The Rabbi's Study

The Shepherd’s Staff

Perhaps one of the most famous features of the story of Moshe is his staff. While in Cecil B. DeMille’s telling of the story Moshe performs all of the miracles of the plagues, in the Torah it is actually Moshe’s brother, Aharon, who uses the staff to perform the miracles.

In this week’s Torah portion, Parashat Vaera, we read:

וַיֹּ֣אמֶר יְהוָ֔ה אֶל־מֹשֶׁ֥ה וְאֶֽל־אַהֲרֹ֖ן לֵאמֹֽר׃כִּי֩ יְדַבֵּ֨ר אֲלֵכֶ֤ם פַּרְעֹה֙ לֵאמֹ֔ר תְּנ֥וּ לָכֶ֖ם מוֹפֵ֑ת וְאָמַרְתָּ֣ אֶֽל־אַהֲרֹ֗ן קַ֧ח אֶֽת־מַטְּךָ֛ וְהַשְׁלֵ֥ךְ לִפְנֵֽי־פַרְעֹ֖ה יְהִ֥י לְתַנִּֽין׃ וַיָּבֹ֨א מֹשֶׁ֤ה וְאַהֲרֹן֙ אֶל־פַּרְעֹ֔ה וַיַּ֣עַשׂוּ כֵ֔ן כַּאֲשֶׁ֖ר צִוָּ֣ה יְהוָ֑ה וַיַּשְׁלֵ֨ךְ אַהֲרֹ֜ן אֶת־מַטֵּ֗הוּ לִפְנֵ֥י פַרְעֹ֛ה וְלִפְנֵ֥י עֲבָדָ֖יו וַיְהִ֥י לְתַנִּֽין׃

Hashem said to Moshe and to Aharon saying. When Pharaoh speaks to you saying: ‘Make yourselves a marvel;’ you will say to Aharon, ‘Take your staff and cast it before Pharaoh,’ and it will become a snake. So Moshe and Aharon came to Pharaoh and they did just as Hashem commanded; Aharon case his staff before Pharaoh and before his servants, and it became a snake.

-Exodus 7:8-10

It is reasonable for a simple reading of the Torah to lead one to presume that the staff which Moshe carried was just any old shepherd’s staff, after all, we know that Moshe was a shepherd of his father-in-law’s flock. So where did Aharon’s staff come from?

Ibn Ezra explains that you might think there were three different staffs: Moshe’s staff, “the Staff of God,” and Aharon’s staff. But, he goes on, this would be incorrect. There was only one staff. So, according to Ibn Ezra, Moshe let Aharon use his staff. Case closed. But wait… where did Moshe get the staff? We only presume it was a shepherd’s staff because we think of shepherd’s as carrying a staff and we know Moshe was a shepherd. When do we first learn that Moshe had a staff?

In last week’s Torah portion, Parashat Shemot, at the burning bush, the Torah says:

וַיֹּ֧אמֶר אֵלָ֛יו יְהוָ֖ה מזה [מַה־] [זֶּ֣ה] בְיָדֶ֑ךָ וַיֹּ֖אמֶר מַטֶּֽה׃

Hashem said to him, ‘What is in your hand?’ He said, ‘a staff!’

It could be that Moshe was carrying the staff all along, or it could be that the staff miraculously appeared in that very moment. This is the first mention of a staff in the chapter. So when is the last time we encounter a staff in Torah? In the Book of Genesis when Tamar tricks Yehudah into getting her pregnant and uses his staff as collateral and uses it to save her own life.

The Midrash teaches:

קח את המטה. זה שאמר הכתוב מטה עוזך ישלח ה’ מציון זה המטה שהיה ביד יעקב אבינו שנאמר כי במקלי עברתי. והוא המטה שהיה ביד יהודה שנאמר חותמך ופתילך ומטך אשר בידך. והוא היה ביד משה שנאמר ואת המטה הזה תקח בידך. הוא היה ביד אהרן שנאמר וישלך אהרן את מטהו. והוא היה ביד דוד שנאמר ויקח מקלו בידו. והוא היה ביד כל מלך ומלך עד שחרב בית המקדש. וכן עתיד אותו המטה לימסר למלך המשיח, וכן עתיד לרדות בו את אומות העולם לכך נאמר מטה עוזך ישלח ה’ מציון.

“Take the staff,” (Num. 20:8) this is as the verse said: “The staff of your strength Hashem will send from Tzion,” (Ps. 110:2). This is the staff which was in the hand of Yaakov Avinu, as it is said: “With my rod I crossed-over,” (Gen. 32:11); it is the staff which was in the hand of Yehudah, as it is said: “your seal, your cord, and your staff in your hand,” (Gen. 38:18); it is the staff which was in the hand of Moshe, as it is said: “this staff take in your hand,” (Ex. 4:17); it is the staff which was in the hand of Aharon, as it is said: “Aharon cast-down his staff,” (Ex. 7:10); it is was in the hand of David, as it is said: “he took the rod in his hand,” (Sam. I 17:40). It was in the hand of each and every king until the Temple was destroyed. And in the future that same staff will be handed-over to the king Messiah, and in the future he will rule with it over the nations of the world, therefore it is said: “the staff of your strength Hashem will send from Tzion.”

That is one well traveled staff! And it’s even older than you might think. The Mishnah teaches:

עֲשָׂרָה דְבָרִים נִבְרְאוּ בְּעֶרֶב שַׁבָּת בֵּין הַשְּׁמָשׁוֹת, וְאֵלּוּ הֵן, פִּי הָאָרֶץ, וּפִי הַבְּאֵר, וּפִי הָאָתוֹן, וְהַקֶּשֶׁת, וְהַמָּן, וְהַמַּטֶּה, וְהַשָּׁמִיר, וְהַכְּתָב, וְהַמִּכְתָּב, וְהַלּוּחוֹת…

Ten things where created [on the first] erev shabbat at twilight, they are: The mouth of the earth [that swallowed Korah and his rebellion], the mouth of the well [from which B’nei Yisrael drank in the wilderness], the mouth of the donkey [which spoke to Bilaam], the rainbow, the manna, the staff, the worm [which was used to engrave the priestly breastpiece and cut stone in the Temple], the script [of the Ten Commandments], the engraving [of the Ten Commandments], and the tablets [of the Ten Commandments]…

Tradition holds that the staff was passed to Shem, son of Noah, and was transmitted through the generations hand to hand, but this would have been disrupted between the death of Yosef and the birth of Moshe. So how would Moshe have gotten the staff? God put it in his hand at the burning bush just before it was turned into a serpent. So, if the staff was created at twilight of the first erev shabbat and we know the connection between the beginning of Creation and the serpent, what happened to the staff between Creation and coming out of the ark?

Rav Yitzhak Luria taught that the staff was planted in the ground in Gan Eden and was a branch of the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil. Before the expulsion it was removed from the tree. Adam HaRishon imparted it to Kayin. Kayin used the staff to murder his brother, Hevel. It was then given to Shet, who passed it through the generations to Noah, who gave it to Shem. Yaakov received the staff from Shem when he studied in his Beit Midrash before arriving at his uncle’s tent. According to Rav Luria, Moshe (who was the soul incarnation of Hevel, the shepherd) used the staff to create a tikkun, a spiritual “fix,” for the mis-step inspired by the serpent.

The moral of the story? We can only hope to see the Messianic Redemption if we address our foundational mis-step of not taking responsibility for our own actions.

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