Parshat Hukkat: The Staff of Moses – A Tale of Connect and Disconnect

[Note: This bibliodramatic monologue is inspired by the work of Peter Pitzele, author of Scripture Windows, and the Torah commentary of Aviva Zornberg, author of Bewilderments, who presents classic and chassidic commentaries to the Torah in stunning and innovative ways. I am grateful for all that they have taught me.]


Introduction

There are a infinite number of stories in the Torah. There are the stories that we see in the written scroll on the surface. There are the stories that dwell just beneath the surface. There are also the silent stories, such as the stories of a object or an animal, but when we give voice to those stories, we reveal another facet of Torah. “What if…” is one of the best questions to help open up the Torah to learn more about ourselves, even in the voice of something a ignored as Moses’ staff. What if Moses’ staff could tell it’s story?


My final act in Moses’ hands was one of anger and violence. Everyone stood and watched as he took me in his hands, hurled angry insults at the people, who were just thirsty and scared. I felt the rough surface of the rock as I smashed into it. The tiny imperfections of the rock made dents in my soft wooden surface; small pieces of me where chipped away. Then a pause. Then a second blow to the rock, harder than the first, even angrier than the first time.

Then the water flowed from the rock, and everyone drank and watered their animals. But I knew that something broke in that moment. I had been abused, misused, and and remained solely as a reminder of destruction.

But I did not begin that way.

Years before, I was part a staff, I was part of something larger than myself, an acacia tree, one branch of strong tree that provided support for leaves, and shade for travelers and shepherds. I don’t recall feeling separate from the tree, just feeling of being ‘tree.’ Day after day, a man came with his flock and sat under my shade. After I don’t know how long, the man came again, but instead of sitting beneath me as he had for all of those days, he brought a small axe and removed me from my tree. I was born through an act of unintended violence and disconnect.

In his hands, my role changed and expanded. Where once I merely provided shade, now I provided leadership and guidance. Yes, it was just for a flock of goats and sheep, but still it was leadership. I was used to keep the flock together, fend off thieves, wild animals, keep track of our numbers, and to help Moses walk at every step. I supported him.

After sometime, we moved our flock to another remote part of the wilderness. After we sat down at the foot of a small mountain, one of the younger sheep, who had been separated from his mother, wandered off, confused, up the mountain. Naturally, Moses and I immediately trailed after it. Once we caught up to the lamb, we found ourselves about halfway up the mountain in a small resting place.

We sat under the shade of an outcropping of rock, waiting to cool off from the heat of the chase. Moses hand rested gently on me. All of a sudden, without warning, his grip became firm, and he leapt to his feet. Around the corner, a small shrub had been on fire, which happens from time to time in the wilderness. No big deal. Then, without warning, Moses sticks me into the middle of the blazing fire. I felt the heat on me, but it was not like any other fire I had encountered before. I was prepared to burst into flames, but it was a radiant beautiful heat. No fire. No burn. No black marks on me.

What happened next I still cannot fully understand. While Moses seemed to be in conversation with the shrub, I was overcome with this feeling like I was back on my tree but more so, like I was connected to the tree, and the ground, and to everything. It was like being a branch on a tree again, but a tree far larger than anything I had known or ever heard of.

The next thing you know, I have been flung to the ground, and turned into a snake! How did that happen?! I still have no idea. I remember that Moses jumped back from me in fear. His fear was not a new emotion for me. I had felt it before, but never directed at me. I wanted to call out, “Moses, it’s just me!” Slowly, he reached out his hand, grabbed hold of my “tail,” and I became myself again. But now, I felt not only that same sense of connection, but now I felt that I had been noticed, that I had a role to play in something larger than taking care of a flock of sheep. But it was not a role that I necessarily wanted to play.

When Moses confronted Pharaoh, he flung me down again to the ground, and I could feel my dead wooden cells transform into the cells of a snake. The next thing I know it, I am under attack from three other snakes. It’s me or them, and something deep in me knew what to do. I consumed them, each one in one gulp each. I felt excited and scared. Excited that I could be part of such mighty deeds, but scared because of my unknown future. How would I be used next? What harm would I be called upon to perform tomorrow?

Moses took me down to a river. I had only heard of rivers. I had never seen so much water flowing in one place in my life. What an amazing source of life and of abundance! Then, without warning, Moses struck the river with me, and it turned into blood. Why?! Why would I ever do that? How could I have betrayed the source of life of every tree on earth? For every living being on earth! This was not what I was meant for. But what I wanted did not matter. I became a tool of punishment and destruction. Plague after plague was invoked with me as the symbol of that destruction. When anyone caught sight of me in Moses’ hands, let alone come near me, they would cower in fear and trembling. I became ashamed of how I was being used. I vowed never to harm the waters or any living being again.

After we had left Egypt, the nation was camped out on the shore of the Sea of Reeds. My time of redemption had arrived. Moses used me to part the waters, who graciously did so, despite my complex history with the great river. Finally, I had returned to my roots, as a protector and a guide for people and animals.

Then not three days later, I was able to come to the rescue again. Turns out that the people only prepared for a three-day journey, and were out of water. Moses took me in hand, struck a rock with me, and (I have no idea how this happened) water came pouring out of the rock. And everyone saw, especially the elders. In that moment, they began to see me in a new way. I was not only a tool for punishment, death and destruction. I was a tool for life, abundance and prosperity.

The very next day, they tried to abuse me again. Some cowards and brigands attacked the people from behind, where the weakest of the people were walking. The elderly. Young children. The ill. Moses and the others wanted to use me in a time of war to help defeat the enemy. Despite the need, I refused. When Moses came to look for me, to become a symbol of violence again, I managed to hide myself in his tent. I rolled myself under a blanket, just out of sight. Given the urgency of the situation, he did not spend long looking for me, and gave up. Let him become the symbol of victory in battle, but not me.

Then somehow, I got lost in the shuffle. After the battle was over, Moses came back to the tent, exhausted, relieved, but he did not look for me. He had found that he did not need me in his hands all the time. His empty hands alone were enough for the people. However, Moses did find me again later. Most of the time, I was just his walking stick. There were no more plagues to invoke, no more droughts to end. Just a walking stick. I was there to support him in his work. Every know and then, someone who remembered would see me in Moses’ hands, and fall back or run away in terror, a reminder of the role that I had played for so long. Those memories were hard to erase.

Years passed, things became normal in our wanderings in the wilderness and eventually I was given a place of honor in the Holy of Holies, the most sacred place in the entire camp. I was in the same room as the Ark, which held two pieces of rock from Mount Sinai, which was exactly where I had been thrust into that mysterious fire, and a jar of this foodstuff called manna, which was what the people ate every day. Hardly anyone every came in to see us. We were like a small museum to the past. We kept each other company. You should hear the stories that the ark, the stone tablets and manna could tell you, but that if for another time.

And there I sat until the entire generation that had left Egypt died in the wilderness. It was better that way. Better that those who remembered me a tool of destruction should let those memories fade. Let them die and not tell those stories about me.

Now we come to today. My final act. My last chance to start over. My chance to become a symbol of life for a new generation. Miriam, Moses’ sister, died earlier this week, and, at the same time for some reason, the water supply gave out. As if the past forty years had not happened, the people got thirsty, frustrated and angry again. It was back to square one all over again.

Sitting in the Holy of Holies, I could feel the people’s anger, being drawn to our sacred space like a magnet. But  this time, it was met with a stronger presence. That same feeling from the fire on the mountain came over me, that feeling of intense connection, of that Great Tree. If I had to locate that feeling in space, it would have come from above the cover of the ark, in between the two cherubim. It was a feeling of love, concern and compassion, meant to counteract the anger of the people, to let them know, that even in these moments of death, grief, and fear, that there is a presence in this universe that loves them, sees them in their sorrows and pain, and tries to comfort them, to show everyone that together there is the possibility of compassion and peace.

The sound of footsteps. The curtain to our private museum was quickly moved aside. Moses briskly entered our space, and, for the first time in years, sees me and takes me. In his grip, I can feel the fatigue, the frustration, the feeling that he is slipping, that the frustration is slowly bubbling over into anger.

Why could he not have lingered in my sacred space for more than a moment? Had he stayed there in that space, in that presence, maybe he would have felt that love, and compassion that I felt. What if he had just taken a few minutes in that private place to gather himself, to stand in that presence. What if…?

I was taken out into the light for the first time in a generation, and I saw the people. They were not slaves anymore. They were strong, tall and powerful. Tanned by the sun and born free in the wilderness. They had an air of discipline and focus to them, even in their distress. Moses looked so old compared to the eldest of them.

Moses opened his mouth: “Listen you rebels…” Listen you rebels? Why did he have to call them that? They were not rebelling! Why did he meet their anger and frustration with his own? It’s like he’s talking to someone else, or their parents and grandparents when they wanted water forty years ago.

Then the two blows come. One and then the other. Then the water flowed. And I become a sign of violence again. Yes, there is water, but at what price? I could have become a symbol of that connection to the Great Tree! I could have been a symbol of life, flowing energy and trust! Instead, I am reduced again to a weapon, a threat, a symbol of power to inflict pain, insult; to club a people into submission.

As the people drink, and slake their thirst, I can feel the disconnect. I suddenly felt the distance between Moses and the people. Maybe it was always there and I just became aware of it, or maybe there was a rupture in that moment. I actually don’t know how long it had been absent, whether it was moments or months, but in that moment, I could feel the chasm between them.

Something holy had broken, and nothing could fix it.

What if Moses had thought back to the time when we did this forty years earlier, to the love he felt for the people back then in those first days of literation, and channelled that love for those people to the ones standing before him now. If only I had never been used for punishment, for violence, for threats and death, but only for shade, guidance, splitting the waters, bringing water from the rock, then maybe when he held me in his hand, I could have been the key to unlocking everything that happened before this moment and everything that happened after this moment. Maybe I could have become more than a thing in his hand. I could have become a symbol of trust, connection and love.

Look at your own hands.

What is in your hands?

How will your wield it?

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