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Parashat Beshalah 5784

Moses's Staff

January 23, 2024
by Rabbi Greg Schindler (’09)

As Parashat Beshalah begins, the Israelites are soon trapped between the Sea and the oncoming Egyptian army. What will they do? Incredibly, Gandalf raises his magic staff and the Sea splits!

Wait… I mean Moses.

Have you ever wondered about Moses’s staff? After all, Judaism forbids sorcery in the harshest terms. “Let no one be found among you . . . who is an augur, a soothsayer, a diviner, a sorcerer, one who casts spells…” (Deut. 18:10-11). And the People are coming from Egypt – a hotbed of sorcerers so powerful that they could match Moses and Aaron’s feats in turning staffs into snakes (Ex. 7:11-12) and water into blood (Ex. 7:22), and bringing frogs upon the land (Ex. 8:3).

Where did this staff come from, anyway?

We first meet the staff at the Burning Bush, when Moses makes a variety of arguments attempting to get out of his mission:

Argument No. 1:

“Who am I to go to Pharaoh?”

“I will be with you,” G-d assures him. “The sign that I sent you is, when you have freed the People from Egypt, you shall worship G-d on this mountain.” (Ex. 3:11-12)

Argument No. 2:

“What can I tell them when they ask, ‘What is [G-d’s] name?’”

“Tell the Israelites, ‘I Shall Be That I Shall Be’ sent me to you.” (Ex. 3:13-14)

Argument No.3:

G-d says, “Go and gather the elders of Israel, and say to them,

‘The G-d of your ancestors has appeared to me.’ –

וְשָׁמְע֖וּ לְקֹלֶ֑ךָ – They will listen to your voice.” (Ex. 3:16-18)

But Moses argues,

“לֹֽא־יַאֲמִ֣ינוּ לִ֔י – They will not have faith in me,

וְלֹ֥א יִשְׁמְע֖וּ בְּקֹלִ֑י and they will not listen to my voice.” (Ex. 4:1)

Only after Argument No. 3 does the staff take the stage.

“What is in your hand?” G-d asks. “A staff,” replies Moses. “Cast it on the ground.” When Moses casts it on the ground, it becomes a snake. “Put out your hand and grasp it by the tail.” Moses puts out his hand, and it becomes a staff in his hand.  “That they may believe that G-d, the G-d of their ancestors … did appear to you.” (Ex. 4:2-5)

G-d then tells Moses to place his hand in his bosom. When Moses removes his hand, it is white with a skin affliction (metzorah); when he returns it to his bosom, it becomes normal flesh again.

“If they do not believe you or do not listen to the voice of the first sign,” (וְלֹ֣א יִשְׁמְע֔וּ לְקֹ֖ל – quoting Moses’s objection almost verbatim)… “they will believe the second.” (Ex. 4:6-8).[1]

Consider this: If Moses had agreed to the mission before trying Argument No. 3, would the staff have had a role in our story? After all, G-d had already given Moses a sign:

“The sign that I sent you is, when you have freed the People from Egypt,

you shall worship G-d on this mountain.” (Ex. 3:12)

Argument No. 3 is quickly put to the test back in Egypt (guess who was right):

“Moses and Aaron went and assembled all the elders of the Israelites.

Aaron repeated all the words that G-d had spoken to Moses,

and he performed the signs in the sight of those assembled,

וַֽיַּאֲמֵ֖ן הָעָ֑ם וַֽיִּשְׁמְע֡וּ – and the People had faith and listened to them.” (Ex. 4:29-31)

Next up is Pharaoh. Here, Aaron employs the staff on four occasions:

1. He casts it on the ground and it becomes a snake; Pharaoh’s sorcerers do likewise (Ex. 7:10-11)

2. He lifts up the staff and strikes the River, turning it to blood; Pharaoh’s sorcerers do likewise (Ex. 7:20-22)

3. He stretches out his hand with the staff and raises up frogs; Pharaoh’s sorcerers do likewise (Ex. 8:1-3) and

4. He stretches out the staff and strikes the dust, to bring lice.” (8:12-13); this, however, the sorcerers cannot match, exclaiming, “It is a finger of G-d.” (8:15)

With only one “win” to its credit, the staff takes a break for Plagues Four through Six.

In the Seventh and Eighth Plagues, G-d may be attempting to wean Moses and Aaron off the staff. In each case, Moses is told to stretch out his hand; no mention is made of the staff.

But Moses employs the staff instead:

“Stretch out your hand toward heaven and there will be hail.”

“Moses stretched out his staff toward heaven.” (Ex. 9:22-23).

“Stretch out your hand over the land of Egypt for the locust swarm.”

“Moses stretched out his staff over the land of Egypt.” (Ex. 10:12-13)

In the Ninth Plague, G-d again instructs Moses to use only his hand. Here, Moses complies:

“Stretch out your hand toward the heavens and there shall be deep darkness.’”

“Moses stretched out his hand toward the heavens. (Ex. 10:21-22)

The Tenth Plague requires no human intervention.

Which brings us back to this week’s parasha. At the Sea, with the Egyptian army closing in, G-d tells Moses:

“Lift up your staff and stretch out your hand over the sea and split it.” (Ex. 14:16)

Hmm. Is this instruction to use the staff, or the hand, or both? Perhaps having learned the lessons of Plagues 7, 8 and 9, Moses seems to employ only his hand:

“Moses stretched out his hand over the sea.” (Ex. 14:21)

With the Israelites safely across, the instruction is clear: he is to use only his hand:

“Hold out your hand over the sea, that the waters may come back on the Egyptians.”

“Moses held out his hand over the sea.” (Ex. 14:26- 27)

Trekking through the desert, the Israelites quarrel with Moses over the lack of water. G-d tells Moses–

“Take in your hand the staff with which you struck the Nile and go…

I will be standing there before you on the rock at Horeb.

Strike the rock and water will issue from it.” (Ex. 17:5-7)

If the staff were being phased out, why is it OK to use it here at Horeb?[2]

And where is this Horeb, anyway?

Later, when it is time to depart Mount Sinai, we read:

“G-d spoke to us in Horeb, saying,

‘Enough of your dwelling by this mountain (בָּהָ֥ר הַזֶּֽה).’” (Deut. 1:6).

Horeb is none other than Mount Sinai!

And Horeb is the sign that G-d gave Moses, back at the Burning Bush:

“The sign that I sent you is, when you have freed the people from Egypt,

you shall worship G-d on this mountain (הָהָ֥ר הַזֶּֽה).” (Ex. 3:12).

G-d may have wanted Moses to employ the staff in G-d’s Presence at Horeb/Mount Sinai to make plain to the People that this wonder – and all the prior wonders wrought with the staff (footnote) – were actually the handiwork of G-d.

Footnote: Indeed, G-d emphasizes that Moses is to take “the staff with which you struck the Nile” (Ex. 17:5-7)

Thirty-eight years pass before Moses wields the staff again.[3]

The People are just about to enter the Land, and they again quarrel with Moses and Aaron over the lack of water. G-d tells Moses to dust off the old staff:

“Take the staff and assemble the congregation …

and speak to the rock before their eyes so that it will give forth its water.” (Num. 20:8)

It’s been a long time since Moses last employed the staff back at Horeb/Sinai, where he struck the rock to get water. And before that, there were some “issues” following G-d’s directions in Plagues 7 and 8, where Moses was told to use his hands, but used the staff instead.

Now, before you say that Moses is destined to make a mistake here, Moses was no stranger to the power of words. Even back in Egypt, he cried out to G-d to remove the frogs (Ex. 8:8), the swarm of wild beasts (Ex. 8:26), and the locusts (Ex. 10:18), and he used his hand in Plague 9 and at the Sea. In fact, the Torah is replete with episodes where Moses prays on behalf of the People.

What if he gets it right?

While the Wilderness generation (Gen W?) may have heard stories about the staff, this was probably the first time they had ever seen it. Moses could have demonstrated – once and for all – that such objects were not necessary, that words alone are all we need.

After all, G-d created the world using words.

But alas …

“Moses raised his hand

and struck the rock with his staff twice,

when an abundance of water gushed forth.” (Num. 20:11).

The result? G-d said to Moses and Aaron:

“לֹא־הֶֽאֱמַנְתֶּ֣ם בִּ֔י” – Since you did not have faith in Me

to sanctify Me in the eyes of the children of Israel,

therefore you shall not bring this assembly to the Land which I have given them.”  (Num. 20:12)

“Not have faith in me” – Where have heard words like these before?

All the way back at the Burning Bush in Moses’s Argument No. 3, just before the introduction of the staff:

“Go and gather the elders of Israel, and say to them,

‘The G-d of your ancestors has appeared to me’ –

וְשָׁמְע֖וּ לְקֹלֶ֑ךָ – they will listen to your voice.” (Ex. 3:16-18)

To which Moses replies:

“לֹֽא־יַאֲמִ֣ינוּ לִ֔י – They will not have faith in me,

וְלֹ֥א יִשְׁמְע֖וּ בְּקֹלִ֑י – and they will not listen to my voice.” (Ex. 4:1)

After four decades, Moses had the opportunity to prove that mere words are sufficient, and to put away the staff forever. In effect, he had the opportunity to do teshuvah (repentance) for Argument No. 3.[4]

But alas…

And so, Moses and Aaron may not enter the Land. For – in the Land – the manna will cease, battles will be fought, and the People will have to learn to be self-reliant. The magic staff was part of a world they left far behind.

In our own lives, we often doubt the power of our words to bring healing and light. “I don’t know how to pray,” is a familiar refrain heard by rabbis and cantors. “You pray for me.”

But here’s the message of the staff: We don’t need magic objects. We don’t need red strings or amulets. We don’t even need rabbis or cantors.[5]

We need only trust in the power of the words from our heart.[6]

Shabbat Shalom.
Rabbi Greg Schindler (AJR 2009). While at AJR, he was honored to serve as President of the Student Association. He is a community rabbi in Westport, CT where he conducts classes in Talmud and Tanakh. He has led Children’s High Holiday services for over 20 years. Each year, he writes and directs a new Yom Kippur comedic play based on the Book of Jonah , including “Jonah-gan’s Island”. “Batmensch”, “SpongeJonah SquarePants”, “Horton Hears an Oy” and more.


[1] The snake and metzorah may have been chosen as a rebuke to Moses’ contention that the People would not listen to his voice. The snake was called “the most cunning” of animals (Gen. 3:1) when it used its voice to convince the first humans to eat the fruit of the forbidden tree. And the traditional view of metzorah is that it is a punishment for evil speech (see Miriam’s punishment in Num. 12:10). G-d may be teaching that 1. Moses’ words are incorrect, and 2. words – even incorrect words – have power.

[2] Perhaps it is the staff’s tikkun (repair): The staff that turned water into blood, now brings water from a rock.

[3] The staff may – or may not – have been used to resolve the leadership dispute in the wake of Korach’s rebellion. G-d tells Moses to have each tribal leader bring a staff, with Aaron bringing “the staff of Levi.” (Num. 17:17-18). They are placed in the Tent of Meeting and the staff of the chosen tribe – Aaron’s – sprouts. G-d tells Moses to “put Aaron’s staff back before the testimony, to be kept as a lesson.” (Nu. 17:25) Is this Moses’s staff? Unclear.

[4] According to Maimonides (11th c), the true test of teshuvah is to be faced with the same situation, but now to act correctly. (Mishneh Torah, Repentance, 2:1)

[5] With apologizes to my colleagues everywhere!

[6] As we read when the would-be mother of Samuel the prophet prays for a child, “Now Hannah was praying in her heart; only her lips moved.” (1 Sam. 1:13)