The Staff of Peace and the Staff of Justice

Why it was Aaron’s staff rather than Moshe’s which G-d transformed into a crocodile when confronting Pharaoh?

Daniel Pinner

Judaism Daniel Pinner
Daniel Pinner

Last week’s parashah, Sh’mot, recounted how Moshe had first encountered G-d, Who had dispatched Moshe on his mission to redeem the nation of Israel. When Moshe demurred, doubting whether the Jews would believe that he really had been sent by G-d, He gave him a sign to perform: “Hashem said to him: What is that in your hand? And he said: A staff. And He said: Cast it on the ground! So he cast it on the ground, and it became a snake” (Exodus 4:2-3).

This week’s parashah recounts the riposte. G-d sent Moshe and his brother Aaron to confront Pharaoh with the demand to send out the Children of Israel. And when confronting Pharaoh, the staff and its transformation into a crocodile was again a major theme.

There is an important difference. In the interaction between G-d and Moshe at the burning bush, it was Moshe’s staff that was transformed. When Moshe and Aaron confronted Pharaoh, G-d told Moshe: “Say to Aaron, Take your staff and cast it before Pharaoh” (Exodus 7:9). That is to say, it was Aaron’s staff that was transformed.

Why was it Aaron’s staff rather than Moshe’s which G-d transformed into a crocodile when the two brothers first confronted Pharaoh?

To answer this, let us look ahead to the first three Plagues – Blood, Frogs, and Lice. In these Plagues, G-d told Moshe to tell Aaron to use his staff to transform the waters of the River Nile into blood (Exodus 7:19), to bring the frogs up from the rivers (8:1), and to smite the dust of Egypt that it turn into lice (8:12).

Why did G-d tell Moshe to tell Aaron to inflict these Plagues on Egypt with his staff? Since He was talking to Moshe, why did He not tell Moshe to carry out these tasks with his staff?

The waters of Egypt, explains the Midrash (Sh’mot Rabbah 9:10, 10:4, 10:6, and Tanhuma, Va’eira 14), had protected Moshe when, as a helpless baby, the ark in which he lay floated peacefully on the River Nile. Thus it was not appropriate for Moshe, whose life had been saved by the waters, to then smite those waters, either by turning them to blood or by bringing forth the frogs. Smiting the waters was left to Aaron.

Similarly, when Moshe had killed the Egyptian slave-driver for beating the Jewish slave (Exodus 2:11-12), he hid the corpse in the sand, giving him time to avoid detection for the time it took him to escape from Egypt. It was thus equally inappropriate for Moshe to smite the dust of Egypt by turning it to lice; that, too, was left to Aaron and his staff.

We return to our earlier question – why it was Aaron’s staff rather than Moshe’s which G-d transformed into a crocodile when confronting Pharaoh – we can extrapolate from the Midrash that it was inappropriate for Moshe, who had been raised in Pharaoh’s palace, fed and clothed, educated and protected, by the Egyptian royal house, to have his staff transformed into a crocodile, for him to show how Egyptian royalty was no more than a piece of dead wood.

Moshe still owed some residual loyalty to the Egyptian royal house which had rescued and raised him as an infant.

The trend emerges that Moshe’s staff was designated to perform wonders for Israel, while Aaron’s staff was designated to perform wonders against the Egyptians. So complementing this, when Israel stood at the shore of the Red Sea with Pharaoh and the remnants of the Egyptian army closing in on them, G-d told Moshe – not Aaron – to stretch forth his staff over the waters to split the sea for Israel (Exodus 14:15-16).

Likewise when battling Amalek, it was Moshe who stood “with the Staff of G-d in my hand” (Exodus 17:9).

There is an additional aspect, which goes to the core identity of Moshe and of Aaron. Moshe was the leader whose overriding characteristic was justice, whereas Aaron was the leader whose overriding characteristic was peace. “Hillel said: Be of the disciples of Aaron, loving peace and pursuing peace” (Pirkei Avot 1:12).

This was the contrast between Moshe and Aaron: “Moshe would say: Let the law [i.e. strict justice] pierce the mountain! Whereas Aaron loved peace and pursued peace, always bringing peace between man and his fellow” (Sanhedrin 6b).

Moshe kept the nation in line through justice, while Aaron kept them in line through peace and love of peace. “Aaron did not judge them; rather he would bring peace between man and his fellow” (Avot de-Rabbi Natan 25:1).

The Talmud and the Mdrashim are replete with stories of how Aaron would do anything for the sake of peace.

“Great is peace – for after all, Aaron the Kohen (Priest) was praised only for peace, because he loved peace and pursued peace” (Derech Eretz, Chapter on Peace 18).

 “Whenever Aaron would walk along the way and encounter an evil man, he would greet him with peace. If the next day that same man would consider committing any sin, he would say to himself: Woe is me! How will I be able to raise my eyes after doing this and look Aaron in the face?! I would be so ashamed before him, since he greeted me with peace! And consequently, that man would prevent himself from sinning” (Avot de-Rabbi Natan 12:3).

Therefore when it came to smiting the entire nation of Egypt, a truly evil nation, enemies of Israel, it was Aaron, the man of peace, who was the right man for the job, and not Moshe, the man of strict justice.

Moshe, with his all-powerful instinct for justice, was not the right man to bring plagues against the entire Egyptian nation: after all, what sin had the ordinary Egyptian civilian committed, that he deserved to be smitten with blood, frogs, or lice? Strict justice may have prevented the blanket condemnation of an entire nation.

As we noted above, when the Egyptian Army confronted Israel for the final time at the Red Sea, G-d told Moshe and not Aaron to stretch forth his staff over the waters to split the sea for Israel. Rescuing the Children of Israel from their Egyptian persecutors was eminently appropriate for Moshe, the man of strict justice. And similarly, releasing the waters and letting them crash back and drown the Egyptian soldiers was strict justice. After all, no innocent Egyptian was drowned in the Red Sea.

But it was Aaron, the supreme peacemaker, who had to bring the plagues upon the entire Egyptian nation – not only the persecutors, but on all Egyptians, guilty and innocent alike. It was specifically Aaron who could teach us the message: If you want peace, then you have to destroy the enemy of Israel – the entire nation, not just the specific soldiers who wield the swords, who spray the machine-gun bullets, who fly the fighter-planes; not just the leaders who give the orders; not just the few psychopaths who don the suicide belts, but the entire nation whose ambition is to exterminate Israel. That is the way to bring peace into the world – even, when necessary, when that entails suspending strict justice.