Parshat Va’era

Torah Reading for Week of December 26, 2010 – January 1, 2011

“The Shepherd’s Rod”

by Elihu Gevirtz, AJRCA Fourth Year Rabbinic Student

In last week’s paresha Moses got directions from G-d to go to Pharaoh. Moses asks “What if they do not believe me and do not listen to me, but say: YHWH did not appear to you?” (Exodus 4:1-5) And G-d replied to him “What is that in your hand?” And he replied, “A rod.” G-d said “Cast the rod on the ground.” He cast it on the ground and it became a snake; and Moses recoiled from it. Then G-d said to Moses “Put out your hand and grasp it by the tail.” He put out his hand and seized it, and it became a rod in his hand – “that they may believe that G-d the G-d of their fathers … did appear to you.”

It was his shepherd’s rod that he used as a walking stick for support as he walked for many long days with his sheep and goats, leading them, prodding them. I recall being in an oak woodland in northern Israel on a beautiful spring day having a picnic with a good friend, and observing a shepherd walking by with his flock. Every time they would pass under an oak, he would reach his rod up to the tree and hit the branches of the tree so that leaves would fall for his flock to eat.

In this week’s paresha Va’era, in the presence of Pharaoh, Aaron throws his rod on the ground and it becomes a snake. Pharaoh’s magicians do the same and Aaron’s snake swallows the magicians’ snakes. Later, at the command of G-d, Aaron lifted up his rod and struck the water of the Nile in the sight of Pharaoh, and all of the water turned to blood.

Then Aaron held out his rod and struck the earth and there were vermin who climbed over the people and then lice covered the land. Then there were swarms of insects, and then pestilence and then boils. And then Moses, at the direction of G-d, held out his rod toward the sky and G-d sent thunder and hail and fire streaming and flashing in the midst of the hail.

In a few weeks we will read from Paresha B’shalach (Exodus 17:1-7) and the shepherd’s rod will enter the story again. After the people left Egypt they moved through the wilderness. They camped at Rephidim where the people quarreled and complained to Moses because there was no water for them to drink. G-d told Moses to strike the rock with his rod and water will come out from the rock and the people will drink. He did so and the people drank. The place was named Massah (trial) and Meribah (quarrel) because the people quarreled and put G-d on trial saying “Is G-d present among us or not?”

Much later the rod also plays a role in Paresha Hukkat (Numbers 20:1-13). The community was in the wilderness without water, quarreling with Moses saying “Why did you make us leave Egypt to bring us to this wretched place…?” G-d told Moses to take his rod, assemble the community and order the rock to yield its water for the people. Moses took the rod, assembled the people, and (rather than speaking) struck the rock twice. Copious amounts of water came out and the people drank. But G-d said to Moses and Aaron “because you did not trust me enough to affirm my holiness in the sight of the Israelite people, you shall not lead this congregation into the land.”

The rod of Moses and the rod of Aaron are extensions of G-d’s outstretched “arm”. By following G-d’s directions, the prophet Moses and the high priest Aaron are agents of G-d, and, with their shepherd’s rods they do G-d’s work: the plagues, the rock, the water, the falling leaves. As we say in Psalm 23: “Your rod and your staff: they comfort me”.

May you walk with your shepherd’s rod in your hand. May you place it firmly on the earth feeling G-d’s support of you even when the road is rocky and you cannot see what is coming around the bend. May you hold it stretched out with the awareness that the rod can be thrown on the ground and used for things that are dangerous and produce fear, and that it can also be used for good and for the pursuit of justice. May you use it to push and to prod those parts of you that are resistant to being holy. May you use it to reach the branches so that the leaves of nourishment fall to you.

May you have the wisdom, insight and discernment necessary to know when to strike the rock and when to speak to it. And may you find that water gushes out of the rock softening your hardened heart and filling your cup. Even when you quarrel, and your heart is hardened and you put G-d on trial, may water stream from that rock tasting like honey, reaffirming the comforting presence of the Holy One Kadosh Barechu in your life.