The Staff of Moses
Updated: Jul 6, 2022
Parshat Chukat sees the death of Miriam and Aaron. It introduces us to the Parah Adumah, the red calf that expiates sins. In the text, directly after the mention of the death of Miriam, God tells Moshe once again to bring water to the incessantly complaining people, but instead of hitting the rock, this time Moses speaks to the rock. Perhaps it was the death of his sister Miriam that prompted Moses to make this error. Perhaps her death changed something in Moses and he finally found his words. Moses speaks to the rock, water is found for the Israelites and Moses is told that his transgression will remove his privilege of entering the land with his people.
In preparation for this poem, I began to learn about Moses' staff and its role in the story of Moses and the exodus. Commentators write both about its origins in the Garden of Eden and Rashi writes that it was composed of sapphires. (Please note at the end of this post, the different Midrashim that speak about Moses' staff, and how the rabbis imagined it.)
The Staff of Moses
Perhaps I was there in The Garden
Perhaps I was conceived in mystery,
perhaps I was composed of sparkling sapphires.
or perhaps I had humble beginnings.
Perhaps I was a branch of a tree,
sturdy and long
Straight as an arrow
for a shepherd's hands.
Picked up and passed
hand to hand,
generation to generation.
Perhaps it was always meant to be
That the man and I would find each other.
The man who searched for words
and I, a staff, could become his words.
I was there when the Creator drove powers into my taut bark
and a snake I became
slithering on the earth.
The man who searched for words
was fearful to touch me;
afraid of the serpent I had become
He lifted me with clammy hands
far from his trembling body
Not sure yet of his belief.
The man leaned upon me
at the shore of the sea
with the shouts of people behind us.
I felt his hands grip me tightly as he
raised me high above his head as
the sea split in two.
In his hands I triumphed high above the sea
a seam torn in liquid blue.
I saw the waters churn and open,
the foam rising up.
And as the multitudes crossed,
young and old alike,
I saw the mud of the sea on his feet.
And the man who could not find his words
grasped me and pushed me forward
with intensity in his hands,
leading the people toward their destiny.
I heard their song.
And time passed.
It was me who was lifted upward in battle
by the man who spoke little
but did much.
He held me, his head held high,
his strong hands lifted me high above the battle field.
For hours he held me and never put me down.
Sweat dripped down the sides of his face but his
fingers never lost their grip,
his arms never lost their strength.
We were one,
we urged the people on in their battle.
I saw the battlefield,
the fallen and the triumphant.
I saw the face of the man,
humbled by battle,
determined to finish his appointed role.
And time passed.
Slowly the man began to find his words
and his struggle increased.
His hold on me was more desperate.
In the wilderness the people wandered
thirsty and complaining,
punishments and plagues abounded.
There were days I thought he would give up.
Each day he gripped me tighter and he
would lean his head upon me in silent contemplation.
He always searched for anwers,
for the right thing to do.
And then one day the man heeded the voice of The Creator
to bring water from the rock.
and he struck me hard against a rock.
אני ולא מלאך
I, and not an angel.
With a crack
I felt the gush of water cold upon me in the dry desert.
the water flowed freely down to the people.
I heard the people squeal with glee
and for that moment they believed
and their cries were silenced by water.
And much time passed.
Like the blink of an eye.
Such is time in the desert.
I was in the man’s hands when the people raged
again and then again.
I was in his hands when his sister who brought the water died.
He leaned his body against me
crumpled and heavy
and he wept silently,
salt water ran from his eyes.
I was there when the man who sought words,
the man who was filled with sorrow and indignation,
weariness and frustration, but still with purpose
finally found his words.
The Creator said, "Hit the rock."
and then words poured from his mouth like water.
He spoke to the rock
and I lay quiet in his hands
as the water poured down.
And so it was.
“You and your brother Aaron take the rod and assemble the community, and before their very eyes order the rock to yield its water. Thus you shall produce water for them from the rock and provide drink for the congregation and their beasts.”
Moses took the rod from before יהוה, as he had been commanded.
Moses and Aaron assembled the congregation in front of the rock; and he said to them, “Listen, you rebels, shall we get water for you out of this rock?”
And Moses raised his hand and struck the rock twice with his rod. Out came copious water, and the community and their beasts drank."
Numbers 20:8-11 (translation from Sefaria)
Rabbi Levi said: That rod which was created in the twilight was delivered to the first man out of the garden of Eden. Adam delivered it to Enoch, and Enoch delivered it to Noah, and Noah [handed it on] to Shem. Shem passed it on to Abraham, Abraham [transmitted it] to Isaac, and Isaac [gave it over] to Jacob, and Jacob brought it down into Egypt and passed it on to his son Joseph, and when Joseph died and they pillaged his household goods, it was placed in the palace of Pharaoh. And Jethro was one of the magicians of Egypt, and he saw the rod and the letters which were upon it, and he desired in his heart (to have it), and he took it and brought it, and planted it in the midst of the garden of his house. No one was able to approach it any more. (3) When Moses came to his house he went into the garden of Jethro's house, and saw the rod and read the letters which were upon it, and he put forth his hand and took it. Jethro watched || Moses, and said: This one in the future will redeem Israel from Egypt. Therefore he gave him Zipporah his daughter to wife, as it is said, "And Moses was content to dwell with the man; and he gave Moses Zipporah, his daughter" (Ex. ii. 21).
Pirkei d’rabi Eliezer 30
********** והכית בצור AND THOU SHALT SMITE THE ROCK — It does not say here “thou shalt smite
על הצור”, upon the surface of the rock, but בצור, right into the rock — from this it follows that the rod must have been composed of a kind of hard material the name of which is sapphire, and the rock was split by it (Mekhilta d'Rabbi Yishmael 17:6:2).