Freeing the Staff

Double Mitzvah Jewrotica Parsha

Written by Sender Rozesz. Sender Rozesz is a practicing attorney with a background in Jewish pluralistic education for adults. Sender Rozesz is Jewrotica’s resident Double Mitzvah columnist. The views reflected in his writing represent his own personal views, and are not intended to reflect the views of any organizations, institutes or associations with whom he may be affiliated.

Rated PG

Um, no pun intended by the title; the “staff” that I refer to is not of the directly phallic variety.

All are familiar with the famous story of King Arthur and his sword, Excalibur. As told in Robert de Boron’s Merlin, the story involves a legend that only “the true king” of Great Britain would be capable of pulling Excalibur from the stone in which it had been magically embedded. Many tried and failed. However, when Arthur successfully freed the sword from its rocky sheath, all accepted that he was their divinely-appointed king.

The origins of this bit of folklore, however, are far more romantic — and come from this week’s Parshah, Shemot.

In the second part of this week’s Parshah, Moses, the erstwhile prince of Egypt, has been forced to escape his execution by Pharaoh. Most commentaries place Moses’ age when he left Egypt as 18. We know from the biblical text in next week’s Parshah that Moses was 80 years old when he returned to Egypt to liberate the Hebrews.[1]

So he spends some 62 years outside of Egypt, during which time he changes from a boy into the man that all of history would come to know. We have touched upon some of the events that transpired during these years here.

At some point, however, Moses ends up in Midian. There, he visits the local well, where he encounters the seven daughters of Jethro, the Chief of Midian. Jethro may be the chief, but when Moses arrives, Jethro has been excommunicated from the community, due to his having disavowed idol worship. Thus, Moses finds Jethro’s daughters being harassed by the local shepherds as they try to draw water for their father’s flock of sheep. Moses immediately comes to their defense, protects them from the shepherds, and waters their sheep. When they report these events to Jethro, Jethro invites Moses to stay with him for a time.

That is how Moses first met Jethro’s most beautiful daughter, Tzipporah.

Later on in the Parshah, we are introduced to Moses’ famous staff.[2]

This was no ordinary staff. The Midrash[3] tells us that Moses’ staff was made out of pure sapphire, and was one of the few items that G-d himself created during twilight on the very first Friday evening. Adam received it whilst still in the Garden of Eden. When he died, he passed it down to Chanoch, who in turn passed it to Noah’s son, Shem, who gave it to Abraham. Abraham bequeathed it to Isaac, Isaac to Jacob, and Jacob brought it with him when he emigrated to Egypt. When he died, he willed it to Joseph. When Joseph died, however, Pharaoh appropriated all of Joseph’s possessions, and so the sapphire staff came to be in Pharaoh’s hands.

At the time, Jethro was one of Pharaoh’s chief advisors, yet he greatly coveted this staff which, beyond the sapphire, appeared to be a staff of destiny. When Jethro left Egypt, he spirited the staff out of Pharaoh’s palace and took it with him. During his time in Egypt, Jethro became a master of the occult, and so when he arrived in Midian, he was far more powerful than any of the other priests or chieftains, and it wasn’t long before he was appointed Chief of Midian.

At that point, using his powers of the occult, he planted the staff in the middle of his garden in such a way that nobody would be able to uproot it. And he made a promise: any man who could pull the staff out of the ground would be given Jethro’s most beautiful daughter, Tzipporah, as a wife. Many of the strongest men in the realm tried to free the staff, but none were able.

One day, Moses was walking through the garden when he saw the staff, and he noticed that there were Hebrew letters engraved on its side. He pulled the staff out to have a closer look, and recognized one of G-d’s mystical names. When he brought the staff to Jethro to ask about it, Jethro recognized that this was no ordinary man: not only was he able to uproot the staff, but he even recognized the writing on it. Jethro enthusiastically kept his promise and gave his daughter Tzipporah to Moses as a wife.[4]

There are a couple of other elements of Moses’ first encounter with Tzipporah that are worth mentioning.

Eliezer — Abraham’s servant, as an agent for Isaac — encountered Rebecca at the well. Jacob encountered Rachel at the well. Moses encountered Tzipporah at the well.

In the case of Rachel and Tzipporah, who were both at the well for the purpose of watering their flock, commentaries note how odd it was that the task of shepherding would be delegated to daughters and not to sons. (This would be an offensive observation today, but remember — this was long before the rise of feminism in the 1900s.) From this they conclude that neither Laban nor Jethro had any sons; and that the social ramifications of Jethro’s excommunication were such that he could not even hire male shepherds to tend his flocks.

Eliezer, Jacob and Moses each made a beeline for the well. In Eliezer’s case, the well that he approached was the one to which “maidens go out to draw water.”[5] Thus, this well may simply have been like the water cooler in an office: a social center of sorts, and the portal through which someone observed and entered a new city. This might be true of Jacob and Moses as well, although it seems less likely that the male shepherds would water their flocks at the same well and time at which the young maidens would draw water for dinner. Moreover, Eliezer was actively looking for a “maiden,” as a wife for Isaac. There is no indication that Jacob and Moses, on the other hand, were actively seeking a wife at the well. Jacob was gathering information about his uncle Laban, and Moses may simply have wished to be near a source of water; they probably did not even expect to find any woman at the well.

Yet, somehow, providence led to three of our most famous biblical couples meeting at a well; clearly, whether intended or not, the well is a romantic focal point. In fact, other than shepherding, the primary occupation of our biblical Patriarchs was digging wells. Abraham dug wells. Isaac dug wells.

Does it have to do with, as we discussed here and here, the life-giving quality of water? Does it have to do with the inherent nature of wells, which is to mine and uncover the life and pleasure that already exists, buried deep inside?

The prominence of wells in the biblical dating scene certainly warrants some thought.

Shabbat Shalom!



[1] Exodus, 7:7.

[2] Exodus, 4:2.

[3] See Pirkei D’Rabbi Eliezer; Targum Yonatan; Sefer HaYashar; and Yalkut Shimoni.

[4] Another Midrash states that when Moses first arrived in Midian, Jethro imprisoned him, and ordered that he not be given any food or water. Despite these instructions, Tzipporah secretly brought Moses food and water every day. After several years, Tzipporah suggested that her father check on Moses. When Jethro discovered that Moses was still alive and in good health, he was so impressed that he released and honored him. This account would provide some additional context for Moses’ acceptance of Jethro’s offer that he marry Tzipporah — he owed her his life.

[5] Genesis, 24:11.