Parashat Shemot: Repentance and Community
When G-d appeared to Moshe at the burning bush and instructed him to return to Egypt and lead Beneh Yisrael to Egypt, Moshe initially refused, giving several reasons why he felt incapable of fulfilling this role. At one point, he noted that Beneh Yisrael would not listen to him and would refuse to accept his prophetic message (4:1). Hashem responded by giving Moshe three "signs" through which he would persuade the people that he was indeed sent by G-d to redeem them. The first sign was throwing his staff onto the ground, which would transform it into a snake. Moshe would then grab hold of the snake’s tail, and it would return to being a staff. Secondly, he would make his hand white with leprosy, and then restore its normal color. For the third sign, Moshe would draw water from the river and throw it onto the ground, whereupon it would change to blood.
What is the symbolic significance of these signs?
Tradition teaches that during the period of bondage in Egypt, Beneh Yisrael plummeted to the "forty-ninth level of impurity," approaching the lowest possible spiritual depths. Naturally, then, Moshe anticipated that the people would react to his message with skepticism, if not outright ridicule. How, they would ask, could G-d be willing to redeem them from slavery given their lowly spiritual state? It was inconceivable, they had assumed, that the Almighty would find any reason to have compassion on them and miraculously lead them to freedom. This was Moshe’s intent when he said that the people would not believe him – that the people would not believe that G-d would be willing to redeem them after their having fallen so low.
G-d therefore equipped Moshe with three signs that symbolically conveyed the message of Teshuba (repentance). The straight staff turning into a crooked, slithering snake represented sin, a person’s deviation from the straight, proper path. Moshe showed the people that even after turning into a "snake," and abandoning the path of proper conduct, it is possible to once again become a "staff," to redirect oneself onto the right course. The leprosy that struck Moshe’s hand symbolizes a person who becomes so evil that he is considered spiritually "dead." Just as leprosy is associated with death, an evil person likewise loses his spiritual life and experiences a kind of "death." The second sign demonstrated to the people that even if somebody falls to such depths that he loses his spiritual life, he can be rejuvenated again, just like Moshe’s hand. Regardless of how far one has fallen, he is capable of pulling himself back up through the process of Teshuba.
In the third sign, Moshe taught the people a fundamental lesson about repentance. When a person separates from his fellow Jews, if he leaves Jewish communal life, like the bucket of water which Moshe brought out the river, he will, in all likelihood, experience spiritual failure and demise, symbolized by the fresh water turning into putrid blood. If we want to repent and stay on the right course, we need to stick together. Communal life is vital for religious growth, as people influence one another and work together to create an atmosphere that encourages and is conducive to Torah and Misvot. This was Moshe’s message to the people. Even though they had fallen to frighteningly low spiritual levels, they still had the opportunity to grow and be worthy of redemption – as long as they retained their bonds with their fellow Jews and worked together to improve.
People sometimes think that in order to grow spiritually they need to isolate themselves and withdraw from communal life. Moshe Rabbenu taught Beneh Yisrael in Egypt that the precise opposite is true: we grow specifically when we bond together with our fellow Jews and work to create a vibrant community of people committed to strengthening their devotion to G-d and to Torah.