There is a principle in Jewish thought that many of the most fundamental aspects of Torah are expressed in the most deceptively simple manner. Our job is to delve into these seemingly mundane topics and reveal their inner depth and meaning. One such example is Moshe’s mateh – his staff. It plays a pivotal role within the story of the Exodus from Egypt), yet how often do we ponder its significance?
The mateh first appears at the sneh (burning bush), where it turns into a snake (Shemos 4:3). When Moshe confronts Pharaoh’s court, the mateh once again turns into a snake (Shemos 7:12). In Jewish thought, the snake represents evil and the yetzer hara, so it would appear as if the mateh represents evil.
However, the mateh is also used to perform all the makkos in Mitzrayim (Shemos 4:17), as well as the splitting of the Red Sea – the makkos pinnacle of the miraculous, transcendent experience of Yetzias Mitzrayim. Additionally, the Midrash explains that Hashem’s name was crystalized into the mateh itself. It therefore appears that the mateh is a very spiritual object, the exact opposite of evil. What, then, is the true nature of the mateh?
Everything is Potential
To understand the meaning of the mateh, we must develop a fundamental principle: The Maharal explains that nothing in the physical world is objectively good or evil. Rather, everything has the potential to be used for either good or evil. The choice is solely up to us. This can be illustrated by a number of examples:
Electricity is neither good nor bad. An outlet can be used to charge your appliances, but it can also give you an electric shock. The same applies to money: it can be used to enable Torah learning, but it can also be used to fund destruction and chaos. A charismatic personality can be used to inspire others to grow or to seduce them down the wrong path.
Everything in this world is merely potential, waiting to be used. Evil is the misuse of potential, when we choose to use an object for something other than its true purpose. Evil is the breakdown and corruption of good. This is why the Hebrew word for evil is rah, which means brokenness or fragmentation.
Hashem created the world in this way so that human beings can have free will. We get to choose whether to use things for their true purpose, actualizing their potential, or to misuse them, getting pulled into the clutches of evil.
The More Power, The More Potential
Having established that everything has the potential to be used for good or evil, it’s also important to realize that the more power there is, the more potential there is. A 220-watt outlet can either charge your phone or give you a small electric shock, 20,000 watts can either light up your neighborhood or electrocute you.
The more power, the more potential. The value in any power is only in the extent to which it can be controlled. Otherwise, the more power you have, the more destruction you will have, as we often see with nuclear energy and money. Just think about giving a child the power to cross the street by himself. When do you give him such a power? Only when he has the ability to control it, to know when not to cross the street.
Now we can begin to understand the mateh. Its nature depends solely on the one who holds it. It can represent the nachash, the snake of evil, but it can also be used for spirituality, to carry out Hashem’s mission in this world. When in the form of evil, it causes Moshe to run away in abject terror, but when in the form of good, it enables the world to witness Hashem’s miracles. While this alone is an essential point, we can develop this theme even further.
The Bent Path and the Straight Path
The Midrash compares Mitzrayim and the nachash to a “bent path,” while the mateh symbolizes a straight path. What is the deeper meaning behind the concepts of the bent and straight paths?
Imagine you are walking along a straight path. At any point along the path, if you turn around, you can see where you came from. However, if the path suddenly takes a sharp turn off its straight course, then if you turn around you can no longer see the starting point of your journey. The same is true of the physical world in which we live. Originally, the world faithfully reflected its spiritual root. When you looked around, you saw and experienced Hashem, and you knew that He created the world; it was like looking back down a straight path. However, after Adam sinned, the entire world fell and became a bent path; it is no longer clear where we come from. When we look around we no longer see a universe that reflects G-dliness.
The nachash bends and slithers, representing a bent path, a world of evil and brokenness, where you can no longer see Hashem. The mateh represents a straight path, through which you trace yourself back to your source.
When Moshe first encounters Hashem, he is told to thrust the mateh to the ground, where it then transforms into a snake. When something is thrust to the ground, low and distant from its transcendent source, it becomes bent; it becomes evil. But when Moshe lifted it up, towards the sky, tracing it back to its source, straightening the bent path, it became a mateh, a source of good.
Explaining Moshe’s Showdown with Pharaoh
With this deep understanding of the bent and straight path, we can understand Moshe and Aharon’s showdown with Pharaoh in a new light. The Midrash explains that when Moshe and Aharon turned their mateh into a snake in front of Pharaoh, Pharaoh laughed. Not only did he proceed to do the same thing himself, but he brought his magicians, and even his wife, to do the same. To drive his point home, he proceeded to bring the schoolchildren to perform the trick as well. Laughing at Moshe, he exclaims: “One who has goods to sell should take them to a market which is short on supply. You’ve brought your goods to an overstocked market.” In other words, we are not impressed. Moshe responds, “One who has top-quality produce takes it to a well-stocked market, where the dealers are experts and will recognize the superior quality of the goods.” On that note, Aharon’s mateh swallows all the other snakes, once it has already transformed back into a mateh.
The deep explanation behind this cryptic scene is not just that Moshe overcame Pharaoh and Mitzrayim. Remember, the Midrash explained that the snake and Mitzrayim represent the bent path; the mateh represents the straight path. It doesn’t say that Moshe and Aharon’s snake swallowed Pharaoh’s snakes, it says that their mateh swallowed their snakes. Meaning that the straight path overcame the bent path – good overcame evil.
Everything in our world has potential, having the ability to be used for good or for evil. The choice is ours. We choose how to use the potential in this world. The pull and temptation of negative desire can be overwhelming, but the pursuit of truth, the straight path, must prevail. We each get to choose who we will become. Let us be inspired to straighten the bent path, build clarity from confusion, oneness from brokenness, and bring the world to its ultimate destination.