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.

How to Confront Evil

Moses first connects to God when he happens upon the burning bush. This bush, a dried out and highly flammable plant, was engulfed in flames. Miraculously, it remained unharmed and unburned. When Moses approaches, God informs him that he is standing upon holy ground, and he must remove his shoes. He then proceeds to instruct Moses of the mission: go to Egypt, bring the children of Israel out to freedom.

Moses is highly skeptical. First, he asks for all kinds of proofs and raises all kinds of potential problems. How do I know you will be with us? If they ask me what Your name is, what should I tell them? Each time, God reassures him and gives him usable answers.

Then, Moses hesitates again. "I have a heavy mouth and a heavy tongue," Moses said. God responds, "who will put a mouth in a man in the first place?" In other words, your stuttering should not slow you down. Nonetheless, Moses begs to have a spokesman, something which upsets God, but he agrees. He will send Moses's brother Aaron.

I never quite understood this entire dialogue. How can Moses argue with God? If God tells him he can do it, well darn it, he can!

There is a tension between the world of faith in the world of practical reality. In the world of faith, miracles are evident. But Moses, like Jacob before him, realizes that he lives in the world of practical reality. Jacob had been assured of a secure future, yet when he heard that Esau was coming with 400 men, he became terrified. What of God's assurance? It was not enough for Moses either, because Moses understood the apparent absurdity of his mission. He was supposed to go to Pharaoh and demand that he free hundreds of thousands of valuable slaves. How is that going to work?

In the world of faith, it's no problem. But in the real world, what hope would there be that Pharaoh would agree to such an outlandish request? And yet that is the symbolism of the burning bush. The physical world won't allow that bush to survive. But the physical world is not the only world we inhabit. Our world connects to the spiritual world, which is the world of faith. Our mission is to break through the physical limitations of the physical world, and bring the holiness of the spiritual world into our lives.

In other words, when you confront the burning bush, take off your shoes. That is where holiness is, in those windows into the world of faith. The bush was such a window.

But we do not commonly encountered burning bushes that are not consumed, so where can we access the spiritual world? Through our power of speech! Moses needed to learn this lesson, more than any other. Yes, he stuttered, and that should disqualify him from delivering such an important message. But God tells him that it is not the physical property of speech that matters, but the spiritual content of it. "Life and death are in the hands of speech," said King Solomon. The way we use our power of speech will determine if we inhabit a world that is connected to the spiritual world of faith.

So Moses had nothing to fear, because God promised He would be with him. Moses was afraid this promise wasn't enough, if he had to function in the physical world. God was telling him that his speech would be inspired, and would break through the limitations of the physical world. He would indeed get Pharaoh's attention.

What's fascinating is that Moses did not tell Pharaoh that his enslavement of the Hebrews was immoral. He didn't thunder about freedom and liberty as basic human rights. And when referring to God, he did not imply that God was also in charge of the Egyptians. He talked about the God of the Hebrews, and he talked about what would happen to the Hebrews if they aren't given the opportunity to go and sacrifice to Him. Not a word about the Egyptians, their theology, or what would happen to them.

All Moses said is, "let my people go to sacrifice to our God in the wilderness, lest He strike us with sword or plague." Fascinating. God is guiding Moses into the psychology of Pharaoh. The Egyptians believed in multitudes of gods, and believed that each nation had their own. He was not confronting Pharaoh, he was not insulting Pharaoh. He was speaking his language, and urging him to accept in his own terms the religious need to let the Israelites go.

Confrontation may be fun, and sometimes we certainly must speak truth to power, but there is a smarter way. Use our speech to connect with the other, and to gently move them on the path of spirituality. The way we talked determines how much of a miraculous life we can live. We should take courage from Moses's example, and not be afraid to go and talk to Pharaoh. And we should take heed of how God instructed Moses to do so, with understanding and a determination to communicate.