An old man sat with his grandson by a campfire, staring into the dancing flames. With a sparkle in his eye, the old man looked at the young boy and began telling him a story. “There is a fight going on inside of me between two wolves. One is evil – he is anger, envy, sorrow, regret, greed, arrogance, self-pity, guilt, resentment, inferiority, lies, false pride, superiority, and ego. The other is good – he is joy, peace, love, hope, serenity, humility, kindness, benevolence, empathy, generosity, truth, compassion, and faith. The same fight is going on inside you – and inside every other person, too.” The grandson thought about it for a minute and then asked his grandfather: “Which wolf will win?” The old man fell silent, then replied, “The one you feed.” While this story might give you the chills, it also connects to a very important idea developed in this week’s parshah.
The Mateh: Good or Evil?
There is a deep principle in Jewish thought that the most fundamental aspects of Torah are expressed in the most deceptively simple manner. Our job is to delve into them, and see the inner depth behind them. There is probably no single object in the Torah that is more overlooked than Moshe’s mateh – his staff. It plays such a pivotal role in the story of Y’tzias Mitzrayim, and yet, how often do we ponder or talk about its nature? The mateh first appears at the s’neh – the burning bush – and turns into a snake. Once again, at Pharaoh’s court, the mateh turns into a snake. In Jewish thought, the snake represents the yeitzer ha’ra, evil, so it would appear as if the mateh represents evil. Yet, the mateh is also used to perform all the Makos in Mitzrayim (Sh’mos 4:17), as well as K’rias Yam Suf – the pinnacle of the Jews’ miraculous and transcendent experience. Furthermore, the Midrash explains that Hashem’s name was crystallized into the mateh itself. It therefore appears that the mateh is a very spiritual object, the exact opposite of the evil it seems to represent? So which is it?
Everything Is Potential
In order to understand this, we must first develop a fundamental principle. Nothing in the physical world is objectively good or evil. Rather, everything has the potential to be used for either good or evil. The choice is solely up to you! Electricity is neither good nor bad. An outlet can be used to charge your appliances, but it can also give you an electric shock. The same applies to money: It can be used to enable Torah learning, but it can also be used to fund destruction and chaos. A charismatic personality can be used to inspire others to grow or to seduce them down the wrong path. Everything in this world is merely potential, waiting to be used. Evil, therefore, is really the misuse of potential, when we choose to use an object for something other than its true purpose. Evil is the breakdown and corruption of good. This is why the Hebrew word for evil is ra, which means brokenness or fragmentation.
The reason why Hashem created the world in such a way is so that we can have free will. We get to choose whether to use things for their true purpose, actualizing their potential, or to misuse them, getting pulled into the clutches of evil.
The Highest Yearning, the Lowest Desire
The Gemara (Yoma 69b) gives an intriguing illustration of this principle. The Gemara describes the historic transition where prophecy ended. When the Anshei K’neses HaG’dolah tried to abolish the yeitzer ha’ra for avodah zarah (idol worship), the yeitzer ha’ra came flaming out of the Kodesh HaKodashim – the Holy of Holies! Why would the source of evil and corruption come from the highest and most transcendent place? We would expect it to emerge from underground, or erupt from a volcano! We can understand this peculiar location, based on the very idea we just developed. The root of evil is deeply connected to good. Evil is simply the misuse of the same energy that could, and should, be used for good. The evil desire for avodah zarah is a corruption of the spiritual desire to transcend and connect with Hashem. When correctly manifested, this desire is used for n’vuah (prophecy) – a deep experiential oneness with Hashem, the source of everything. When corrupted and used for avodah zarah, we take that same desire to transcend, but fail to trace ourselves back to the root source, Hashem Himself. [Why the Anshei K’neses HaG’dolah felt the need to destroy our desire for avodah zarah, which also caused the end of n’vuah, requires a much longer discussion.]
The Mateh: Potential for Good or Evil
Now we can begin to understand the mateh. It is neither good nor evil. What it will be is solely up to the one who holds it. It represents the nachash, the snake of evil, but it also represents Hashem and spirituality. When in the form of evil, it causes Moshe to run away in abject terror; but when in the form of good, it causes the world to witness the miracles of Hashem. Yet, we can develop this theme even further.
The Bent Path and the Straight Path
The Midrash compares Mitzrayim and the nachash to a “bent path,” while the mateh is a straight path. What do the concepts of bent and straight paths refer to?
Imagine you are walking down a path. Whenever you turn around, you can see where you came from. What if the path suddenly bends and takes a sharp turn? When you turn around, you can no longer see the origins of your journey. The same is true of the physical world we live in. Originally, the physical world loyally and perfectly reflected its spiritual root. When you looked around, you saw and experienced Hashem, and knew that He created the world; it was like looking back down a straight path. However, after Adam sinned, the entire world fell. The world became a bent path, whereby we can no longer see where we came from.
The nachash bends and slithers, representing a bent path, a world of evil and brokenness, where you can no longer see Hashem. The mateh represents a straight path, where you learn to trace yourself back to your source.
When Moshe first encounters Hashem, he is told to thrust the mateh to the ground, where it then transforms into a snake. When something is thrust to the ground, low and distant from its transcendent source, and misused, it becomes bent, it becomes evil. But when Moshe lifted it up, towards the sky, tracing it back to its source, straightening the bent path, it became a mateh, it became good.
Explaining Moshe’s Showdown with Pharaoh
We can use this deep explanation of the bent and straight path to understand Moshe and Aharon’s showdown with Pharaoh. The Midrash explains that when Moshe and Aharon turned their mateh into a snake in front of Pharaoh, he laughed. Not only did he proceed to do this himself, but he then brought his magicians to do it, and even brought his wife to do it. To really prove his point, he proceeded to bring the schoolchildren to do this, as well. Laughing at Moshe, he exclaims: “One who has goods to sell should take them to a market that is short on supply. You’ve brought your goods to an overstocked market.” In other words, we are not impressed. Moshe responds, “One who has the top-quality produce takes it to a well-stocked market, where the dealers are experts and will recognize the superior quality of the goods.” On that note, Aharon’s mateh swallows all the other snakes, once it already turned back into a mateh. The deep explanation behind this cryptic scene is not just that Moshe overcame Pharaoh and Mitzrayim. Remember, the Midrash explained that the snake and Mitzrayim represent the bent path. The mateh represents the straight path. It doesn’t say that Moshe and Aharon’s snake swallowed Pharaoh’s snakes; it says that their mateh swallowed their snakes! Meaning, the straight path overcame the bent path – good overcame evil.
Straightening the Bent Path
Everything in our world is potential that can be used for good or evil. The choice is yours. Just as those two wolves living inside of us, you get to choose which one you feed. The pull and temptation of desire can be overwhelming, but the beauty and oneness of truth must overcome, persevere, and prevail. We each get to choose who we become. Let’s be inspired to straighten the bent path, build clarity from confusion, oneness from brokenness, and bring the world to its ultimate destination!
Shmuel Reichman is an inspirational speaker and has spoken internationally at shuls, conferences, and Jewish communities. You can find more inspirational shiurim, videos, and articles from Shmuel on Facebook and Yutorah.org. For all questions, thoughts, or bookings, please email firstname.lastname@example.org.