The Signs – A Serpent and Tzara’at

  • Harav Yaakov Medan

Sponsored by Aaron and Tzipora Ross and family
in honor of the yahrtzeits of our esteemed grandparents:
Neil Fredman (Shmuel Nachamu ben Shlomo Moshe HaKohen, 10 Tevet),
Clara Fredman (Chaya bat Yitzchak Dovid, 15 Tevet),
and Walter Rosenthal (Shimon ben Moshe, 16 Tevet).


Translated by Kaeren Fish


“And Moshe answered and said, But behold, they will not believe me, nor hearken to my voice, for they will say, The Lord has not appeared to you.” (Shemot 4:1)

In response to this claim, God gives Moshe two signs (“otot” – the serpent and the tzara’at) and one “wonder” (“mofet” – the blood). I shall address the “otot.

Chazal, Rashi, and other commentators criticize Moshe for his lack of confidence in the faith of Am Yisrael, and view the staff that is transformed into a serpent, causing Moshe to recoil in fear, as a punishment to him for speaking ill of the Jewish people. The idea that these signs come as a sort of punishment is even clearer in the second sign – his hand being struck with tzara’at.

“Reish Lakish said: One who entertains suspicions against innocent people is punished bodily, as it is written, ‘But behold, they will not believe me…’ – but it was known to the Holy One, blessed be He, that they would indeed believe him.

He said to Moshe: They are believers, and descendants of believers, whereas you will ultimately disbelieve. ‘They are believers’ – as it is written, ‘And the people believed;’ ‘and descendants of believers’ – as it is written, ‘And he [Avraham] believed in God.’ As for you, ‘you are destined to disbelieve’ – as it is written, ‘Because you did not believe in Me….’” (Shabbat 97a)

The reader is left wondering, in what way did Moshe sin at the burning bush? His prediction as to the sort of difficulties that he would encounter was actually quite accurate! After all, Bnei Yisrael rebelled against him on so many occasions, having lost faith in his mission. In fact, the verse that Resh Lakish uses to prove Bnei Yisrael’s faith – “And the people believed” – is preceded by the information that “he performed the signs in the sight of the people.” In other words, Moshe was quite correct in seeking signs so that they would believe him.

Perhaps the episode can be understood in exactly the opposite way, justifying Moshe who identifies at the outset the problems that he will encounter as leader of Israel. God is supportive of him in his reservations, and demonstrates to him, through the signs He gives, the promise that “I will be with you.” According to this reading, God tells Moshe that if anyone dares not to believe him and to undermine his mission, God Himself will punish him. In a similar manner, God later makes a similar commitment concerning every prophet who will arise for the nation: “And it shall be that whoever will not hearken to My words which he shall speak in My Name, I will require it of him” (Devarim 18:19).

Miriam was the first to be punished with these signs. In conversation with Aharon, she undermined the uniqueness of the prophecy of Moshe, their brother:

“And Miriam spoke, and Aharon, against Moshe… and they said, ‘Has the Lord indeed then spoken only with Moshe? Has He not spoken also with us?’ And the Lord heard it.” (Bamidbar 12:1-2)

God rebukes them for this: “Why then were you not afraid to speak against My servant Moshe?” (Bamidbar 12:8). And Miriam is punished with tzara’at.

Once again, using the same expression, in describing the journey of Bnei Yisrael from Hor ha-Har around the land of Edom, when they grew impatient with the way, the Torah records:

“And the people spoke against God and against Moshe: Why did you bring us up out of Egypt, to die in the wilderness…” (Bamidbar 21:5)

And the punishment quickly follows:

“And God sent venomous serpents among the people, and they bit the people, and many people of Israel died.” (Bamidbar 21:6)

Here it is the sign of the serpent that acts against those who speak against Moshe and God.


In both instances, the relief for the suffering comes in similar form. Miriam and Aharon are forced to beg Moshe to pray for them, and likewise the people:

“Then the people came to Moshe and said, We have sinned, for we have spoken against the Lord and against you; pray to the Lord, that He take away the serpents from us.” (Bamidbar 21:7)

Those who questioned or undermined Moshe’s mission or his message, were ultimately forced to recognize his prophecy and his ability to pray on their behalf. In a similar way, God tells Avimelekh concerning Avraham: “…for he is a prophet, and he shall pray for you, and you shall live” (Bereishit 20:7).

Here the flip-side of the sign becomes manifest. By virtue of Moshe’s prayer, the deadly serpent becomes an inanimate brass serpent that gives life, just as the serpent at the burning bush returned to being a lifeless staff in Moshe’s hand. By virtue of Moshe’s prayer, Miriam’s leprosy was healed, just as his own hand had been healed.


Am Yisrael was destined to learn two lessons from the signs given at the burning bush. The first was that the prophet is God’s emissary, bringing His word to the people, and woe to anyone who denies or questions this. The second lesson is that the prophet is also the nation’s emissary before God. He is able to stand in prayer for them with the assurance that God hears and answers him.