Toward the end of the Exodus story we read one line on Passover night, that does not strike us as unusual at first glance, especially to what might be an already hungry crowd eyeing the partially revealed matzah. But the line is hardly simple. The writers of the Haggadah cite the passage from Deuteronomy, that God redeemed us “with wondrous signs,” and say: “This refers to the staff.”
Really? The greatest display of God’s greatness in this world resides in — a staff? A skinny piece of lifeless wood? Isn’t it precisely such a magical and material conception of the Divine that the miracles of Mitzrayim are meant to negate? Is it not for this reason that Moses staff-turned-snake swallows those of Pharaoh’s magicians: to distinguish between the type of magic that resides in sticks and stones and the show of genuine and incomparable Divine power that was the Exodus? So why do the Haggadah authors identify God’s wondrous signs with an unrefined material object?
The Haggadah authors, I believe, are teaching something important, in the identification of God’s wondrous signs with Moses’ staff. This identification reminds us of the essential reality that sometimes it takes concrete tools to produce Divine results. Much of what we do in life may seem too concrete, to bring the Divine into our lives or the lives of others.
But the writers of the Haggadah remind us that this is far from the truth. If a wooden staff can make God manifest in this world, so can the hard work of our own hands. The tools of the plumber, the contractor, the dentist, the office manager — these are not instruments of daily monotony. These are the tools with which we are blessed to perform wondrous signs. The skills and experience we have worked hard to attain, these are the staffs with which we part great seas, bring the lifeless to life, and bring the heavenly down to earth. We must take a step back to see the tools of our daily jobs in this regard.
When God asks Moses at the beginning of the Exodus story, “What is that in your hands?” God already knows the answer. But he needs Moses to know the answer. He is asking Moses: “Do you understand how much potential for wonder and Godliness has been placed in your hands?”
God asks us all the same question regularly. He relies on us to answer the question in the affirmative and to use the staffs in our hands to bring the Divine into this world.