The Staff of Leadership

By Rabbi Yonason Goldson
Published in Jewish World Review

Parshas Shemos

And Moses responded, saying, “But [the people] will not believe me and they will not heed my voice, for they will say, ‘G-d did not appear to you.’”  And G-d said to him, “What is that in your hand?”  And he said, “A staff.”  (Exodus 4:1-2)

imgresIt’s easy to understand why Moses was anything but eager to accept the onus of leadership.  After 210 years of Egyptian bondage, what possible reason would the Jewish people have to believe Moses when he claimed that the Almighty had sent him to redeem them?  How would he convince a broken nation that he had either the authority or the ability to lead them out of slavery?

G-d’s answer, however, is even more difficult to comprehend.  Seemingly, G-d wanted Moses to cast his staff upon the ground to show him its miraculous transformation into a snake – the sign by which Moses would prove himself to the people.  If so, why did G-d not simply say, “Cast your staff upon the ground.”  Why did the Almighty first ask Moses to identify the object he was holding?

In his classic commentary, Rabbi Meir Libush Malbim explains that Moses could have answered in one of three possible ways.  As a shepherd, he could have identified his staff as a makeil, a shepherd’s crook.  As an eighty year old man, he could have referred to it as a mashenes, a cane or walking stick.  Finally, he could have called it as he did — a matteh, which means staff, but which also can mean scepter, a symbol of sovereignty and leadership.

Moses had directed his objection not solely at the people’s unwillingness to follow, but at his own lack of distinction as a leader.  Who am I, he questioned, that the people should put their trust in me?  And so, G-d presented Moses with a test.

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  1. #1 by URI BARNEA on December 20, 2013 - 7:27 pm

    Dear Rabbi Goldson:
    I have two questions in regard to your interesting article about Moses’ leadership:

    First, from where did you get the number 210 for the years of Israel living in Egypt?
    I find two other references in the Torah to the length of this period: In Genesis 15:13, God says to Abraham that his descendants will remain “in a land not theirs” for 400 (four hundred) years. Then, in Exodus 12:40-41, there is a slightly different figure for that period, 430 (four hundred thirty) years.

    Second, you write that Barak was Deborah’s husband. Where did you get that information from? I do not see it anywhere. In fact, in Judges 4:5 it says that Deborah was in the hill country of Ephraim, while in verse 6 it says that Barak was from the tribe of Naphtali.

    In the event that you relied on Midrashim to provide this information, I believe it would be a good idea to so inform your readers.

    Thank you very much.
    Sincerely,
    Uri Barnea

  2. #2 by torahideals on January 7, 2014 - 1:35 pm

    Rashi explains according to the midrashim that the 400 years is calculated from the birth of Isaac, the first descendant of Abraham, who was a stranger in a land that was not his. The Jews spent 210 years in Egypt, as interpolated from various milestones. The extra 30 years includes the time from the original prophecy, since G-d’s decree for the future is considered as if it is already happening, and because the knowledge of the Jews that they would be enslaved created a kind of psychological enslavement from the moment of the decree.

    Deborah is called “wife of Lapidos” — meaning wicks — an allusion to Barak, meaning lightning, according to the sages. Since she separated from intimacy with her husband when she received prophecy, scripture only alludes to their marriage.

    In scholarly works I typically provide sources. In popular essays I assume that interested parties will ask… and I’m glad you did.

    All the best.

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