Big stick


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Most of us are familiar with Teddy Roosevelt’s favorite saying: Speak softly, and carry a big stick, you will go far. He wrote it in a letter dated January 26, 1900, and claimed that it was a West African proverb. He liked the expression so much that he repeated it in a public address on September 2, 1901, by then he was Vice-president of the US, and four days later President McKinley was shot, eight days later Teddy was President. What is the concept of the ‘big stick’? According to Wiktionary: Do not boast or utter verbal threats, but do make others aware that you are prepared to use physical force if necessary.  The idea sort of comes up in this week’s Torah reading. 

One of the more troubling episodes in Bamidbar is the incident with Moshe Rabbeinu hitting the rock instead of speaking to it. There’s so much going on in that little story which bothers us. What exactly was the sin? Why were Moshe and Aharon punished so severely, that God wouldn’t relent and commute the sentence? Personally, I’ve always been attracted to the approach that Moshe couldn’t lead the nation into Eretz Yisrael because he had lost his temper and called the nation MORIM or ‘rebels’. God has a no tolerance policy for leaders who call their constituents names. Leadership and name calling can’t co-exist. Period. 

However, this year I’d like to ask a different question: Why did God ask Moshe to bring the stick if he wasn’t going to use it? Now, this isn’t just any stick. This staff had been changed into a snake (twice), and was used by both Moshe and Aharon in the execution of the plagues. But according to our Sages the story of the staff goes back to the moments before Shabbat during the week of Creation (Pirkei Avot 5:4), and Pirka d’Reb Elazar adds that the staff was passed down from Adam to Chanoch to Shem ben Noach to Avraham to Yitzchak to Ya’akov to Yosef from whom Pharaoh attained it upon Yosef’s death. Finally, Yitro, who was one of Pharaoh’s scholars, took it and planted it in his garden, where Moshe found it and made it his shepherd’s crook. This may have been the same staff which Aharon was using and blossomed in last week’s parsha. There is a separate argument about the identity of that staff. 

This is the staff which Ya’akov referred to in his prayer to God: I crossed the Jordan with only my staff, and now I fill two camps (Breishit 32:11). According to the Apter Rav, Reb Avraham Yehoshua Heschel (1748-1825), that verse describes the special nature of this famous stick. 

  The Rebbe explained that Ya’akov was declaring that he had crossed not the physical Jordan River but the spiritual interface between this realm and D’VEYKUT ELYON (cleaving to the supernal heights). This interpretation is based on the name YARDEN (Jordan), which is made up of two words: YARAD DIN (the law descended). In other words, this staff represents the rule of Divine law, for which it acted as a lightning rod. The staff is the physical embodiment of God’s rule and authority in this world. 

History is full of such symbols of power. The fasces of ancient Rome, scepters toted by monarchs, batons borne by field marshals, crosiers carried by Eastern Orthodox hierarchy, which often has a snake entwined upon it (the Nechushtan, also from this week’s parshaBamidbar 21:8-10), and the Roman Catholic shepherd’s crook, which, perhaps, derives from Moshe’s staff. 

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So, why does Moshe need to appear with the staff?  Because the staff, which bore the Tetragramaton (four letter ineffable name of God), signifies the ability of KEHILAT YA’AKOV (the gathered community of Ya’akov’s descendants) to access the power of the Four-Letter Name of God, which can bring the nation above the constrains of this natural realm. The presence of the staff signals to all, that the Jewish nation is supernatural.     

Now we can understand the verse, ‘You didn’t cause the nation to have faith in Me to sanctify My Name before the eyes of the Israelites (20:12).’ Moshe was supposed to display the symbolic power of what the staff represented, not the physical strength of its wood. It was all supposed to be an exhibition of the unseen power within the united nation. Instead, it degenerated into a photo-op with a prop. It’s never about any physical object; it’s always about the power generated from connecting to the unseen God. Soft words would have accomplished that. 

It’s sad when those in charge miss the opportunities to demonstrate the greatness of ideas, and instead invest power in flimsy, physical objects.   

About the Author
Born in Malden, MA, 1950. Graduate of YU, taught for Rabbi Riskin in Riverdale, NY, and then for 18 years in Efrat with R. Riskin and R. Brovender at Yeshivat Hamivtar. Spent 16 years as Educational Director, Cong. Agudath Sholom, Stamford, CT. Now teach at OU Center and Yeshivat Orayta.
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