Part 1: Shemos—Exodus 1:1–6:1
And God said to him, “What is in your hand?” And he said, “A staff.” And He said, “Cast it to the ground,” and he cast it to the ground and it became a snake, and Moshe ran away from it. (4:2–3)
The Medrash tells the following story (Shemos Rabba 3): A Roman matron said to Rebbe Yossi, “My god is greater than your God.” He asked her why. She explained, “At the moment that your God revealed Himself to Moshe in the bush, Moshe covered his face [but did not move]. But when he saw the snake, which is my god, immediately ‘Moshe ran away from it’!”
Rebbe Yossi replied that she did not understand. “When our God was revealed in the bush, there was no place to run. Where would he run—to the heavens, the sea, or to dry land? What does it say concerning our God? ‘Behold, I fill the heavens and the earth …’ With the snake, which is your god, if a person merely runs two or three steps away he can escape and save himself, and this is why it says ‘Moshe ran away from it’!”
A Tyrant Is like a Snake
Rabbi Tzvi Elimelech Hertzberg sees within this conversation a message about leadership. The Roman matron's god was a snake, because that was the type of leadership to which she was accustomed. Her leader was also a “snake.” Snakes will strike without cause or benefit, and we still find leaders of this variety today: dictators, who punish their people without cause or personal benefit, but only in order to demonstrate how powerful they are.
Rav Hertzberg also compares those who spread gossip to snakes, because their only “benefit” is malicious—the sense of superiority that they get from putting down others. The dictator and gossip work together: the power of the dictator depends upon the gossip that people tell about one another, even that ministers tell. No one dares make a misstep, and thus the dictator rules from fear.
A Torah Leader
Moshe ran away from “leadership” of this nature. He wanted no part of it, for it runs completely contrary to the kindness and generosity demanded by the Torah. The Torah path toward leadership is built upon humility, mercy, and righteousness, not the methods of a snake. The Torah path is indicated only a few verses later, when God says, “in order that they will believe that the God of their forebears appeared to you, the God of Avraham, the God of Yitzchak, the God of Yaakov” (4:5).
This lesson applies to all of us: When we behave with kindness, consideration, and love for others, we inspire respect for ourselves, for our people, and for our God.