Moses’ staff escaped our notice completely until God drew attention to it by asking Moses: What is that in your hand? (Exodus 4:2).
That staff is the most animated of all the inanimate objects in the Torah. Jolted from scaly stick to slithering serpent and soon soothed to staff once again, it is a prominent character in Moses’ confrontations with Pharaoh, appearing mainly in the hand of Aaron, Moses’ brother.
According to ancient legend, Moses’ staff was created in a moment between the end of creation’s sixth day and the first Sabbath—a moment in which miraculous objects were made and stored, awaiting their unique moments in time.
In a very different story, the staff was not kept safe outside of history. Rather, it was constantly of use in the world. Adam leaned upon it when he left the Garden. (Some say that it was fashioned from a limb of the Tree of Life.) A legacy from Adam, the staff steadied generations from Enoch to Joseph. When Joseph died, Pharaoh confiscated it. Pharaoh’s Midianite counselor, Jethro, stole the staff and planted it in his garden where it took root—to be drawn out only by the one who would redeem Israel from Egypt.
The poet, Rivka Miriam, carefully planted the ancient stories in a short poem that captures the moment when Moses retrieved his staff from before Pharaoh:
Once again, the staff
a branch of the tree of life
flourishing and rooted throughout the generations with no need of planting
clutched in the hand of Moses
soothes with its entertainments the wisdom of the tree of knowledge.
Moses’ staff is both rooted and animated in my own life. It is the subject of the only Torah give-and-take between my father and me. The conversation took place when I was a child during a commercial break in the television showing of De Mille’s “The Ten Commandments.”
“Why did Moses tell Aaron to throw down his staff? Why didn’t he just do it himself?” I asked. My father responded: “It’s because Moses wanted to show that if Pharaoh assassinated him someone else could lead the rebellion.”
It never would have occurred to my father to bring his own values, thoughts, and imagination into conversation with the Torah. But this was not a moment of Torah study framed by scholarship, devotion, or piety; it was a television commercial break and Aaron looked a lot like John Carradine; Moses, like Charleston Heston.
That moment flourishes in me as Torah learning. I have looked but never found my father’s insight anticipated by any ancient commentary, nor have I heard it in the lesson of any teacher. For me, it is a unique contribution to the ongoing conversation between Torah and lived experience.
Today, a twisting serpentine staffof wisteria vine leans by the door of my study. It is rooted both in the ancient story and in my father’s Torah lesson.
That staff jolts me into motion and into mission; a mission to enable individuals to bring their own resources to the timeless Jewish conversation. Now, I am the one asking the divine question: What is that in your hand? Along with Moses, my father,and the rest of us already have in hand the means for connecting past to promise.
Everyone has in hand the resources of imagination and experience with which to split a sea of reluctance. Each of us can advance an ancient story into a present that is flourishing and rooted throughout the generations.