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David Walk
David Walk

The Big Stick

Generally, Jews don’t make a big thing out of religious relics. In other religions, the cloak, ring or small body part of a saint can be a destination for pilgrimage or centerpiece for a festival. We, on the other hand, might travel to the place of a Biblical story or pray at a gravesite, but preserving reliquaries, not so much. But there is one amazing ancient artifact that continues to fascinate, namely the lost Holy Ark. The contents of this gold-plated case are the stuff of legend, not to mention blockbuster movies. So, it’s engrossing to discuss one particular item from that fabled crate which may or may not appear in this week’s Torah reading. 

That item is the MATEH or staff. Last week, in parshat Shmot, Moshe was asked by God at the SNEH (burning bush) what he had in his hand. The response, ‘MATEH’. Then God asks Moshe to cast it on the ground and it becomes a NACHASH (snake). Later, he is told by God to make sure to bring the MATEH with him to Egypt (Shmot 4:17), and then the verse duly records that he took the MATEH (verse 20). Hmm, what is this thing, which God advises, ‘Don’t leave home without it.’ 

This week, Moshe and Aharon prepare to visit Pharaoh, and God says, ‘When Pharaoh tells you to produce an OT (marvel or trick), tell Aharon to take your MATEH and cast it down; it will become a TANIN (serpent, 7:9). Later, as we prepare for the first plague, again God says, ‘Tell Aharon to take your MATEH, and hold out your arm over the waters of Egypt (verse 19). What’s with this MATEH? 

Before we go on, a disclaimer. There is an argument about whose MATEH was used by Aharon in Egypt. I am following the opinion of the Ibn Ezra that all of these references so far are to the MATEH which Moshe had at the Burning Bush. It makes sense, because otherwise why would we be informed of how important it was to bring that MATEH to Egypt? 

Where did this MATEH come from? I don’t know. It could be that Moshe, like most shepherds had a staff or shepherd’s crook with him at all times. However, there is a Mishneh in Pirkei Avot (5:6) that lists the MATEH with the ten miraculous items created by God as the sun set on that first Friday of the world. There are Midrashim which trace this MATEH as going from Adam to Shet to Shem to Avraham to Yitzchak to Ya’akov to Yehuda to Yitro to Moshe. Some claim it was made of sapphire and was engraved with God’s name, but that sounds a little gaudy for a simple shepherd to shlep around. 

Now this MATEH figures in the splitting of YAM SUF. It hits the rock for water, twice. But the MATEH which was placed in the Holy Ark was the one which bloomed into almond blossoms and nuts in the competition of staffs to determine who should be the KOHEN GADOL. Then God tells Moshe, ‘Place Aharon’s MATEH with the Tablets of Testimony (EIDUT) to be kept as a warning sign to rebels (Bamidbar 17:25).’ The Talmud records that Aharon’s MATEH with its almonds and blossoms were placed in the Holy Ark (Yoma 52b). 

Later, in the story, Moshe is told to take the MATEH with him when he speaks to the rock which will provide water for the Jews (Bamidbar 20:8). We should ask. ‘Why must he be told to take the MATEH?’ First, he seems to not carry it around all the time anymore. Maybe because it was now kept in the Holy Ark (Chizkuni). But more importantly, what’s the need for the MATEH, especially if he’s only going to talk to the rock?  So, the Netziv explains that this is the well-known, famous MATEH. The presence of the MATEH shows that something miraculous, momentous will take place. 

So, even though a case could be made for the existence of three staffs in these various episodes (Moshe’s, Aharon’s personal one and the MATEH for SHEIVET LEVI), most authorities opt for there being only one miraculous MATEH. Our Sages often prefer straightforward, usually minimalist, explanations for Biblical stories. 

Now I would like to ask my own question: How important was the MATEH in the actual performance of all these signs, wonders, and miracles? And, now, I’d like to present my personal opinion to respond: Not very. Why do I say that? We Jews like the source of all power concentrated in God, and God alone. We don’t appreciate ambiguity about ultimate power. 

Let me give an example: He (King Chizkiyahu) abolished the idols and smashed the pillars and cut down the sacred post. He also broke into pieces the bronze serpent that Moshe had made, for until that time the Israelites had been offering sacrifices to it; it was called Nehushtan (Melachim II 18:4). What was NECHUSHTAN? It was the copper snake that Jews looked at to be cured of the snake bites in the desert (Bamidbar 21:6-9), and has become a symbol of medical science in modern Israel.  

Just because an item was used in a miracle doesn’t mean that it will have a permanent place in Jewish destiny. If an artifact focuses my spirit on the power of God, that’s wonderful and useful. If an item distracts my soul to worship or pray to it, that’s idolatry and must be eradicated.  

I’d love to hear that the Holy Ark has been discovered, and that it contains all the wondrous items from the desert, LUCHOT (Tablets of the Law), MAN, and the MATEH. But my devotion to God is not based upon these items. It’s like Rebbe Nachman said, ‘The MATEH symbolizes the authority and strength of the ZADIK, derived from his devoted service to God (Likutei Moharan 20;4).’ It’s a marvelous symbol of greater things: the ZADIK and, more importantly, the power of God.  

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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