First- an introduction:
This week we start our annual reading of Sefer Shemot, the book of Exodus. The initial prophecy of the temporary servitude of Abraham’s descendents is being realized. Although Jacob and his sons were welcomed to Egypt by Joseph, honored by Pharaoh, and given a comfortable lifestyle, the tide quickly turns. Egypt is suddenly a hostile environment, and the spiritual infrastructure of the suddenly enslaved people Israel begins to collapse. A death edict is issued to kill the male Hebrew babies by casting them into the Nile. It is the same Nile river that would provide the opportunity for baby Moses (Moshe) to be found and adopted by the daughter of Pharaoh, and the next leader of the Israelites grows up in palatial surroundings and away from his forlorn people. He has a dramatic experience that changes his life, and flees to Midian, starts a family, and has his first prophetic experience, the infamous story of the burning bush.
His first dialogue with the creator shows a reluctant hero, who questions the divine directive from the start. After G-d tells him exactly what to say, Moshe responds that the Israelites will not listen; they will not believe him at all!
And now for our story:
G-d asks Moshe, “What is that in your hand?”, a question similar to the question G-d asks Adam in the Garden of Eden after eating the forbidden fruit, “Ayeka, Where are you?”.
Certainly the Creator Of The World knows the answers to these questions.
Moshe answers, “Mateh”, a staff or rod, a stick. Note that he doesn’t answer my stick, as it only recently came into his possession.
When the stick is lowered to the ground it becomes a “nachash” (remember the snake from the Garden of Eden?), and when it is grasped and raised it turns back into a stick. This, G-d tells Moshe, will make the Israelites believe him.
Obviously something deeper is going on here….
The Mishna, in Pirkei Avot chapter 5 mishna 8 tells us ten things that were created on the sixth day of creation, prior to the first Shabbat. One of them was “Ha-Mateh”. Our rabbis teach us that this staff, the source of so many miraculous signs, that would turn the Nile into blood, split the Red Sea, and cause water to flow from a rock, predates our history. It is part of the natural order of G-d’s creation, and a physical manifestation of the Divine.
The word “Mateh” comes from the root “Nateh”, which means to stretch out. It also means to bend. Our reality can be bent by how we act on our experience of G-d. Moshe had a choice- to accept G-d’s challenge, and act like a leader, in partnership with his creator, or live in fear, and shirk from such encounters.
The nachash is the evil energy in the word, and it is found on the ground, when people’s expectations are lowered. Moshe’s first reaction was to run away from evil. When he engaged, when he grabbed it by the tail, it turned into a mateh once again, a sign that people, in concert with the Almighty, can transform evil and elevate it.
G-d, with his infinite faith in humanity, knew that when Moshe showed this to the Israelites, they would know he was the genuine leader they had been praying for.
Because seeing is believing….