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Straightening the Bent Path: The Secret behind the Staff of Moses

April 11, 2019 | by Rabbi Shmuel Reichman

Everything has the potential to be used for good or evil. The choice is ours.

An old man sat with his grandson by the campfire, staring into the dancing flames and began telling him a story. "There is a fight going on inside of me between two wolves. One is evil – he is anger, envy, sorrow, regret, greed, arrogance, self-pity, guilt, resentment, inferiority, lies and ego. The other is good – he is joy, peace, love, hope, serenity, humility, kindness, empathy, generosity, compassion and faith.

"The same fight is going on inside you and every other person, too.”

The grandson thought about it for a minute and then asked his grandfather, “Which wolf will win?”

The old man replied, “The one you feed.”

The Staff of Moses

Although often overlooked. Moses' staff plays a pivotal role in the story of Passover and our exodus from Egypt. The staff first appears at the burning bush and turns into a snake. Once again, at Pharaoh's court, the staff turns into a snake. In Jewish thought, the snake represents the yetzer harah, the drive for evil, so it would appear as if the staff represents something evil.

Yet, the same staff is used to perform all the plagues, as well as the splitting of the sea, the pinnacle of the Jews' miraculous and transcendent experience. It therefore appears that the staff is a very spiritual object, the exact opposite of the evil it seems to represent? So which one is it?

In order to understand this, we must first develop a fundamental principle. 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 up to you.

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, therefore, is really 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.

The reason why God created the world in such a way is so that we 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.

Now the more power there is, the more potential there is. For example, a 220 watt outlet can either charge your phone or give you a small electric shock. But 20,000 watts can either light up your neighborhood or electrocute you.

The value in any power is only in as much as 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.

Moses' staff is neither good nor evil. What it will be is solely up to the one who holds it. It represents the snake of evil, but it also represents God and spirituality. When in the form of evil, it causes Moses to run away in abject terror, but when in the form of good it causes the world to witness the miracles of God. Yet, we can develop this theme even further.

The Bent Path and the Straight Path

The midrash compares Egypt and the snake to a "bent path", while the staff is a straight path. What do the concepts of bent and straight paths refer to?

Imagine you are walking down a path. Whenever you turn around, you can see where you came from. What if the path suddenly bends and takes a sharp turn? When you turn around, you can no longer see the origins of your journey. The same is true of the physical world we live in. Originally, the physical world loyally and perfectly reflected its spiritual root. When you looked around, you saw and experienced God, and knew that He created the world; it was like looking back down a straight path.

The snake bends and slithers, representing a bent path, a world of evil and brokenness where you can no longer see God.

However, after Adam sinned, the entire world fell. The world became a bent path, whereby we can no longer see where we came from.

The snake bends and slithers, representing a bent path, a world of evil and brokenness, where you can no longer see God. The staff represents a straight path where you learn to trace yourself back to your source.

When Moses first encounters God, he is told to throw the staff to the ground where it then transforms into a snake. When something is thrown to the ground, low and distant from its transcendent source and misused, it becomes bent, it becomes evil. But when Moses lifted it up towards the sky, tracing it back to its source, straightening the bent path, it became a staff, it became good.

Moses' Showdown

Understanding the bent and straight path gives us a deeper appreciation of Moses and Aaron's showdown with Pharaoh. The midrash explains that when Moses and Aaron turned their staff into a snake in front of Pharaoh, he laughed. Not only did he proceed to do this himself, but he then brought his magicians to do it, and even brought schoolchildren to do it. Laughing at Moses, 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! We are not impressed."

Moses responds, "One who has the 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, Aaron's staff swallows all the other snakes, once it already turned back into a staff. The explanation behind this cryptic scene is not just that Moses overcame Pharaoh and Egypt. The snake and Egypt represent the bent path. The staff represents the straight path. It doesn't say that Moses and Aaron's snake swallowed Pharaoh’s snakes; it says that their staff swallowed their snakes! Meaning, the straight path overcame the bent path, good overcame evil.

Everything in our world has the potential to be used for good or evil. The choice is yours. Just like those two wolves living inside of us, we get to choose which one we feed. The pull and temptation of desire can be overwhelming, but the beauty and oneness of truth must overcome, persevere, and prevail. We each get to choose who we become. This Passover, let's be inspired to straighten the bent path, to build clarity from confusion, light from darkness.

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