Parshat Shemot 5770 (from Ireland)

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And G-d said to him “Cast [your staff] on the ground” and it turned into a snake… And he put his hand into his bosom and his hand was leprous, as white as snow (4:2-6)

Snow is a word that is uppermost in our minds at the moment as we suffer the Big Freeze in Ireland and the UK, the worst weather for decades. A dearth of grit for the roads means that the country effectively comes to a standstill until the sun begins to shine strongly enough to melt the compacted snow – possibly in July or August!

But although snow is causing difficulties at the moment, when we talk of snow it is usually in terms of aesthetic beauty, calmness and purity; we talk of pristine snow, virgin snow, softly falling snowflakes, being as pure as the driven snow etc. In Jewish terminology snow is also used as a metaphor for purity and forgiveness; in the Beit HaMikdash on Yom Kippur a ribbon changing colour from crimson to snowy whiteness was a sign that G-d had accepted the prayers of the Jewish people and granted forgiveness. Similarly, Isaiah tells us “im ye’hiyu chata’eichem kashanim, kasheleg yalbinu – “Though your sins are like scarlet wool, they shall become as white as snow.” White clothes symbolize angelic holiness and purity, the white bridal gown, the white Shabbat tablecloths, the white kittel worn in shul on the High Holidays etc.

It is easy to see why snow is such an apt description for these things. Because snow does not just change the colour of the landscape – it totally transforms it. This is the concept of purity and holiness, that we are making a completely new and fresh start, forgetting the sins of the past and moving onto better things. Of course the goal is to achieve total transformation as opposed to simply masking over which is what happens when snow falls. And just as millions of individual snowflakes are needed to gather together in harmony to create this new identity, so too we must strive to achieve as many individual good deeds as we can, in harmony with those around us – to make our world a purer and brighter place to live.

In our parsha this week snow is used with an unusually negative connotation. Moses is shown a sign by G-d at the Burning Bush – his hand becomes covered with leprosy as white as snow. Another of the signs is his staff turning into a serpent when he casts it to the ground.

The Sages comment here that these signs bore a subtle message of reprimand for Moses in response to his declaration to G-d that, “they (the Jewish People) will not believe me (when I tell them I had this Divine vision).” Because Moses had spoken so disparagingly of his people, accusing them of being of little faith, he was given specifically these two signs; Leprosy was later to become the Divine punishment for slander, and the serpent was a reminder of the evil talk of the serpent in the Garden of Eden.

Possibly the rare negative allusion to snow here is to share a message, just as snow can create a new and fresh identity, it can also do the same in a negative sense. Whether we start rumours about others, spread rumours about others, or just believe rumours about others, we are redefining the truth and creating a new, false identity for the person we are discussing. And quick as a flash the rumours accumulate, settle and freeze – causing unnecessary distress for all those involved.

Let us learn from the subtle hints Moses received in this parsha – and always use our faculties as they were intended – to turn a critical eye to ourselves and to look only benevolently at others.

Rabbi Zalman Lent

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