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The Plagues: Why the Staff?

February 14, 2015 | by Dovid Rosenfeld

Many times throughout the story of the Exodus God tells Moses to take along his staff and to use it to perform one of the miracles – such as to wave it at the water to make it part (Exodus 14:16) or to direct the locusts to invade (10:12-13). Why the emphasis on the staff? Can’t God do miracles just as easily without it? In fact, using his staff might have given Pharaoh the false impression that the plagues were done via magic. Why didn’t God reveal His strength directly?

The Aish Rabbi Replies

It’s a very good basic question. First of all, it is clear that Moses’s staff had special powers. It was not merely a deception. The Talmud (Pirkei Avot 5:8) lists Moshe's staff as one of the unique items created on the twilight before the first Shabbat. (Other such items were the manna, the well which accompanied Israel in the desert, and the mouth of the donkey which spoke to Balaam.)

My teacher Rabbi Yochanan Zweig explained that all the items created at that time period were really supernatural – items which do not belong in the physical world. They really should have been created on Shabbat itself. But since God refrained from working on Shabbat, He created them in the time immediately preceding it.

Why did God want to use the medium of Moses’s staff to perform so many of the miracles of the Exodus? Can’t God do anything? Don’t the laws of nature basically mean nothing to Him – with or without a staff?

Although this is true, it seems clear that God does not simply trifle with the laws of nature at will. He set them in motion as part of the process of creation and only very rarely suspends them. The Midrash states that when God created the sea, He specifically made a condition with it that it split for Israel at the Exodus (Bereishit Rabbah 5:5, Shemot Rabbah 21:6). Thus, again, although theoretically God is not bound in the slightest by the laws of nature He Himself created, He does not lightly ignore them. The staff was likewise the medium He placed in the world to allow their temporary suspension.

On a different track, it’s possible that God specifically wanted to trick Pharaoh into thinking the plagues were nothing other than ordinary magic – the type the Egyptians were quite familiar with already. This allowed Pharaoh to persist in his stubbornness and not be moved by the miraculous plagues. As the commentators explain, since Pharaoh was never sincerely interested in repenting his evil ways and letting the Jewish people go, God allowed him to be tricked. Rather than the plagues forcing him to concede, he managed to convince himself they were not the hand of God – until he destroyed himself and his wicked nation utterly. (See Rashi to Exodus 7:3).

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