We are all familiar with the scene in our parsha today where Aharon casts his staff to the ground before Paro and it turns into a snake. Unimpressed, he has his court magicians do the same. But then Aharon’s snake consumes theirs.
What many people don’t know is that it may not actually be a snake. In the Hebrew it says “Va-yish-laych A-ha-ron et ma-tay-hu lif-nay Pa-ro ve-a-va-dav vai-hi le-ta-nin.” Aaron threw down his staff before Paro and his servants and it became a ta-nin. The Hebrew word for snake is nachash. So what is a ta-nin? It could mean snake, but a more accurate translation would be a dragon, a sea monster, or sea serpent. Some scholars think that it refers to a cobra, others perhaps a crocodile.
It is used in various places in the Tanach to describe great beasts of the sea or monsters. In Bereshit it says that God created the great sea creatures (tanim gedolim) that teem in the oceans. Iyov, Job, complains to Hashem “Am I a tanin (sea monster) that you stand guard over me?” Jeremiah cries out “Nebuchadnezzer, the king of Babylon, has devoured me...he has swallowed me like a monster (ca-ta-nin).”
Is there significance to the staff turning into a monster of some type instead of a simple snake? There may be as highlighted by our Haftarah reading. In Yehezkiel 29:3, uses this same word in describing the Paro of his day. It says ““Behold, I am against you, Paro king of Egypt, the great dragon (ha-ta-nim) that lies in the midst of his streams, who says, ‘My Nile is my own; I made it for myself.’ While this is obviously referring to a different Egyptian king than the one of the Exodus, all of them are cut from the same cloth, and we can link it back to him.
Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz in his essay about this week’s parsha states that Paro was raised to believe that he was a god. He writes, “This assumption is not a matter of abstract theology; it is bound up with the fundamental premise of his life and with the basic way he views the world. When a person grows up under the impression that he is a G‑d, this also colors his understanding of the nature of justice. Whatever he wants is by definition the embodiment of justice, and if there is anyone or anything in the world that is just, it is certainly he.” Everything that he wanted was thus automatically deemed as good without any qualms. He lived with the conviction that he was always right.
Leviathan is this mysterious great beast in Scripture and is symbolic of all that stands against God. Isaiah announces that God will one day destroy Leviathan, the great beast. “In that day Adonai with his hard and great and strong sword will punish Leviathan the fleeing serpent, Leviathan the twisting serpent, and he will slay the dragon (tanin) that is in the sea.” This is the source of the imagery of the devil being a great dragon in Yochannan’s Revelation. According to a midrash, after God slays leviathan at the end of time, its skin will be used to make the walls of our sukkahs.
Paro is a tanin. He is leviathan. Standing against God. Shaking his fist at God, crying out “I am God and the Nile is mine! I will not let your people go!” He is echoing the words of Ha-Satan who says “I will ascend to the heavens; I will raise my throne above the stars of God;
I will ascend above the tops of the clouds; I will make myself like the Most High.”
In Psalm 91 it speaks of the Messiah: “You will tread on the lion and the adder; the young lion and the serpent you will trample underfoot.” This is often translated as serpent as it is here, but in the Hebrew it is tanin. It is this Leviathan, this great dragon, that Messiah Yeshua will destroy at the end of time as described in Yochanan’s Revelation.
This is why God gives the sign of Aharon’s staff turning into a tanin. In our parsha, God says “Egypt shall know that I am Hashem when I stretch out my hand on them”. He also says “You will know that I am Hashem when I turn the Nile to blood”, and Moses tells Paro that Hashem will remove the frogs so that he will know that there is no one like Hashem. God is telling Paro that He is God. His tanin swallows Paro’s tanin. Paro did not create the Nile nor does it own it. All that is in heaven and earth are Hashem’s, as it is declared in the Book of Devarim. As we shall see next week, Paro is ultimately brought to his knees and releases the people.
So what does all this grand cosmic struggle have to do with us?
The reality is that we have Leviathan in us. We have a tanin in us. We may not think that we are god in the way that Paro did. We may not think that we own all that we survey. But we can be like Paro in microscopic ways. We can think that what we want is just and good, but really, if we look closely, we catch the flick of the serpent’s tail out of the corner of our eye.
To be children of Hashem, we must constantly be on the lookout for the dragon that dwells in the nooks and crannies of our souls. Self-Awareness is of paramount importance if we are to be faithful devotees of God and His Messiah. I shared a meme on Facebook this past week that I got somewhere that says “Be careful not to dehumanize those that you disagree with. In our self-righteousness, we can become the very things that we criticize in others… and not even know it. This applies to many situations of our life. Are we doing something for praise and recognition? It has its roots in the depths of the Nile! Are we consumed with dark thoughts about someone? We can catch a whiff of the dragon’s sulfurous breath! Are we engaging in Lashon Hara, gossip, thinking that we are doing good? We can hear the rustle of scales on the tiles!
The Great Beast rears its head against the heavens and challenges God. It shakes its fist in defiance and shakes its mighty head in denial that God is Lord of all. His head will be crushed under the heel of Mashiach. But we have a piece of that tanin, that beast in each of us. Until we are freed from its grasp in Olam Ha-Ba, we must be diligent in our self-awareness so that we can be humble in all that we do and truly know that we do not stand in Hashem’s place.
Tonight for Hazikkaron we will read Yeshua’s blessings on the meek and humble and his condemnation of the proud and haugthy. We move from one camp to the other when we give place to the beast. May we always be worthy of blessing as we strive with dragon in the nooks and crannies of our souls.