In this week’s parasha, Shemos (Exodus), we begin the story of – you guessed it – the Exodus. Since much of the rest of the Torah is the tale of a 40-year hike, it’s appropriate that we are also introduced to a classic piece of Scout equipment – the hiking stick. In fact, we learn about the world’s most famous hiking stick – the Rod of Moses.
The hiking stick – also called a Scout stave or staff – has been part of a Scout’s hiking gear since before there were Scouts. Way back in 1896, Scouting’s founder Robert Baden-Powell, who was then a British Army officer, published a book about his exploits in Africa. In the introduction, he wrote “A smile and a stick will carry you through any difficulty in the world.” He went on to show uses for a hiking stick in the outdoors.
Moses had a long relationship with sticks, starting at birth. The parasha begins by telling us that a Pharaoh arose in Egypt who did not know Joseph. Most scholars say this means he was a new Pharaoh, who was not aware of how Joseph saved Egypt and the entire region from starving during the famine. What this new Pharaoh was aware of was how numerous the Children of Israel had become, and how successful they were in all that they did. Pharaoh fears that if Egypt was attacked, the Jews will turn against the Egyptians. So, Pharaoh orders that all Jewish male babies be killed. He also enslaves the Jews, making them work at meaningless construction tasks in swampy land – as soon as they built a brick structure, it fell down.
As is often the case, when the Children of Israel are in trouble, women take the lead. Jocheved is a daughter of Levi and the youngest of the 70 members of Jacob’s family to enter Egypt. To save her infant son, she builds a little basket of reeds (pliable sticks), puts Moses in it, and sets it adrift down the Nile. One of Pharaoh’s daughters sees the basket and wants to know what is in it. Miraculously, she extends her arm and it reaches a very long distance (sort of like she is holding a stick) and is able to reach the basket. She sees the baby and decides to raise him as her own, in the royal household.
Moses grows up, and one day he sees an Egyptian taskmaster beating a Jew. (I envision the taskmaster beat him with a stick.) Moses strikes the taskmaster and kills him. He later learns that others have seen him kill the taskmaster. Realizing that he could be punished for this, Moses flees Egypt to Midian. He helps the daughters of the Midianite priest, Jethro, and marries one of them, Zipporah. He settles with Jethro’s family, and becomes a shepherd. Guess what he carries while he tends the flocks – a staff.
One day, Moses sees a bush (which is a live mass of wood that will turn into sticks one day) on Mount Sinai that is burning, but is not consumed. He goes to look at it, and encounters God’s presence. God tells Moses that he is to return to Egypt and bring the Children of Israel out of slavery. Moses worries that he will not be able to do as God commands. He has difficulty speaking, and fears the people may not understand him. Also, he thinks the people will not believe that God has sent him.
God gives Moses some signs to use to convince the people of his divine mission. As one of the signs, God tells Moses to put down his shepherd’s staff, and it becomes a snake. Moses moves away from the snake. God tells him to take it by the tail and, when Moses does so, the snake again becomes a staff. (As to Baden-Powell’s observation that smiling also helps you out of difficulties, Psalms 42:12 teaches us that hope in God makes us smile and helps us in times of trouble).
Moses returns to Egypt and begins carrying out God’s mission. He tells Pharaoh to let the Children of Israel go into the Wilderness to worship God for three days. Pharaoh refuses.
As we hike through the rest of the Five Books of Moses, we will see how both Moses and his brother, Aaron, use a staff to help rescue the Jews during the Exodus. We’ll be reminded that we can turn even the simplest things into tools for helping others.