How to Use the Staff of God

In the remarkable scene when Moses and Aaron confront Pharaoh, there is a contest of the staffs. Aaron throws his to the ground, and it becomes a snake. Pharaoh, unimpressed, signals to his magicians to do the same thing. Surprisingly, God allows the trick to work, and the Egyptians' staffs also become snakes. The big twist, pardon the pun, is that Aaron's snake swallows the snakes of the Egyptians, and then returns to being a staff when Aaron grabs it. The Egyptians are left without their staffs or snakes. Tradition tells us that the staff of Aaron did not gain size despite having swallowed the three Egyptian snakes.

The commentator Katav Sofer writes that this episode teaches us a fundamental principle of miracles. Both a snake and a staff can inflict pain, but one is the initiator and one is merely the means. A snake initiates the attack. A staff is a passive piece of wood in the hands of somebody else. Pharaoh believed that he was a snake, that he controlled the suffering inflicted on the children of Israel.

In truth, he was merely a staff. His snakes were swallowed by Aaron's snake, and became a staff in Aaron's hands. In other words, Pharaoh was a puppet, not an initiator.

Why was the staff necessary for performing miracles? In order to hide the miracle as much as possible. This is because open miracles are vastly inferior to concealed ones. Open miracles involve a complete suspension of the rules of nature. Such a suspension will, of necessity, be short-lived. God prefers nature, and will not suspend its laws indefinitely. Even the miracle of the manna, the longest lasting miracle in the Torah, came to an end after 40 years.

God vastly prefers a hidden maker of miracles. In other words, He prefers when we human beings are the agents of miracles. He prefers when we lift up the world towards heaven, rather than heaven coming down and stepping on nature's toes. So, even though the plagues in Egypt were fairly open miracles, Moses and Aaron should still use the staff to show that a man must be the one to bring about the miracle. God does the work, but man must be the initiator.

In Judaism, there is a rule: we do not rely upon miracles. A person is not allowed to enter into an impossible situation and rely on the fact that God will suspend the laws of nature to save him. There is a joke about the man who is urged to get on the bus out of town before the flood waters rise up and drown him. He declined, claiming that he will pray and God will save him. The water comes up to his waist, and a boat floats by. "Climb aboard," the people yell. "No," says the man, "I have faith that God will save me." The water is up to his shoulders, and a helicopter lowers a ladder for him. "No," says the man, "I have faith that God will save me."

He drowns. When he gets up to heaven, he complains that he had perfect faith! "Why, God, didn't you save me?" To which God replies, "You fool! I sent you a bus, a boat, and a helicopter. Why didn't you get on board?"

God does not prefer revealed miracles. In a very real sense, God wants us all to use The Staff of God that is in our possession. He wants us to pursue the good, even if it seems impossible. We must reach out the staff, and God will do the rest.

What is the greatest miracle? When a person lives their life according to the Commandments. This world is so full of temptation, social pressure, and skepticism. It is very hard to live a life of faith. I remember being teased about the kosher hamburgers I insisted on eating and a non-Jewish summer camp. And yet, I would not touch the nonkosher hamburgers. A person living a life of holiness is, indeed, the greatest miracle. In all of life's moments of choice, we must grab the staff of God and stretch it out. A miracle will happen, and we will walk in the right path.

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