that you will take from the Nile will turn into blood on the ground.’”

Some Glaring Questions

The logic of the passage is troubling on a number of counts:

a)     How is this type of miracle meant to convince the people of the truth of Moses’ message? How is each wonder evidence of Moses’ Divine mandate?  Could magicians or illusionists not replicate such tricks?

b)     What makes the second sign more compelling than the first? Why is a hand becoming diseased, then normal once again, stronger evidence of G-d’s involvement than the transformation of a staff to a snake?

c)     If G-d felt that the second sign was more compelling than the first – then why waste time and effort on the first sign?

d)     What makes the third sign more compelling than the second, and first?

e)     If G-d deemed the third sign more compelling than the second, then He should have provided Moshe with only the third, stronger sign!

A Novel Approach

Rav Naftali Zvi Yehuda Berlin, in his commentary, Ha’amek Davar, presents a novel approach to these difficulties.  In it, he offers a creative and even surprising understanding of the narrative.

Moses’ fear – that the Israelites will say, ‘God did not appear to you’ – can be understood in one of two ways:

a)     Israelite disbelief that G-d would redeem them

b)     Israelite disbelief in Moses as a messenger of G-d

According to Netziv, Moses does not question the people’s inherent acceptance of their imminent redemption.  Their doubts, Moses feared, would instead surround his assuming the mantle of leadership.

How does Netziv know that the latter is Moses’ true concern?

In verse 7, G-d informs Moses, ‘I have indeed seen the suffering of My people in Egypt. I have heard how they cry out because of what their slave-drivers [do], and I am aware of their pain.”

Netziv asserts that the Israelites certainly believed in the imminence of the redemption, since G-d’s current actions are a response to their desperate cries for Divine intervention!

At first glance, Netziv’s position is difficult : G-d merely states that He “has heard how they cry out because of what their slave-drivers to, and I am aware of their pain.”  Is there anywhere in this passage indicating that the Israelites consciously called out to G-d, engaged in Tefillah?

Re-wind Required

Netziv’s assertion has its roots in his commentary in Ch. 2 of Sefer Shmot:

A long time then passed, and the king of Egypt died. The Israelites were groaning because of their subjugation. When they cried out because of their slavery, their pleas went up before God.
God heard their cries, and He remembered His covenant with Abraham, Isaac and Jacob.

A question that preoccupies many commentators, including Netziv, is:  Why, if the King of Egypt died, are the Israelites now “groaning because of their servitude?” Why not a sigh of relief?

On the day of Pharaoh’s death, Netziv explains, the Israelites had a “day off” while the Egyptians mourned.  Until now, the Israelites were so overwhelmed with their work, they did not have the time to contemplate, to assess their plight.  Their brief vacation offered a rare opportunity to reflect on their seemingly endless state of servitude;  For the Netziv, the Torah’s report ויזעקו – they cried out – reflects not a spontaneous cry stemming from the immediate anguish of the work, but a reflective, contemplative Tefillah in the framework of communal prayer.

In Chapter 3, when G-d reports to Moses that He has heard the cries of the Jewish people, he presumably informs Moses of their heartfelt prayers for redemption.   Netziv thus concludes that Moses could not have been questioning the people’s belief in the redemption per se.

Moses: An Unlikely Leader?

“His concern was that they would not accept him as a messenger of G-d,” Netziv explains, “because they did not know him as a great person in Torah or tradition from the forefathers; in his youth, Moses grew up in the King’s palace, and as soon as he went to seek out his fellow Jews and see what they were experiencing, he killed the Egyptian and quickly fled to Midian.”

Moses feared that his run to Midian had been perceived as a flight from  עיקר קדושת ישראל – the essential holiness of the Jewish people.  Moses sensed that he would be viewed as having abandoned his fundamental identification with his people.  Aaron, who served continuously as a prophet since then, would surely garner more support!

How do the signs address Moses’ concern?

The Staff

‘What is that in your hand?’ asked God.

‘A staff.’  ‘Throw it on the ground.’

When [Moses] threw it on the ground, it turned into a snake, and Moses ran away from it.  God said to Moses, ‘Reach out and grasp its tail.’ When [Moses] reached out and grasped [the snake], it turned back into a staff in his hand.
‘This is so that they will believe that God appeared to you,’ [He said]. ‘The God of their fathers, the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob.’

Netziv takes note of the shift in the Torah’s terminology regarding Moses’ hand:

ויאמר ה’ אל משה שלח ידך ואחז בזנבו וישלח ידו ויחזק בו ויהי למטה בכפו

The verse ends by stating that the snake turned into a staff בכפו – in the palm of his hand.  Netziv understands this as referring to a full grasp of the staff in the normative way, “from the top of the staff”.  Until then, he had only held the tail of the snake. It was this tail that itself turned into the top of the staff.

Though Moses was not worthy in the nation’s eyes, G-d did in fact appoint him as leader: Just as the staff which, because of Moses, turned from the tail of a snake to the top of the staff, so too, on behalf of Israel, Moses was transformed from the tail, to the leader of the generation.  The G-d of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob may well bring about redemption through a person who is both younger and a relative unknown! Sometimes, it is not the “heads” who lead, but the “tails”….

According to Netziv, then, the first sign is not as much a supernatural act as it is an educational tool – a dramatic technique targeting the nation’s preconceptions and expectations of appropriate leadership.

Temporary Tzara’at

That said, what is the goal of the second sign?

Netziv explains: Even if the nation could accept in principle the appointment of a younger, unknown person, the people may still raise the question of why G-d would have transplanted Moses from Egypt to the distant Midian, far from his people?  Why not a leader from their midst?

The second sign addresses this concern:

“And he took it out and behold his hand was leprous as snow”

Moses’ hand did not contract Tzara’at overtly, but only after being inserted into his robe.  This is the way of G-d, Netziv notes: when He wishes to perform a wonder, the moment of the transformation is hidden from man.

When Moses’ hand returns to normal, the term used is והנה שבה כבשרו – it re-assumed the  texture of his flesh.  Hands, engaged in so many physical tasks, tend to have rougher skin than other areas of the body.  Moses’ hands, after “recovering” from Tzara’at, became even more shiny and supple than before.  Tzara’at, once it passes, eliminates all impurities  in the skin.

This short illness and recovery mirrors Moses’ experience:  In Chapter 2 of Shmot, he attempts to lead his brothers by defending the Hebrew from the Egyptian and then by intervening in internal Jewish matters.  His efforts fail and he is compelled to flee.  By Ch. 4 of Shmot, those pursuing him have died, and he is on his way to lead the Israelites with more personal security and greater resolve than before.

Consistent with Netziv’s understanding that the first sign was an educational tool more than a supernatural act, this second “sign” aims at responding to the Israelites’ follow-up question: G-d wishing to bring about the redemption through a relative unknown still begs the question: why this particular context? Why a shepherd who fled Egypt and his people for Midian?

To this comes the reply: in G-d’s world, “blessing only rests on that which his hidden from the eyes.” Since Moses’ selection is a blessing for the Jewish people, G-d’s mode of choosing Moses mirrors the manner in which He blesses the world. G-d’s determination that national redemption follow this process is sharpened by Moses fearlessly reassuming a position from which he had previously abandoned as he fled for his life.

The second sign, then, is no mere miracle: It aims at deepening the nation’s appreciation of the Divine Providence and rationale guiding the selection of Moses.

Water into Blood

והיה אם לא יאמינו לך ולא ישמעו לקל האת הראשון והאמינו לקל האת האחרון

‘If they do not believe you,’ [said God], ‘and they do not pay attention to the first miraculous sign, then they will believe the evidence of the last sign.

Although Netziv notes that the term אחרון can occasionally refer to the second, and not necessarily last,  item in a series – Netziv does not resort to that explanation in our narrative: He maintains that the purpose of the last “sign” is distinct from the first two : it is not meant to necessarily validate Moses’ chosenness.

An indicator of the separate status of the third sign is the Torah’s style:

After the first sign, G-d says:

‘This is so that they will believe that God appeared to you,’ [He said]. ‘The God of their fathers, the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob.’

After the second sign, G-d says:

‘If they do not believe you,’ [said God], ‘and they do not pay attention to the first miraculous sign, then they will believe the evidence of the last sign.

The two verses follow their respective “signs”, notes Netziv, to stress that the signs aim to educate them to believe in Moses as the new leader.

However, the third sign is preceded by its verse:

‘And if they also do not believe these two signs, and still do not take you seriously, then you shall take some water from the Nile and spill it on the ground. The water that you will take from the Nile will turn into blood on the ground.’

In other words, G-d is saying: “…if they do not take you seriously even after you articulate the basis of your chosenness, you should convey a harsh message to them – by means of water turning into blood.”

What’s the message?

Water sustains life, while the flowing blood symbolizes death. The redemptive process – the lifeline of the Israelites as a people – will be unavailable to those who remain intransigent.  For stubborn people, the opportunity for life will be denied them.  By the time of the exodus, many those of lesser faith died in Egypt.  In Sefer Bamidbar, the spies and their followers – who stubbornly refuse this “lifeline”, suffered a similar fate.

For Netziv, the third sign is not meant to engender belief, but rather as a message to those are מתחכמים הרבה – too analytical and critical for their own good.  Just as it is not fit to be a fool who believes everything, says Netziv, so, too it’s unwise to rely solely on one’s rational faculties.


Netziv offers a creative interpretation of the Biblical text.  At first blush, Moses is asking

a)     for supernatural signs

b)     to establish the upcoming redemption.

In light of the difficulties raised earlier, Netziv opts for the opposite approach:

a)     Instead of trying to establish the veracity of the redemption, Moses hopes to establish his role as leader;

b)     Instead of the signs serving as a mystical proof of G-d’s redemption of the Israelites, they are mere educational tools conveying how G-d’s hand subtly guides history.

c)     The final sign has yet another educational purpose: to teach that to tap into life’s blessings both individually and nationally, a Jew must strike a balance between rational thought and אמונה, religious belief.

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