There is a short scene recorded in the beginning of Parshat Va’Era that at first glance seems to take its natural place in the Divinely laid-out process leading up to the beginning of the makot – but then, upon a more careful read, proves to be downright puzzling.
“And God said to Moshe and to Aharon, saying: When Pharaoh will speak to you saying, ‘provide for yourselves a sign’ (תנו לכם מופת), you will say to Aharon ‘take your staff and cast it before Pharaoh – it will become a reptile’. And Moshe and Aharon came before Pharaoh and they did this, just as God commanded; and Aharon cast his staff before Pharaoh and his servants and it became a reptile. And Pharaoh also called to the wise men (חכמים) and the magicians (מכשפים); and the Egyptian sorcerers (חרטומי מצרים) also performed this act through their sorcery. Each of them cast their staffs and the staffs became reptiles; and [then] Aharon’s staff swallowed their staffs. And Pharaoh’s heart was strengthened, and he didn’t listen to them just as God had spoken.” (Shemot 7:8-13)
What is this scene actually accomplishing? It doesn’t serve as the first introductory meeting between Pharaoh and God’s envoys, for that occurred back in chapter five. It also isn’t where the makot will begin, that happens in the very next episode (ibid: 14). It also isn’t to be appreciated as a microcosm or mini-summary of the destructive process that will now transpire over the next many months in Egypt, for that was relayed right before this scene (ibid 1-7)! So, what has been ‘added’ through this meeting that God felt the need to give Moshe and Aharon explicit instructions on how to address it and that the Torah needed to spend six pesukim recording it?
And from a more textual perspective: what does it mean that Pharaoh will say ‘provide for yourselves a sign’ (תנו לכם מופת): what is Pharaoh actually asking for and why is it ‘לכם’ ‘for you’ and not ‘for me’, for example? Also, at this scene’s conclusion, the Torah reports that ‘[Pharaoh] didn’t listen to them just as God had spoken’ – which seems to be specifically referring back to pasuk four, when God told Moshe and Aharon that Pharaoh wouldn’t listen to their demands to send the nation out of Egypt. But this scene – whether in God’s initial instructions, or within the record of Pharaoh’s subsequent actions – doesn’t relate to this message at all. They never demanded anything; so what does it mean that ‘Pharaoh didn’t listen to them’ –they were neither commanded to say nor ended up saying anything!
Another pasuk within this enigmatic section which requires a more clarity is pasuk 11:
“And Pharaoh also called to the wise men (חכמים) and the magicians (מכשפים); and the Egyptian sorcerers (חרטומי מצרים) also performed this act through their sorcery.”
What is the difference between חכמים, מכשפים and חרטומים? Also, why does the Torah say that ‘Pharaoh also called’ – to whom is the ‘also’ referring? Who else called anyone in this scene? And, while we’re told that Pharaoh called for the wise men and the magicians, ultimately it was specifically the sorcerers that performed the matching feat?
Answering the last question first. According to many classical commentators and modern scholars חכמים would have been the ones who performed ‘tricks’, intelligent sleights of hand; מכשפים were magicians, summoning and performing some level of basic magic; חרטומים however were true ‘priests of the Egyptian gods’ – they tapped into the highest level of divinity for their power; i.e. human representatives on the ground of the gods in the sky. (According to this approach, it is not surprising that it is specifically the divine-priest חרטומים who are the ones who are then involved with matching God’s upcoming supernatural makot). So, we can understand that when Pharaoh observed Aharon’s staff turn to a reptile, he summoned first his חכמים and מכשפים – to see if they could perform a similar sleight of hand or magical spell, respectively. However, ultimately it was only the חרטומים who, with the power of the gods, could also perform a similar wonder.
And now we can answer all our questions concerning this puzzling scene. This meeting was never about formal introductions, foreshadowing destruction or listing demands; it was about accomplishing one specific goal: defining roles. God told Moshe and Aharon that Pharaoh will say ‘provide for yourselves a sign’ because Pharaoh would be specifically looking to understand Moshe and Aharon’s own roles within this newly introduced ‘YHWH’-system. They weren’t there to prove God’s role in the upcoming makot – Moshe and Aharon don’t even mention God or any of His demands (like they will in every other subsequent meeting they will have with Pharaoh)! This meeting was solely about establishing Moshe and Aharon’s distinct upcoming roles in the eyes of Pharaoh and his servants.
And what are these unique roles they are now assuming? Previously (7:1), God told Moshe that he would represent ‘a god’ to Pharaoh, and Aharon would ‘play’ Moshe’s prophet. Which is why, in this ‘self-defining’ meeting, Moshe tells Aharon to perform the sign: a ‘god-in-human-form to prophet’ formula. Then, ‘Pharaoh also called’ to his wonder-performing men: a ‘god-in-human-form’ also calling to his ‘right-hand miracle-men’. And as it plays out, it is ultimately only the serious true prophets of the Egyptian gods – the חרטומים – that can get anywhere close to matching Aharon’s feat. And then, at the end of this scene, however, Aharon’s staff swallows the חרטומים’s; in the battle of equals, Aharon ultimately emerges superior!
And this Aharon/חרטומים parallel then plays out perfectly in the four makot which God instructed Aharon specifically to initiate. For it is only during the plagues that Aharon performs or is involved in (the first three and the ‘inconsistent and therefore pattern-proving’ sixth plague!) that the חרטומים – Aharon’s counterparts – are also mentioned! And, it is only these same four makot that the Torah says that Pharaoh ‘didn’t listen to them’ just like in our original scene (as opposed to the other Pharaoh response, ’he did not send the nation’ which is recorded in the other five)!
Which all therefore now also explains why we’re then told that ‘Pharaoh didn’t listen to them’ despite the fact that they didn’t make any explicit demands. For, the very hierarchal structure being established in this scene – Aharon matching and ultimately besting Pharaoh’s חרטומים – was the message that Moshe and Aharon were conveying…but Pharaoh refused to listen to them and refused to accept the powerful roles they were presenting themselves in.
The final question that needs to be answered is why God wanted this role-defining consciousness to be attained before the makot and the ultimate Exodus began? There is no doubt that the underlying impetus for the entire drawn-out destruction of Egypt – the numerous warnings, threats, and obviously the 10 devastating makot – was the fundamental realization and acceptance of the knowledge of God and His omnipotence. From the nature and variety of the makot and the specifically worded warnings, to every other detail and stage of the destruction that led up to the Exodus, everything was methodically calculated to ensure the proper and complete accomplishment of this goal. Our ‘role-defining’ scene is yet another vehicle in this Divine design to instill this undeniable knowledge and acceptance of the ultimate God. For Pharaoh to truly appreciate the greatness of God and the power He yielded, God made certain to present it on a comprehensive level-by-level model which Pharaoh would readily and easily recognize:
God’s ‘sorcerer’ Aharon besting Pharaoh’s חרטומים;
God’s man-on-the-ground Moshe overwhelming Egypt’s earthly representative, Pharaoh;
and of course, God Himself thoroughly crushing Egypt’s deities.
 A related, yet more general question can also be asked: why did God involve Aharon in any of the makot? Why couldn’t Moshe perform them all? Certainly he was the ‘main voice’ throughout the entire Exodus; so why is Aharon asked to initiate four of the makot?
 See, for example, Abarbanel, HaEmek Davar and https://mikranet.cet.ac.il/pages/item.asp?item=16970
 This is also wonderfully reflected through the juxtaposition of this section (7:8-13) with the one immediately before it (7:1-7). In the preceding pesukim, God summarizes the repeating ‘5-part basic formula’ for the upcoming makot process: 1) Moshe and Aharon will speak to Pharaoh, telling him to send Bnei Yisrael out; 2) God will harden Pharaoh’s heart; 3) God will bring destructive wonders upon Egypt; 4) Pharaoh will still refuse; 5) All of Egypt will know that God is the Supreme Being. (And at the end of this 9-round process, God will take Bnei Yisrael out of Egypt). What we find described in our section is a ‘mini’-destructive wonder (the staff to reptile, then swallowing the other ones) (#3), a ‘mini’-Pharaoh not heeding (#4), and Pharaoh and his servants (a ‘mini’-all of Egypt) see this play out (#5). The highlighted absences, therefore, are numbers 1 and 2: the Divine message and the Divine involvement. For, as explained, this scene was specifically all about Aharon and Moshe – not God, establishing their, individual roles in the upcoming makot process.
 Brilliantly, we have record of at least three separate outsiders who also appreciating this perfectly orchestrated message: Yitro (Shemot 18:1 and 11), Rachav (Yehoshua 2:9-11), and the Plishtim (Shmuel I 4:7-8).