parsha of the week

Even if it’s just a story, it’s a lesson too


It is reasonable to claim that the Torah is divided into two parts: narrative and law. Sometimes, law is intertwined in the presentation of the narrative; sometimes the narrative informs our understanding of law.

But sometimes the narrative is just that — a story enhancing the plotline of the Torah.

Could it really be that narrative is meant only to tell us history? Are we not to learn moral teachings, ethical values, and life lessons?

Most adherents of Torah as a book of values will say there is much to be learned from the stories. Admirers of the Torah will discover many moral lessons. But can this be said of every aspect of narrative? What about lineage listings? What about a particular detail that is inconsequential beyond it just being part of a story? Does it matter, for example, what color clothing someone was wearing, or what they were holding in their hand? Do we care, for example, what style of foot covering Moshe wore at the burning bush?

An argument can be made that if the Torah gives the detail, it must be significant. But what of when the commentaries have nothing to say? Is it still relevant?

There is no question that Moshe’s staff plays an important role in the annals of the Torah. But when it is introduced to us, it isn’t given the kind of press time we might expect for such an iconic item.

The staff’s first appearance comes as G-d is about to give Moshe the signs to demonstrate to the Israelites that he is being sent by G-d, as G-d says to him, “What is this in your hand?” Moshe says “matteh (a staff).” (4:2) G-d then tells him to throw it to the ground whereupon it turns into a snake, and back into a staff when Moshe grabs the snake by the tail.

The staff appears again when G-d reminds Moshe to “take this matteh in your hand, that with it you will do the signs.”

The signs? Only one sign concerned the staff. The other two had nothing to do with the staff! Three verses later we are told that Moshe “took the matteh Ha’elokim (the staff of G-d) in his hand.”

A staff, stick or scepter in the hands of a leader is a clear indicator of the leader’s position. This is demonstrated in numerous cases in the Bible, and in Moshe’s case has an added element of being a symbol of the Divine. We might not view Moshe’s staff as a magic stick, but there are certainly people in his time who did, which is why he needed to take extra care to demonstrate G-d’s power, and not his own.

Rabbi Isaac Caro, in his Toldot Yitzchak, has two concerns when it comes to Moshe’s staff. Why did G-d need to give him a staff — couldn’t the signs be performed without it? (Interesting that he assumes G-d “gave him” the staff, rather than that G-d assigned his staff to do the intended job) Why does G-d not tell Moshe to take the staff until verse 17? Why wait until after giving Moshe the signs AND the conversation of 4:10-16?

Moshe’s objection in 4:1 was that the Israelites “will not believe me or listen to me” that G-d sent me. To that he was given 3 signs, to help the people believe the claims of his assigned role.

But then Moshe says, “I am not a man of words. … I have a heavy mouth and tongue” (4:10). G-d responds, and then Moshe essentially says, “Send someone else” (4:14). Rabbi Caro argues that had Moshe been told “Take the staff” before these unfortunate objections, the negativity created here would have been avoided.

And he further explains that to each of Moshe’s objections — Who am I? (3:11), they won’t believe me (4:1), I can’t speak (4:10) — G-d gave an answer that Moshe didn’t fully accept, leading him to his real objection of “Send someone else.” G-d then gave him the stick to show him that just as a dry, dead piece of wood can become a force of power, Moshe could become a force of power representing G-d.

So what is the lesson? We have the opportunity to raise our service of G-d to higher levels all the time. Sometimes we do it with accoutrements, and sometimes with items that help us perform mitzvos. A nice kiddush cup, menorah, mezuzah, Shabbos candlesticks, beautiful tefillin, tzitzis, etc.

People who read the Torah in shul have a tremendous dual responsibility: to represent the congregation through the mitzvah of reading the Torah, and to guide the person who gets the aliyah through reading their assigned words properly. This latter responsibility is particularly important when the honoree doesn’t know the words or can’t easily follow the reading.

Which is why I cannot understand the readers who insist on not using a “yad” pointer when reading. Are you such a perfect human being that your eye never wanders and you never lose the place? Is it beneath your dignity to help the person next to you? Do you feel that using a “yad” dishonors the reading in some way? Do you think it reflects poorly on your skills?

You are either unaware of the disservice you are performing for the person who has the aliyah, or you are simply arrogant. If the former, please consider yourself informed and take corrective action. If the latter, please also consider yourself informed and take corrective action here, and in every other area of your life as well.

Perhaps Moshe was told his staff was necessary for the plural signs, because there is more than one way for a staff to be used. It doesn’t only turn into a snake. Sometimes it shows people the proper way. If Moshe needed a stick so he could understand his role as G-d’s messenger better, how much effort does it really take for a “shaliach tzibbur” (representative of the congregation) to pick up a tiny stick and help people fulfill their mitzvah better?