The Gorilla, the Girl and the Snake

Every September at the Puyallup fairgrounds about 40 miles south of Seattle, occurs one of the Lapin family’s favorite fairs. On one special day each September, we would head to the Washington State Fair. We’d arrive early morning, soon after opening and leave only when the lights started going out late that night.  We love that fair.

One attraction, popular at almost every fair in the country for the last seventy-five years, is the girl-into-gorilla illusion.  The audience is shepherded into a dark tent. When the curtain opens, a girl is seen in a cage and before everyone’s astonished eyes she begins to sprout hair. Her features go from girlish to gorilla.  Her delicate arms gradually turn into huge hairy appendages dangling from enormous shoulders. Then, just as the transformation seems complete, the “gorilla” breaks open the cage. Everyone flees in terror, their frantic screams helping to attract the audience for the next show.

Spoiler alert: I am going to explain how it is done.  Imagine you’re in a brightly lit room on a dark night. Looking at the window, you clearly see a reflection of you and the room you’re in.  That window behaves like a mirror.  If the lights in the room are gradually dimmed while strong lights outside are gradually brightened, from inside the darkened room you can clearly see the garden outside the window. The window is no longer a mirror but a window.

Back to the gorilla illusion.  Unbeknown to the audience, there is a glass wall between them and the girl. A man in a realistic gorilla outfit is off to the side. The glass is angled and arranged so if the glass was actually a mirror, you’d see him.   Assistants gradually lower the light in the area around the girl and gradually raise the illumination around the gorilla. Careful placing of the players ensures that the reflected image of the gorilla merges with the image of the girl and as the light changes, seen through the angled glass, the girl gradually transforms into a gorilla.  It is always a crowd pleaser.

I discovered the secret of this illusion by using one of the rules of ancient Jewish wisdom: whatever is kept in the dark is where they don’t want you looking!  Peering carefully off into the gloom of the side room, the man in the gorilla suit is always just visible.

The Scriptural source of this rule fascinates me.  Look at these three examples from Exodus:

1a) And the Lord said to Moses, carve for yourself two stone tablets…
   (Exodus 34:1)

1b) And he carved two stone tablets…
      (Exodus 34:4)

2a) And the Lord spoke to Moses, go descend…
      (Exodus 32:7)

2b) Moses turned and descended from the mountain…
     (Exodus 32:15)

3a) And the Lord said to Moses, ascend to me to the mountain…
      (Exodus 24:12)

3b)Moses ascended the mountain…
     (Exodus 24:15)

Not surprisingly, whatever God told Moses to do, he did. Moses’ action is described using exactly the verb God used in issuing the directive.  There are many similar examples.

However, here is a notable exception:

And the Lord said to Moses, stretch out your hand and grasp (Heb: ACHaZ) its tail [the snake’s]
(Exodus 4:4)

…and he stretched out his hand and firmly grabbed (Heb: CHaZaK) it…
(Exodus 4:4)

Because this is so unusual, even the King James translation acknowledges that two different verbs are used for the directive and the action.

“…Put forth thine hand, and take it by the tail. And he put forth his hand, and caught it…”

However, even that historic translation fails to adequately emphasize the qualitative difference between the two Hebrew words ACHaZ and CHaZaK  The former suggests a taking hold that merely links Moses’ hand and the snake, as a person might grasp a friend’s hand in greeting.

But the latter, CHaZaK, implies complete mastery over the object being grabbed.  By firmly grabbing it and exerting human mastery over the snake, Moses can convert it into a harmless and inert wooden stick.  It is so easy to miss the subtle but powerful difference in words.  We are so easily distracted by the brightly lit drama that we might miss the important distinction.

Ancient Jewish wisdom explains that Moses instantly recognized the symbolism that the snake represented Pharaoh. Moses realized that merely grasping the snake would not do.  He needed a strong hand to firmly grab the snake.

After all, God could hardly have been clearer just a few verses earlier:

…Egypt will not let you go other than through a strong (CHaZaKa) hand.
(Exodus 3:19)

Anyone watching this scene play out would have seen the spotlight on the snake. After all, that is where the drama appears to be.  But the real place to be watching was where Moses’ hand grabbed the snake’s tail. And as any fan of the late, great Australian animal lover, Steve Irwin, knows the most dangerous place to grab a snake is the tail. Moses firmly and fearlessly grabs the snake’s tail, rendering it impotent.  It is a forerunner of future events in which Moses would do the same to the mighty Pharaoh.

16 thoughts on “The Gorilla, the Girl and the Snake”

  1. Hello Rabbi,
    I never miss your Podcast and have recently subscribed to Thought Tools. I really enjoy learning how ancient Jewish Wisdom explains so much in our lives. I learned about you on the Glenn Beck Program and have been a fan ever since. I haven’t heard you on Glenn in a while. Any plans to be on his show again? Love to Susan!


    1. Rabbi Daniel Lapin

      Dear Mary–
      God bless Glenn Beck always for introducing Susan and me to so many friends and students.
      Do also check into our daily TV show and let us know how you feel about it. Here:

      I was just in touch with Glenn a few weeks ago and I’ll be on his show again when I am next in Dallas. He is a thoroughly decent human being and a good friend.

    2. Rabbi, I’m a Catholic who gets the pleasure of teaching a group of high school boys every Wednesday night. I’m thrilled to see how your teachings, gleaned from your weekly podcasts, are so readily absorbed. Although at times I feel like that wayward uncle that teaches his wild-eyed nephews “How the world really works”, I’ve leaned how us gentiles and middle-class laborers are in serious need of this re-discovery (Rennassance if you will) of the past. Have you any suggestions as to the most effective writings for this brief period of time left in the school-year?

      Of course, I’d have to tell it in confession if I didn’t ask if they were on sale…

      Thank you for bringing to life a whole new dimension of Ancient Jewish Wisdom that makes us better men.

      1. Hi Dennis. Susan here. I would recommend two of our resources for high school senior boys. First, Tower of Power: Decoding the Secrets of Babel which will hopefully let them recognize socialism when they meet it on the college campus or in entertainment and news. Secondly, I would encourage reading and conversation that will stem from Hands Off! This May Be Love. Again, it will give them something to think about that is counter to the culture.
        They both have been on sale recently, though alas, are not right now, but if you are thinking of purchasing in bulk you can contact our office at and we’d be happy to help.

  2. Hi my Rabbi and Susan:

    It really struck me when I saw the powerful text of Exodus 3:19 in today’s TT that there is no escaping one’s personal Egypt BUT an equally strong (CHaZaka) hand to really grab hold of the situation. The Lord doesn’t do our part for us any more than He did the grabbing part for Moses. At the same time, it is His spirit which encourages and empowers us to be fearless in boldly seizing our liberty. What a great and wonderful God we serve!

    Really appreciate you,

    1. Rabbi Daniel Lapin

      Exactly, Peter,
      our self-imposed word-limit on our Thought Tools rules out some wonderful side explorations such as the excellent point you make. God often opens doors for us but how confidently we stride through that doorway is up to us. If we move forward with determination, He helps us. If we move forward diffidently, then He allows us to make that mistake. Special regards to NC 🙂

  3. I have often wondered why Moses would grab a snake by the tail! I assumed that as soon as MoseS toyched the snake, it changed to a staff so it couldn’t bite him. Now I know that it is the way Moses grabbed the snake that made it turn into a staff. Moses had to be “all in” in terms of his trust in God and determination to succeed that there was no hesitation or weak handling of the snake ( Pharoah ) . Thank you for this lesson. Linda

    1. Rabbi Daniel Lapin

      Precisely, Linda,
      you’re got it! That’s why we sometimes feel uncomfortable shaking hands with someone who grasps our hand very limply. But you put it very well. It was being ‘all in’ that gave Moses such power over the snake and would subsequently give him power over Pharaoh.

  4. I am confused. God told Moses to grasp instead Moses grabbed the snake. Wasn’t this disobedience to God’s instruction? Also, can you clarify what were the things the Egyptians didn’t want Moses to see?
    Thank you very much for your teaching,

    1. Rabbi Daniel Lapin

      Sorry if the point was unclear. God often points us in a direction but seldom controls the level of our enthusiasm, determination, and perseverance. He allows us to make that decision and it is us who then enjoy the consequences of that decision. He may open a business opportunity but whether you grab it with both hands and make it happen is up to you.
      While all eyes would have been on the head of the snake with its flashing black eyes and sharp fangs, the real action was at the other end where Moses’ firm and confident grasp utterly neutralized the snake.

    1. Rabbi Daniel Lapin

      That’s a little rough on good carnival and fair folk, isn’t it? Anyway, it is pretty much what I say in the final paragraph–
      …looking exactly where they don’t want you to look will make your children think you’re omniscient, your employees respect you, and politicians fear you.

  5. DEAR RABBI LAPIN & SUSAN, I have been listening to you for years & can honestly say I agree & appreciate almost everything you say. Your insights make studying so much richer. I just love Susan. She is so firm. Thank you , Joan

  6. Rabbi Lapin, I havent said hello in quite sometime and told you how much I appreaciate you and your teachings. I so look forword to the weekly podcasts and enjoy your no nonsense, common sense approach on how the world really works. Thank You for all you do makinging this world a better place for all races, colors, religious creed, national origin, ect., ect., you get the picture and showing us a path to everlasting LIFE!! May God Bless You and Your Family. A Catholic friend Todd A. Brahler Canton, OH

    1. Rabbi Daniel Lapin

      Hello Todd–
      Good to hear from you again and thank you for expressing your appreciation. Employees love hearing they’re appreciated. So do spouses; even children love hearing that from their parents. And, at the end of the day, so do rabbis!

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