Over the past few weeks we have read of God’s appointment of Moses as His emissary to Pharaoh, the 10 Plagues, and the splitting of the Reed Sea. Many times, those matters that catch our attention year after year are the more spectacular events. These astonishing phenomena obscure other more subtle – yet equally vital – elements of the story…unless we are fortunate. This year we are fortunate.
So basic a question, yet I never pondered it: what purpose was served by Moses’ staff?
We read of God telling Moses to wave his staff to initiate almost every plague. Certainly, God could have performed all the plagues and wonders without Moses’ staff (and without Moses) just as He created the world without any instrument. There! Another question arises: what was Moses’ role in the plagues? He too was unnecessary, just as was his staff, as we see God was ready to kill him for avoiding circumcising his son. Let’s hold that question.
God gives Moses three signs intended for the Jews: the staff turning into a snake, his hand becoming leprous, and the blood. So the staff was to be used once: to turn into a snake. Nothing more. Interestingly, God does not instruct Moses to take the staff to perform the 10 Plagues, that is, until God concedes to Moses plea and instead, God allows Aaron his brother to speak to Pharaoh on his behalf. (Exod. 4:17) But up to that point, there was no instruction for Moses to take the staff, except for performing the single sign of it transforming into a serpent. As a matter of fact, once God addresses all of Moses’ concerns, He says, “And now go, and I will be with your mouth and I will instruct you what to say.” (Exod. 4:12) Thus, if God is telling Moses to go to Pharaoh at this point, it means the staff was as of yet not to be used in the plagues. God only tells Moses to take the staff to perform the plagues “after” God allows Aaron to join Moses. So we wonder what Aaron’s accompaniment has to do with Moses’ use of the staff to perform the plagues.
Additionally, Ibn Ezra teaches that a few plagues were performed without the staff. (Exod. 4:17, 8:12) These plagues were Mixtures (of wild beasts; Arove), Pestilence (Dever), Boils (Shchin) and Firstborn Deaths (Makkos Bechorim). What is Ibn Ezra pointing to?
Let’s step back and consider the purpose of the plagues. They were not about Moses, Aaron, the Jews or Pharaoh. They were all about God. God states His objective (Exod. 10:1-2):
“God said to Moses, ‘Come to Pharaoh because I have hardened his heart and the heart of his servants in order that I place these signs of Mine in his midst. And in order to speak in the ears of your son and your grandson that which I have mocked Egypt, and My signs which I have placed in them, and they shall know that I am God.”
God’s objective was to correct Egypt’s flaws. They harbored many wrong notions concerning God. They felt the Nile was a deity, so God smote it powerless, turning it into blood. They felt the astrologers had powers, so He suffered them with boils just like the rest of the populous to expose them as charlatans. That is, just as the Egyptian people suffered from boils, the astrologers too suffered, “And the astrologers could not stand before Moses due to the boils; since the boils were on the astrologers, and on all of Egypt.” (Exod. 9:11) But one minute…boils don’t incapacitate one’s ability to stand! What does this verse mean to say? It means boils exposed the astrologers as liars, so they could not “stand” i.e., “carry face” before Moses any longer. Thus, after Boils, we never hear from the astrologers again, as their reputations were shattered, as was intended. And as a wise Rabbi taught, the hail shattered the awe of the heavens, up to that point maintained by the Egyptians. When God showed His control of the heavens with Hail, this was another blow to their idolatrous culture.
If you study each plague, you will find another view of Egyptian culture is exposed as a lie. But the objective in each plague was that God become known as the only power in the universe. With this introduction, we are ready to understand the purpose of Moses’ staff.
As God wished the plagues to place His abilities center-stage, it was essential that no one steal the spotlight. Now, how would Egypt view a man, performing miracles, one after the other? Isn’t it a possibility that this idolatrous and mystical people might focus on him, and not the abstract, invisible God he describes? Couldn’t they deify him? Yes, they might: but not if it was Moses.
Moses had a speech impediment. And although he worked wonders, his tarnished image as one with a heavy tongue would prevent him from attaining celebrity status. Egypt would not view an impaired man as deity. (This is why Jewish priests must have no defects) Moses spoke poorly. The Egyptians would focus on the miracles, and remain impressed by the miracles alone, without attaching themselves to the performer, Moses.
This was the objective, to focus on God. And perhaps, Moses possessed this speech impediment as part of God’s plan. His flawed speech would keep Egypt’s attention on God.
However, Moses refused to take the mission. God gave in, and allowed Aaron to speak for Moses. But as Aaron was a man of eloquent speech, now the problem arose: Aaron would captivate Egypt. They would deify him due to his smooth speech and the miracles, and God’s intended message to teach Egypt about a single Creator and Governor of Earth would be lost, or at least obscured.
One solution: a diversion was required to remove the possibility that the speaker would captivate Egypt. That diversion was the staff. The staff was something extraneous to Aaron, waved before each plague, diverting their attention away from Aaron. The staff served to ‘point’ at the source of the plague. Similarly, a magician waves his wand so as to divert the audience’s attention away from his other hand. The Egyptians might even become curious about this staff, but the objective that no man obscures God was achieved. Additionally, God commands Moses to be a “mentor” to Aaron, adding to Aaron’s reduced status. For no one could deify Aaron, if he took orders from Moses. And we already explained, due to his impaired speech, no Egyptian could deify Moses.
In Exod. 4:17, God instructs Moses to take the staff to perform the miracles, and this is only after God concedes to Moses, allowing Aaron to speak on his behalf. So the staff enters the picture, but only “after” Aaron becomes an active participant …and a concern. The method to minimize Aaron’s role is therefore expressed. Had Moses accepted God’s original plan, the staff would be used once, to turn into a serpent. After that, it would not be used at all, as it would not be needed. However, Aaron’s presence now required an alteration of that original plan. (We also learn that God does not coerce man to act. He offers the best plan, and man chooses. Thus, Moses made his choice, God then added Aaron to the equation, and therefore God commanded Moses to use a staff offset any attention to Aaron. God did not coerce Moses against his will.)
Now, why was the staff omitted during Arove and Dever? The verses explain. God’s intent in delivering the mixture of beasts was so Egypt will know “that I am in the midst of the land”. (Exod. 8:18) And the objective of the animal pestilence was to show that “God’s hand was against the cattle”. (ibid 9:3) In both plagues, God lesson was that He is not a distant deity, as Egypt imagined. Egypt thought the Supreme God was unrelated to them, but that sub-deities is how He ran the world. Thus, God’s lesson was that sub-deities are a lie, and that He alone controls all corners of the Earth: “I am in the midst of the land”, and “God’s hand was against the cattle”. It is heretical to believe that God cannot control His own creations, and that he is “at a distance”. Of course, we do not mean that God takes up any space, or that He can “be here or there”. That too is heretical. We mean that God wished to teach the Egyptians that their view of a “distant” (unrelated) God was false.
So how does this explain why the staff was omitted? I believe that had the staff been used in these two plagues, it might send the message that Moses could “cause” God’s presence on Earth. That would degrade God, to be controlled by man. In all other plagues, the Torah’s words do not state that God is “in the midst of the land”. Only that “there is none like Me in all the land”, or “the land belongs to God”. These two statements do not refer to God’s “actions” (like “in the midst of the land”) but they refer only to His “reputation”. So it is not problematic that Moses waves the staff to demonstrate God’s reputation. But it is problematic had Moses waved the staff, to teach that God was operating on Earth. Thus, the staff was omitted for the two plagues.
The Medrash says that Moses staff had the 10 Plagues acrostic written upon it. I believe another Medrash says it was made of sapphire. In truth, Moses had this staff before he witnessed the Burning Bush, so he wasn’t carrying a sapphire staff. It was most probably a tree branch. What the Medrash points to, is that the staff was successfully viewed as something “special” in connection with the plagues. God’s objective was reached, as if it were made of sapphire, and as if it controlled the plagues. The focus on Aaron was shifted, and God remained the focal point.
In summary, Moses was the choice emissary. His speech impediment precluded the Egyptians from attaching themselves to him, despite all the wonders he was to perform. However, Moses refused, so God had Aaron speak on Moses’ behalf. However, Aaron’s smooth speech might divert attention away from God, from His miraculous phenomena. Therefore the staff, a diversion, was incorporated.
Yet, a few plagues whose messages were concerning God’s interaction with Earth could not tolerate the staff. Such a device would suggest that man could affect God’s operation on Earth. These two plagues must not incorporate the staff, and for this separate reason, the staff was omitted in these two plagues.