Friday, July 01, 2011

Hukat (Individual & Community)

For more teachings on this week’s Torah portion, see the archive to this blog for June 2006, June 2007, 2008, June 5 2009, and June 2010.

A Brief History of Moses’ Staff

In this parashah we jump over a 38-year period, towards the concluding year of the period of wandering in the desert, to the wars with the kings of Transjordan, the deaths of Miriam and Aaron, fragments of ancient poetry, etc. Among the incidents related here is the well-known story of how Moses was denied his greatest wish—to enter the Land of Israel together with the people whom he had led for more than forty years—due to a seemingly minor infraction of God’s command. Asked to take water out of a certain stone for the thirsty people by speaking to it, he instead hit it with his staff. Why was he punished so severely for this act?

In order to understand this incident, I suggest undertaking a brief survey of the history of the central “actor” in this story: Moses’ staff. What was it, where did it come from, what was it used for, and what did it signify?

We first encounter the staff in the famous scene of the bush that was “burning but not consumed” (Exod 3:2). In wake of this extraordinary sight, Moses encounters God for the first time, speaks with Him, is told God’s name Ehyeh asher Ehyeh (“I am that I am” or “I shall be that which I shall be”), and is charged with his life mission—to take the people of Israel out of Egypt and to lead them to the promised land. At a certain point in the dialogue, after a number of other problems and objections, Moses asks God, “And if they will not believe me and not listen to my voice” (4:1)—what then? God’s answer is roundabout and indirect:

And the Lord said to him: What is that in your hand? And he said: A staff. And He said: Throw it down on the ground. And he threw it to the ground, and it became a snake, and Moses shied away from it. And God said to Moses: Put out your hand and grab its tail; and he put out his hand and took hold of it, and it became a staff in his hand (Exod 4:2–3).

Following this scene, Moses begins the journey back to Egypt, taking his family with him: “And Moses took his wife and his sons and put them on the donkey, to return to the land of Egypt; and Moses took the staff of God in his hand” (ibid., v. 20). An interesting detail: the verse informs us that, in addition to the members of his family and the donkey (a necessary means of transportation), Moses took with him his staff, referred to here as “the staff of God” (mateh ha-Elohim). Until this point, Moses’ staff had been an ordinary shepherd’s staff used to herd the flock, which no doubt doubled as a walking stick of the type much used by inhabitants of the wilderness in walking over rocky and mountainous terrain. Suddenly it becomes the “staff of God”—an object of Divine significance, intended to help Moses and Aaron perform wonders and miracles and thereby prove to Pharaoh that they were truly sent by the Lord, God of Israel.

And indeed, further on Aaron used the staff in the course of an argument between Moses and the magicians of Egypt:

Say to Aaron: Take your staff, and thrust it down before Pharaoh, it shall become a serpent. And Moses and Aaron… did as the Lord commanded, and Aaron thrust his staff before Pharaoh, and it became a serpent. (Exod 7: 8–10)

Pharaoh’s court magicians succeeded in performing the same act with their secret arts (7:11–13), but the staff/serpent of Aaron swallowed their staffs/serpents—a sign anticipating of the eventual victory of Moses and the Israelites over Egypt and its gods. Note that from this point onwards the miracles involving the staff were performed specifically by Aaron and not by Moses; it becomes “Aaron’s staff.”

Immediately thereafter, there begins a series of ten plagues. These are divided into three sets of three plagues each, each one of which follows a similar pattern; only the tenth plague, the death of the first-born, is unique, outside of the three-times–three framework. In the first set of three plagues, the staff plays a central role:


Go to Pharaoh in the morning… by the shore of the Nile. And take the staff which was turned into a snake, and say to him: The Lord God of the Hebrews has sent me, saying: Let my people go! … By this you shall know that I am the Lord: Behold, I shall smite with the staff that is in my hand upon the water which is in the Nile, and it shall be turned to blood… And the Lord said to Moses: Say to Aaron: Take your staff and stretch out your hand over the waters of Egypt, over its rivers and canals and lakes, and over every gathering of water, and it shall be blood…. (Exod 7: 15–17, 19–20)


Speak to Aaron, stretch out your hand with your staff over the rivers and canals and lakes, and bring up frogs over the land of Egypt. And Aaron stretched out his hand over the waters of Egypt, and the frog came up and covered the land of Egypt. (8:1–2)


And the Lord said to Moses: Speak to Aaron: Stretch out your staff and strike the dust of the earth, and there shall be gnats throughout the land of Egypt. And they did so… and the dust of the earth became gnats in all the land of Egypt. (8:12–13)

From the fourth plague on, there are a number of significant changes: (1) The plagues only affect those places where the Egyptians live, but not the Israelites (“And on that day I shall separate the land of Goshen… and I shall make a division between My people and your people”—8: 18–19); (2) The court magicians are no longer able, with their arcane arts, to duplicate the plagues which God brings upon the Egyptians (this process already began with the third plague); indeed, they barely attempt to do so. (3) The Torah emphasizes that the purpose of the plagues is to make God’s greatness and exclusive sovereignty known both to the Egyptians and to the Israelites, (“that you may know that I am the Lord in the midst of the land”—8: 18; “so that you may know that there is none like Me throughout the land... that you may tell My name throughout the land”—9:14–15; “you shall know that I am the Lord”—10:2; and similar verses). (4) Regarding our subject: after the third plague, the use of the staff ceases.

The unavoidable conclusion, in my opinion, is that the staff was seen as a quasi-magical tool whose purpose was to prove the ability of Moses and Aaron to hold their own—and more—against the Egyptian magicians. Once this goal had been achieved, the use of the staff becomes superfluous. The more important and authentic message of the Torah is that of the dominion of the One God over the entire world, who at His will makes miracles and wonders on behalf of His people, without any need for magical practices—as if He is subject to manipulation by secret arts known only to the few. This may also explain why the staff, which was originally Moses’, became the staff of Aaron: because the (highly limited) use of such implements is a priestly function, and as such appropriate to Aaron, and is alien to the prophetic realm of Moses.

There is one exception to this rule, one in which the staff is used specifically by Moses. At the time of the splitting of the Reed Sea, Moses lifts up his hand while holding the staff, in order to split the waters: so to speak, a last and final victory over the Egyptians and their magic:

Lift up your staff, and stretch your hand over the sea and split it, and the children of Israel shall pass through the sea on the dry land… (Exod 14:16, 26–27)

Interestingly, he does not use the staff to return the waters over the Egyptians, but merely stretches his hands over the waters (vv. 26-27).

With this background, we now turn to this week’s reading. Throughout the murmurings of the people in the wilderness—the incident of the quail, that of the Spies, the rebellion of Korah—no mention is made of the staff. Here it appears for the last time. God again commands Moses to use the staff, but only in order to gather the people together. Instead, Moses expresses doubt in his own ability—and in that of God—to take water out of the rock and, rather than speaking to the rock, hits it with his staff. I bring the text in full:

And the entire congregation of Israel came to the wilderness of Zin, in the first month, and the people dwelt in Kadesh. And Miriam died there and she was buried there, and there was no water for the congregation, and they gathered against Moses. And the people quarreled with Moses, and said: Would that we would have died when our brethren died before the Lord. Why have you brought the congregation of the Lord into this wilderness to die here, we and our cattle. And why have you taken us up out Egypt to bring us to this bad place: a place without seed, neither figs nor vines nor pomegranates, and there is no water to drink. And Moses and Aaron turned away from the people to the entrance of the Tent of Meeting and fell upon their faces, and the Glory of the Lord appeared to them.

And the Lord spoke to Moses, saying: Take the staff and gather the people, you and Aaron your brother, and speak to the rock before their eyes, and it will give its waters. And you shall take water out of the rock, and water the people and their cattle. And Moses took the staff before the Lord as he was commanded, and Moses and Aaron gathered the people together opposite the rock. And he said to them: Listen, you rebellious ones, shall we take water for you out of this rock. And Moses lifted up his hand, and struck the rock twice with his staff, and much water came out, and he gave to the congregation to drink, and to their cattle.

And the Lord said to Moses and Aaron: Because you have not trusted in Me to sanctify Me in the eyes of the children of Israel, therefore you shall not bring this congregation to the land which I have given them. These are the waters of Merivah (“Dispute”) where the children of Israel disputed with the Lord, and He was sanctified therein. (Numbers 20:1–12)

I would suggest here that Moses’ sin was not simply “lack of faith,” as stated by many traditional commentators, but that he used an implement which belonged to the world of magic—a tool which had been used in Egypt in order to speak to the magicians “in their own language,” a language close to that of the world of paganism and idolatry. Here, in the wilderness, it was neither appropriate nor needed. He should have “sanctified Me”—that is, project a message of faith in the God who rules over the entire world as He wills, without need of magical implements or gimmicks.

Interestingly, in this Torah portion we also encounter another implement which many understood as a magical tool: the serpent of bronze made by Moses in order to cure the people who had been bitten by real snakes (Num 21: 4–9). Hazal already noticed the problematic nature of this story, and took care to clarify: “And does the [bronze] serpent give death or bring to life? Rather, when Israel looked upwards and submitted their hearts to their Father in Heaven, they were healed; and if not, they [their wounds] putrefied” (Mishnah Rosh Hashanah 3.8). But in the end, more than half a millennium later, towards the end of the age of the Israelite monarchy, the same bronze serpent became an object of worship in the folk religion, close to paganism. It was called Nehushtan and was even offered incense until King Hezekiah, the great religious reformer, came along and broke it into pieces (2 Kings 18:4).

Concluding Note: The above exposition was not written specifically for this series of Hitzei Yehonatan but, as noted above, for Shabbat Shalom. One may nevertheless well ask the question: how does all this relate to issues of individual and community? Very briefly: Magic, such as that practiced by the hartumei mitzrayim, is closely related to paganism in promulgating the idea that God, or the cosmos, can be manipulated by use of the right words, gestures, materials, etc. But it also serves as an esoteric rather than an exoteric teaching: it is based on secrets belonging to a small, select elite, impenetrable to others, thereby creating a mystique around their bearers serving as a pretext for special power and privileges. There have been and are such tendencies in Judaism—perhaps the ancient priesthood, and certainly practical Kabbalah, which is very much alive today—but the criteria for leadership in classical Rabbinic Judaism—learning and piety—are exoteric and, in principle, democratic and open to all. “Be careful of the children of the poor, for from them shall come forth Torah.”


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