Thursday, January 14, 2010

The Shtick of Each Stick

I wrote this for the Jewish Star a few years ago, before they put their website together. As this came up in class today, I share it. The weekly DT will be posted later.

The Shtick of Each Stick - A Model for Role Models

From the time the youngest children learn of Moshe turning his stick into a snake, we develop an image of this fantastic magical piece of wood that can do all kinds of things. Of course a reader of the Torah knows the power is not the stick’s nor even Moshe’s, but this does not take away from the fascination we have with his “matteh.”

The Midrash, for example, describes the stick’s size and the sapphire stone imbedded in it, and even its history, claiming it was owned by Adam. The Mishnah (Avot 5:6) teaches us it was created during dusk of the sixth day of creation, along with a host of other supernatural creations. Were it an ordinary piece of wood, it would not have such press coverage.

Despite all this hoopla, it is not the only stick that demonstrates supernatural effectiveness – the other is owned by Aharon, Moshe’s brother. While both “perform” miracles, the miracles are of a different nature, perhaps along the lines of the personalities and inspiring nature of their respective owners.

The first difference is in what the stick becomes when it is thrown to the ground. Moshe’s turns into a snake before himself and the Jewish people (4:3-4 and 4:30) while Aharon’s turns into a “tannin” or amphibious creature usually identified as a crocodile in front of Pharaoh and his servants (7:9-12).

The next difference is for the plague of Blood. God tells Moshe to announce he will place his own stick over the Nile (see 7:15 and 17) while Aharon will travel around and turn individual plots of water into blood (7:19). In 7:20 Moshe and Aharon indeed go and do their respective jobs. (This is why Egyptians dug around the Nile to find water – see 7:24) To further prove that Moshe hit the water - contrary to every nice lesson we may want to learn about Moshe being saved by the war - see 17:5, when God says to Moshe "And take in your hand your staff with which you hit the יאר." Note that the word יאר refers to the River in Egypt, not the Sea which Moshe split in parshat B'Shalach. 

For the plague of Frogs, Aharon is once again called upon to use his own stick to go to the same waters he affected in 7:19. In 8:12-13, Aharon uses his own stick to bring about the Lice.

In 9:22-23 Moshe’s stick is used to hit the sky to cause the Hailstorm. In 10:12-13 Moshe waves his stick over “all of Egypt” to bring about the Locusts.

In 14:16,21, Moshe uses his stick (an extension of his hand) to effect the “splitting of the sea.”

In Shmot Chapter 17 Moshe’s stick is used twice. The first time (17:5-6), Moshe is commanded to hit the rock-well to bring forth water for the Jewish people. The second time (17:9), the stick is held in his hand as a symbol during the fight with Amalek. (Mishnah Rosh Hashana 3:8 reminds us that the Jews looked up at Moshe and his stick and were thus reminded to pray to God to help seal the victory over Amalek.)

The last two times the sticks appear are in Bamidbar 17 and 20.

In Bamidbar 17:17-24, in the aftermath of the Korach incident, Aharon’s stick blossoms to indicate Levi is the chosen tribe for the priesthood, and his stick is set aside to be a sign for potential rebels not to challenge God’s decisions.

In Bamidbar 20, the incident of Mei Merivah transpires after which Moshe and Aharon are doomed to die in the desert. Without going into details of the sin of Moshe and Aharon, it is worth pointing out that some commentaries view the stick referred to in 20:9 as being Aharon’s stick from Bamidbar 17 – to be a sign to rebels to stop complaining, and the stick used in Bamidbar 20:11 is Moshe’s stick based on the precedent from Shmot 17 of how to draw water from the rock.

What is the common theme to be garnered from these sticks?

Moshe’s stick is the stick mentioned in the Mishnah in Avot. It is supernatural, it is other-worldly, it is meant to represent on a grand scale the strength and miraculous nature of God. Everything he does is in front of a large number of people – snake in 4:30, Nile in 7:17, hitting the sky in 9:23 and waving over all of Egypt 10:13 (both visible to all), the splitting of the sea, waving his stick during battle and drawing water from a rock for a thirsty nation.

Aharon, on the other hand, does all of his miracles on a much smaller scale. The crocodile-change is only in front of Pharaoh’s court. Going around to smaller bodies of water (Blood and Frogs) and hitting the ground in one spot for Lice, will not be seen by as many people. While Aharon’s stick is meant to be a sign to rebels, the miracle that takes place with his stick blossoming is only seen by a few people, the princes of the other tribes, and by them only after the fact when they come to collect their sticks.

The role of each stick and its owner is a model for different kinds of leaders. Moshe is almost superhuman, he is even known as “Ish Ha’Elokim,” and the miracles he presides over reflect the role he plays in his relationship to God and humans. In practical terms, he is the King, the President, the Chassidishe Rebbe, the Head Rosh Yeshiva, revered Dean of an institution, or the revered Senior Senior Rabbi.

Aharon is smaller scale. He is the man of the people, the Ohaiv Shalom and Rodeph Shalom (lover and seeker of peace) who is thrust into a leadership position. In practical terms, he is the local politician, the rebbe or teacher (male or female) in yeshiva or school, the rabbi of a small shul, a parent. He is often there to give a hug to a person who needs it, and he performs little miracles every day.

Each leader type plays a role in the community and can have a profound affect on people’s lives. Many people look to “the Moshe” for inspiration, but the “Aharons” among us are no less heroes and are the ones with the real, in the trenches mission to keep people grounded and help find answers to important questions. Because the Aharons live with the people, their job is so much harder and so much more important.

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