Thursday, April 10, 2014

Staff Meeting- How archeology helps shed light on peshat and drash in the Torah

Although there are some who see archaeology as a threat to Torah, there are many instances when it actually helps us better understand Torah. What follows is a shiur on מטה משה, the staff of Moshe. I will demonstrate that both the plain meaning of pesukim, as well as a number of midrashim are better understood through an insight I gained from studying and observing Egyptian archaeology.

The מטה משה first appears at the beginning of פרק ד' in שמות.

וַיַּעַן מֹשֶׁה וַיֹּאמֶר וְהֵן לֹא־יַאֲמִינוּ לִי וְלֹא יִשְׁמְעוּ בְּקֹלִי כִּי יֹאמְרוּ לֹא־נִרְאָה אֵלֶיךָ יְהוָֹה:  וַיֹּאמֶר אֵלָיו יְהוָֹה מַזֶּה [מַה־זֶּה] בְיָדֶךָ וַיֹּאמֶר מַטֶּה:  וַיֹּאמֶר הַשְׁלִיכֵהוּ אַרְצָה וַיַּשְׁלִכֵהוּ אַרְצָה וַיְהִי לְנָחָשׁ וַיָּנָס מֹשֶׁה מִפָּנָיו:  וַיֹּאמֶר יְהוָֹה אֶל־מֹשֶׁה שְׁלַח יָדְךָ וֶאֱחֹז בִּזְנָבוֹ וַיִּשְׁלַח יָדוֹ וַיַּחֲזֶק־בּוֹ וַיְהִי לְמַטֶּה בְּכַפּוֹ:  לְמַעַן יַאֲמִינוּ כִּי־נִרְאָה אֵלֶיךָ יְהוָֹה אֱלֹהֵי אֲבֹתָם אֱלֹהֵי אַבְרָהָם אֱלֹהֵי יִצְחָק וֵאלֹהֵי יַעֲקֹב:

HaShem is trying to convince Moshe that he should return to Egypt to redeem Bnei Yisrael. When Moshe insists that they will not listen to him, HaShem gives him a sign that they will believe that He appeared to Moshe. The sign involves throwing the staff to the ground, it miraculously turning into a snake, and then, back into a staff. While this is certainly impressive, why would this be the sign? More importantly, why is this the specific sign used?

The staff plays a central role in the story from this point forward. When Moshe finally agrees to go, along with his brother, HaShem reminds him to take the staff with him to Egypt to perform the plagues.

:יז) וְאֶת־הַמַּטֶּה הַזֶּה תִּקַּח בְּיָדֶךָ אֲשֶׁר תַּעֲשֶׂה־בּוֹ אֶת־הָאֹתֹת


The staff continues to play a role throughout the rest of the Torah including by the splitting of the sea, the war against Amalek, and the two stories when Moshe brings forth water from the rock.

If this is not perplexing enough, the staff is made even more mysterious in various midrashim.

In Pirkei Avos there are a list of things described as having been created at the last moments of the sixth day of creation

עֲשָׂרָהדְבָרִים נִבְרְאוּ בְעֶרֶב שַׁבָּת בֵּין הַשְּׁמָשׁוֹת, וְאֵלּו הֵן, פִּי הָאָרֶץ, וּפִי הַבְּאֵר, וּפִי הָאָתוֹן, וְהַקֶּשֶׁת, וְהַמָּן, וְהַמַּטֶּה, וְהַשָּׁמִיר, וְהַכְּתָב, וְהַמִּכְתָּב, וְהַלּוּחוֹת. וְיֵשׁ אוֹמְרִים, אַף הַמַּזִּיקִין, וקְבוּרָתוֹ שֶׁל משֶׁה, וְאֵילוֹ שֶׁל אַבְרָהָם אָבִינוּ. וְיֵשׁ אוֹמְרִים, אַף צְבָת בִצְבָת עֲשׂוּיָה:

Most of the list includes some pretty miraculous things; the mouth of Bilaam's talking donkey, the manna which Bnei Yisrael ate in the desert, the worm which cut the stones for the Beis HaMikdash. Also on the list is Moshe's staff. Whatever this midrash is teaching us, and it is clearly not meant to be taken literally, why would Moshe's staff be on this list? Could he not have found a normal staff on his own?

Furthermore, the staff is described as being made from the same material as the luchos, as having דצ"ך עד"ש באח"ב written on it, and being extremely heavy. Clearly Chazal are suggesting that there is something unique about this staff.

How can this all be explained?

When one takes a look at images of Pharoh in Ancient Egypt, he is often seen to be carrying a staff. This staff symbolized his power. What's more striking is that often appearing on top of the staff is the head of a snake, an image which also appears on his headdress. I would like to suggest that the episodes and midrashim mentioned above, can be understood if we view Moshe's staff as symbolizing HaShem's rulership. In fact, Chazal seem to say as much

ואני נתתי לך. ר' לוי אמר המטה שנברא בין השמשות נמסר לאדם הראשון בג"ע ואדם מסרו לחנוך וחנוך לנח ונח לשם ושם מסרו [עמוד 230] לאברהם ואברהם ליצחק ויצחק ליעקב ויעקב הורידו למצרים ומסרו ליוסף בנו שנאמר ואני נתתי לך וגו'. וכשמת יוסף נשלל ביתו של יוסף ונתן בפלטרין של פרעה, והיה יתרו אחד מחרטומי מצרים וראה את המטה והאותות עליו וחמדו בלבו ולקחו והביאו ונטעהו בתוך גן של ביתו ואח"כ לא היה יכול ליקרב אליו, עד שבא משה לארץ מדין ונכנס בגן של יתרו וראה את המטה וקרא האותות שהיו עליו וישלח ידו ויקחהו, וירא יתרו ויאמר זה האיש אשר עתיד לגאול את ישראל ממצרים לפיכך נתן את צפורה בתו למשה, שנאמר ויואל משה לשבת וגו' (שמות ב' כ"א).

In a long midrashic explanation found in Bereishis Rabbah, Rebbe Levi suggests that this staff started off in the hands of Adam HaRishon, who passed it to Chanoch. It continued to be passed from Chanoch to Noach, Shem, Avraham, Yitzchak, Yaakov, Yosef and then, through the hands of Yisro to Moshe. This list is certainly reminiscent of the Mesorah of those who accepted God as the master of the universe. The midrash goes on to say that this staff was passed from king to king, and that it will be used by Moshiach as well. The clear implication, is that the kings, who represent God's Kingship, in a more limited form, and Moshiach, who will usher in an era of Divine rule are making use of this staff to show that they act through the power given to them by God. Furthermore the midrash makes clear that the same staff was used by Moshe and Aharon and was also referred to as the Staff of God.

ויקח משה את מטה האלהים . לפי שבו חקוק שם המפורש, לפיכך קראו מטה האלהים: בידו. אע"פ שהיה משקלו מ' סאה, מעשה נס היה בו, שהיה המטה נושא את עצמו ונראה כנישא בידו של משה:

Even more strikingly the midrash says that God's name was written on the staff and that it only appeared to be carried by Moshe and that it in fact, carried itself.

With his understanding, the various episodes from Torah where the staff plays a key role can be understood.

If Paroh is symbolically represented by a snake and staff, then a staff that turns into a snake and swallows up Paroh's staff is a strong indication that Moshe is more powerful than Paroh.

The Seforno suggests that of the ten plagues, only one is a punishment. HaShem tells Moshe to tell Paroh that if he does not send out His first born, then God will kill Paroh's first born. The implication is that there will be one punishment involving measure for measure. Why then, the other nine plagues? They come to teach Paroh and Bnei Yisrael about God, after Paroh says he has never heard of Him. Thus דצ"ך עד"ש באח"ב . The first three plagues of blood, frogs and lice show God's mastery over the ground and water. The next three, a mixture of wild animals, pestilence and boils shows God's control over human and animal life. The last three, hail, locust and darkness (which negates the power of Ra, the Egyptian god of the Sun, one of their most powerful gods) shows that God even controls the atmosphere. Together, suggests Seforno, they indicate a total mastery of God over the whole world. What better words should be found on a staff that represents God's kingship?

There is a danger however. Ancient Egypt was a place of sorcery and many gods. Perhaps the Egyptians, as well as Bnei Yisrael would come to think the staff itself is Divine. Chazal highlight this concern viz a viz the Egyptians.

ט אמר רבי סימון משל לבעל הזמורה שהיה מהלך בחוץ והזמורה בידו, אמרו אלולי שהזמורה בידו לא היה מתכבד שמע המלך ואמר לו העבר הזמורה ממך וצא לחוץ וכל מי שאינו שואל בשלומך אני נוטל את ראשו כך אמרו המצריים לא היה יכול משה לעשות כלום אלא במטה, בו הכה היאור בו הביא כל המכות, כיון שבאו ישראל לתוך הים והמצריים עומדים מאחריהם אמר הקדוש ברוך הוא למשה השלך את מטך שלא יאמרו אילולי המטה לא היה יכול לקרוע את הים שנאמר הרם את מטך.

Rebbi Simon suggests, by way of a parable that HaShem specifically had Moshe put down the staff at the sea, so the Egyptians would not think that it was the staff that was splitting the sea.

Later, when Bnei Yisrael battle Amalek (who represent the negation of God's presence in this world) Moshe goes up on a hill. The Torah tells us that when Moshe's hands were raised, Bnei Yisrael were victorious and when they went down, Amalek was victorious. Chazal ask the obvious question. Do Moshe's hands lead to victory or defeat? They respond by saying that his raised hands remind Bnei Yisrael of HaShem, but why should this be true? When we remember that Moshe is holding the staff, the answer becomes clear.

Finally, let us consider the two episodes of Moshe bringing forth water from a rock. In the first instance, he is told to bring the staff and hit the rock and bring forth water. He does so, and the miracle occurs. Later, in Bamidbar, virtually the same thing occurs, only this time there is a significant difference. Although Moshe is told to bring the staff with him, this time he is asked to speak to the rock. One must wonder, what purpose there is in his holding the staff while speaking to the rock. Additionally, when he proceeds to instead strike the rock, both he and Aharon are punished severely and banned from going into Israel. Why such a severe punishment for such a seemingly minor sin? Indeed, the mephorshim all struggle to figure out what sin he in fact committed. Furthermore, the passuk says

וַיֹּאמֶר יְהוָֹה אֶל־מֹשֶׁה וְאֶל־אַהֲרֹן יַעַן לֹא־הֶאֱמַנְתֶּם בִּי לְהַקְדִּישֵׁנִי לְעֵינֵי בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל לָכֵן לֹא תָבִיאוּ אֶת־הַקָּהָל הַזֶּה אֶל ־הָאָרֶץ אֲשֶׁר־נָתַתִּי לָהֶם:

In what way have Moshe and Aharon failed to be Mekadesh HaShem? In fact, why is Aharon part of the punishment at all?

Finally, in parshas Haazinu Hashem describes their punishment as

נא עַל֩ אֲשֶׁ֨ר מְעַלְתֶּ֜ם בִּ֗י בְּתוֹךְ֙ בְּנֵ֣י יִשְׂרָאֵ֔ל בְּמֵֽי־מְרִיבַ֥ת קָדֵ֖שׁ מִדְבַּר־צִ֑ן עַ֣ל אֲשֶׁ֤ר לֹֽא־קִדַּשְׁתֶּם֙ אוֹתִ֔י בְּת֖וֹךְ בְּנֵ֥י יִשְׂרָאֵֽל: נב כִּ֥י מִנֶּ֖גֶד תִּרְאֶ֣ה אֶת־הָאָ֑רֶץ וְשָׁ֨מָּה֙ לֹ֣א תָב֔וֹא אֶל ־הָאָ֕רֶץ אֲשֶׁר־אֲנִ֥י נֹתֵ֖ן לִבְנֵ֥י יִשְׂרָאֵֽל:
He says that Moshe and Aharon have committed Meilah against HaShem, a term used to describe someone who has made use of a holy object in the wrong manner. How does this apply here?

Based on our understanding of the Mateh as the symbolic representation of God's rulership, we can now answer all of these questions.

Moshe is told to bring the staff with him and not use it. This is in order to show Bnei Yisrael, who themselves had been immersed in an idolatrous culture for over two centuries, that the staff is not divine. By showing that water could be brought forth without it, Moshe would have shown them that there was nothing truly divine or magical about the staff. By making use of it, Moshe did the exact opposite. He reinforced the idea that the staff had power. He made use of a religious object in the wrong manner, and thus, is guilty of meilah. He has failed to be mikadesh HaShem in the truest sense of the term. While we are used to thinking of kodesh as meaning holy, it truly indicates being unique and distinct. By giving the impression that the staff has power, Moshe took away from God being seen as the sole power in the universe. We can now understand the sin that Moshe committed, but why couldn't he enter the land, and what about Aharon? I would suggest that the next passuk in Ha'azinu gives us the answer. Moshe and Aharon had been involved in all sorts of divine miracles starting with the makkos and up until this time. Many of them involved the staff. If Bnei Yisrael have been given the false belief that the staff has power, surely they could believe that Moshe and Aharon did as well (in fact, this eemed to lead to the sin of the golden calf). By having them die and not bring Bnei Yisrael into the land, it becomes clear that it is HaShem is the one who does so.

אֶל ־הָאָ֕רֶץ אֲשֶׁר־אֲנִ֥י נֹתֵ֖ן לִבְנֵ֥י יִשְׂרָאֵֽל

While there are challenges that have been raised by some archaeologists, this is just one example where we see how archaeology can shed light on the Torah. If God's seal is truth, we need not fear that any true knowledge can lead us anywhere else.

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