By Rabbi Yonason Goldson
Published in Jewish World Review
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)
It’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.