When G‑d heard the cry of the Jews suffering in bondage, He summoned Moses to the burning bush. There He informed him that he would lead his brethren into freedom.

But Moses, who had been hiding in Midian for some sixty years, after killing an Egyptian when a young man, was not sure that the Jews would heed his directives. G‑d then gave him three signs aimed at persuading the dubious.

...G‑d showed Moses that his staff could turn into a snake...

First, G‑d showed Moses that his staff could turn into a snake, and then back into a staff again. Second, He caused his hand to turn a leprous white, and then to resume its normal appearance. And finally, G‑d said: (Ex. 3:9) "And if they also do not believe these two signs…then you shall take some water from the Nile and spill it on the ground. The water…will turn into blood…"

What made each sign more persuasive than the previous one? It seems that a staff turning into a snake and back – a feat beyond the laws of nature – was a greater sign than a hand turning sickly, which is within the realm of nature. Why should the Jews listen to the second sign if they didn't need the first, miraculous sign? And for that matter, why not go straightaway to the sign of blood?

The answer lies in the teaching of the Talmud, which tells us that if it weren't for the help of G‑d, we'd never be able to stand up to the yetzer hara, our "evil inclination" as it has power equal to an angel.

Shem miShmuel suggests, however, that we do have the power to withstand the yetzer hara thanks to the spiritual inheritance we received from our forefathers — Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. It is thanks to them that we know how to respond to an attack of the evil inclination.

From Jacob we learn that the first avenue of defense is Torah study. Jacob, who studied G‑d's laws for many years in the tents of Shem and Eber, taught us that G‑d's ways are the ways of peace (shalom), and that when we learn Torah, all obstacles melt away by themselves.

If we cannot concentrate on our studies, however, then, in order to purge the yetzer harah from our thoughts, we must follow the example of Abraham. His task it was to spread monotheism by proclaiming the name of the One G‑d. Thus we should recite the Shema, the biblical verse which proclaims the oneness of G‑d. When we're unable to learn Torah with concentration, recalling the unity of the One Above should help to drive away distracting thoughts.

But if, even then, the yetzer harah still persists, then we must follow the advice of Isaac – known as the man of judgment – by reminding ourselves that we are mortal and will die one day. However, there is a danger that in doing so, we might draw judgment into the world by thinking about our end, and that very judgment may be applicable to our life. Since, many of us might be found lacking under such circumstances; our end could come sooner than we thought. This is why, we should battle the yetzer harah by less stringent means and only use Isaac's example when nothing else works.

What does this have to do with the three signs given to Moses?

The Midrash tells us that the three signs that G‑d gave Moses also corresponded to the three forefathers. Indeed, says the Shem miShmuel, the Jews could not have left Egypt but for the merit of the forefathers, and the three signs gave them the necessary faith to go out of bondage. These three signs follow the same order as the advice for dealing with the evil inclination.

Jacob...developed the traits necessary to defeat witchcraft.

The first sign relates to Jacob. The snake represents the witchcraft and occult powers of Egypt, and it was Jacob, with his sincerity and integrity in the house of Laban, who developed the traits necessary to defeat witchcraft.

The second sign recalls Abraham, who was pure and straightforward in his pursuit of G‑d in the world. The hand that became leprous and then returned to a state of purity is symbolic of Abraham. He represented the power of purity to confront the spiritual impurity of Egypt.

But, if together these two signs didn't dispel doubt from the hearts of the suffering Jews, so G‑d informed Moses that the third sign certainly would. Upon seeing the sign of blood, which corresponds to the judgment of Isaac (the color red is symbolic of gevura, or judgment), the Jews would certainly gain the faith they needed to go out of bondage.

Unlike the previous two signs, in which the staff and the hand returned to their former states, the blood never returned to being water. It was swallowed up by the earth. And that was what would happen to the Egyptians under the influence of the judgment of Isaac. They wouldn't be seen again. The appearance of the attribute of judgment caused the Jews to be scrutinized as well. (Shem miShmuel suggests that it was because of this final sign that the Jews had to undergo the fourth decree of difficult bondage.) Still, it was necessary in order to give them the faith to get out of Egypt.

When the final redemption comes, G‑d willing it will be by way of peace (b'derech shalom) in the merit of learning Torah, without need for signs, and yet "He will show us miracles."


[From "Inner Lights from Jerusalem" based on Shem miShmuel and other Chassidic and Kabalistic Sources, translated and presented by Rabbi David Sterne.]