Extending Hashem’s Hand in the World
מַטֶּה: tribe, branch
נוֹטֶה: to lean, to stretch out from, to deviate
וַיְדַבֵּר מֹשֶׁה אֶל רָאשֵׁי הַמַּטּוֹת לִבְנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל לֵאמֹר זֶה הַדָּבָר אֲשֶׁר צִוָּה ה’
And Moshe spoke to the heads of the tribes, to the Bnei Yisrael saying, “This is the thing that Hashem has commanded.”
מַטֶּה: Tribe, Branch
In the concept of a family tree, children are represented by branches that branch out from the tree. In Derech Hashem, it describes the seventy nations as each having its own tree, with Avraham having his own separate tree. Yitzchak continued in the ways of Avraham, unearthing the wells that his father dug, which were blocked up by the Pelishtim, and making a similar pact with the seven wells at Be’er Sheva. In a way, then, Yitzchak was a continuation of the trunk of Avraham’s tree. It is not until Yaakov that we see the tree branching out. It was Yaakov, who was victorious over the angel of Eisav and who merited the additional name Yisrael. He was the pioneer, the one to branch out in the world and overcome the crooked Lavan and the murderous Eisav. It was Yaakov, now Yisrael, who gave birth to the Bnei Yisrael. The twelve tribes were each worthy to be a branch of their father’s tree, whereas Yishmael, Eisav, and the sons of Ketores never took on the attributes of their father Avraham.
A מַטֶּה/stick first starts off as a shoot, shooting out from the tree, soft and pliable. Over the years it hardens and thickens until it becomes solid like the trunk. Yisrael is compared to many trees: the גֶפֶּן/vine, the זַיִת/olive, and the דֶקֶל/palm. The tree of Yisrael is almost complete. After many successive generations of branching out and branching out, the tree has almost come to fruition.
The stick that Moshe held in his hand was called the מַטֶּה. It was the very same stick that was handed down from Adam to Noach, then to Chanoch, Shem, Avraham, Yitzchak, Yaakov, and Yosef. When Yosef died, it ended up in the house of Pharaoh and was snatched by Yisro when he fled from Pharaoh, to then be planted in Yisro’s garden. Yisro commited to give his daughter Tzipporah as a wife to whoever would dislodge the stick from the ground. Due to its heavy weight (forty saah, equivalent to more than half a ton!) it was unable to be dislodged, until Moshe came along, read the Hebrew inscription on the stick, and took it out with ease. Through this action, Yisro recognized that Moshe was special and would be the redeemer of Israel. Does this story sound familiar? Yes, this is the most likely source for the legend of King Arthur!
We are told that this was no ordinary stick. It was made from sapphire, the same material as the כִּסֵא הַכָּבוֹד/Hashem’s throne. The ineffable name of Hashem and the initials of the ten plagues were engraved on it. It was used in Egypt by Moshe as a sign to impress upon the Egyptians, the world leaders in sorcery, to show that their gods were no match for the real thing. When Moshe and Aharon first went to the house of Pharaoh, they went with the stick in hand, which when thrown to the ground turned into a snake. Pharaoh and his whole house laughed at them and told them that they had brought their goods to an overstocked market (the original coals to Newcastle). The Egyptians then summoned their children to bring in their own sticks, which they also turned into snakes. “On the contrary,” Moshe and Aharon replied, “only by bringing your goods to the competition can you show their superior quality,” upon which their stick proceeded to swallow up all of the Egyptians’ sticks.
נוֹטֶּה: To Lean, To Stretch Out From, To Deviate
What is it about the stick that, when in the hand of Moshe Rabbeinu, it had the power to inflict plagues upon Egypt and split the Red Sea, while on the other hand could turn into a snake? The snake represents the original נָחָשׁ/snake, the Satan, the root of evil. The stick is called a מַטֶּה from the word נוֹטֶּה/to stretch out and to deviate, as it represents a bending away from the tree. For the duration of one’s travels on a straight road, one can always look back and see one’s point of origin; it is impossible to get lost. However, once one veers around a bend, one can no longer see where he has come from. Sometimes, when we look back at our life’s journey, we only see the fork in the road. When we have lost our point of origin, we can forget who we are and be tricked into thinking that we are something else. This is the other side of the מַטֶּה, the נָחָשׁ/snake that tries to deceive us into thinking that we have all evolved from our origin at the Big Bang, because that is as far back as we can see. Like goldfish who are unable to perceive anything else outside of their bowl, so too we can be blind to the bigger picture, i.e., that Hashem is the source of Creation, and that Creation was just a bending of Hashem’s light into a new world where “we” are able to exist — a bit like how light refracts as it enters water and how a stick looks bent even though it is really straight.
The Midrash says that the מַטֶּה came from the Tree of Knowledge of good and bad, so it had a mixture of good and evil, and for this reason it could be both a מַטֶּה/stick and a נָחָשׁ/snake. Just like we see that the מַטֶּה/stick in the clutches of evil is represented by a נָחָשׁ/snake, so too in the clutches of good it is represented by sapphire (the spiritual, crystal-clear tree of the Eitz Hada’as). In its neutral state, it is just a piece of wood.
Hashem gives us the Torah, the Tree of Life, in order to broaden our restricted perspective of the world, to have the ability to see around corners, and to perceive the inner reality: that we are all just branches of the same tree.
Hence, the stick has the power to be both good and evil, all depending on whose hand it is in.
A bed is something we lie down on, something we stretch out on, something that is low to the ground. We are carried to the grave on a מִטָּה, and we are lowered into the ground לְמַטָּה on this מִטָּה.
Compared to the celestial upper world of stars and angels, we live in the lower world. The purpose of the Tree of Israel is to draw down the spiritual light of Hashem into the lower sphere and to illuminate it. Unlike a physical tree, which has its roots in the adamah and whose branches branch out toward the heavens, the spiritual tree has its roots in Heaven and its branches branch out לְמַטָּה /below (מַטּוֹת לְמַטָּה). This symbolizes the spreading of Hashem’s light into the world. This branching out of Hashem’s light is also symbolized by the Menorah. We live in an upside down world. The images we see through our eyes as they reach the back of our retinas are upside down before our minds flip everything the other way around in order to make sense of what we see.
The twelve מַטּוֹת/tribes correspond to the twelve constellations of the zodiac, which correspond to the twelve months. Through these constellations Hashem interacts with the world. These are the mediums, the channels that allow Hashem’s hashgachah/Divine Providence to flow into the world. They are also known as the mazalos, meaning “flows.” Hashem influences the world via these twelve constellations, and, likewise, the world is influenced by the Jewish People. The star worshippers are therefore the ones who do business with the middle-man, whereas we go straight to the Source. No surprise — that’s the way Jews do business!
We live in an upside down world. We think that just like a tree is sustained through its roots, drawing in water and nutrients from its physical surroundings, so too what we put into our physical lives is what we get back. But this reality deceives us, because what we see is only a limited, restricted view of reality. As we see from above, this is not true when we see things from the expanded viewpoint of the spiritual realm, where the tree has its roots in Shamayim where it is sustained from. A physical tree is really sustained from above. In Heaven, it has already been decreed how much water it will receive, how much of the sun’s rays it will receive, the quality and quantity of the fruits it will produce, whether there will be a drought, or a strong wind will uproot it, or whether it will stay healthy. So too with us, it has already been decided from above if we will be rich or poor, wise or stupid, tall or short, since all these factors have already been decided when we were mere embryos, forty days after our conception!
We all have נְטִיוֹת/biases that cause us to lean in certain directions, and these depend on our upbringing, education, family dynamics, circle of friends, religious beliefs, and personality, to name a few. Yet no one is the same; we all have a different take on life, a different way of perceiving the world. This is the difference between subjective and objective truth.
If I want to make a decision in life about which school my child should go to, how do I go about making sure that the correct decision has been made? If I make the decision based on my own biases, then the decision becomes subjective, as in, I am the subject of the one making the decision. If I truly want to have an objective decision, I have to take myself out of the picture, the “me” who sees life from a certain vantage point and whose seeing is limited to my position. How do I take “me” out of the picture? Should I flip a coin and leave it to chance? Certainly not — that would be avoiding the decision altogether. Hashem created us with the gift of בְּחִירָה/the ability to choose, and by definition we are the sum total of the decisions we make.
For this reason, Pirkei Avos says to “acquire for yourself a friend.” By involving more people in the decision, one broadens the perspective opinions. One starts to see how things look from a different point of view, which could never have been seen from one’s own subjective viewpoint. With a more expansive horizon, one is better equipped to make an objective decision.
A higher level of decision making is allowing Hashem to make the decision for us. In the times of the Beis HaMikdash, certain questions of national importance were asked to the Urim v’Tumim, twelve precious stones on the Kohen Gadol’s breastplate that would light up, each stone with its own set of letters, and according to the sequence of the lighting up of the stones, the answer to the question would be spelled out. On a more individual level, one would ask the navi who had ruach hakodesh. Nowadays, when we don’t have the ability to inquire of the nevi’im or the Urim v’Tumim, our next best advisor is our rabbi. A different Mishnah in Pirkei Avos says to “make for yourself a rav and remove yourself from any doubt.” Obviously we don’t just ask any old rabbi, since the Mishnah specifically said to make for yourself a rav, meaning that everyone should choose someone he respects, someone he follows, and someone who knows him intimately. Just like a parent knows what’s best for his child, so too the rabbi, who has greater wisdom and who is more in touch with Hashem, knows better than we do. By doing what the mishnah advises, we are expanding our horizons and going beyond ourselves. By putting our trust in our rabbi, we are really putting our trust in Hashem, and in reality He is the one speaking to us through the mouth of the rav.
A key way to remove “me” from the picture is to daven to Hashem. In our requests to Hashem, we acknowledge that we are too limited to make the decision on our own and thus request from Hashem help to be guided to make the correct decision.
Sometimes, certain decisions are out of our control. We might have made the decision to apply to a particular school, but the ultimate decision comes from the school itself. For instance, the school might already be fully registered, or they may decide that one falls short of the school’s standards. In those cases, we trust in Hashem that He is making the decision for us. If the child is accepted, it is Hashem who accepted him, and if not, then it is also Hashem Who has decided that this is not the best place for us.
Giving up our individual right to choose and leaving it up to a higher power is also making a choice. This is the choice that was given to Adam HaRishon. He ended up making the wrong choice. Hashem gave Adam a choice and a command not to eat from the Tree of Knowledge of good and evil. Adam had a choice to follow the command or not. Adam thought that it would be a far greater test and even a kiddush Hashem to eat from the Tree of Knowledge and cause evil to enter his very being and then triumph over the evil, than to just follow a simple command.
This was the wrong decision, because it involved the “me”; it was a subjective decision involving his own נְטִּיוֹת/biases of what he thought was best.
What comes out from all this is that we are trying to navigate our way through life in a straight and upstanding way. Even though we have been divided into tribes and have thus branched away from the tree — where we can now easily deviate from the true path — our task is to not lose sight of our point of origin. Choose the straight path, as the Rambam calls it, and in this way we will truly exemplify the בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל, the people who are יָשָׁר אֵ-ל/straight to G-d. And this is what we really mean when we wish someone יָשָׁר כּוֹחַ (sh’koach).
הַמַעַשֶׁה בֵּין יְהוּדָה וְתָּמָר: The Case of Yehudah and Tamar
וַיֵּט אֵלֶיהָ אֶל הַדֶּרֶךְ. וְרַשִׁ”י אָמַר: מִדֶרֶך שֶׁהָיָה בָּה נָטָה
Yehudah] turned to[ward] her [on the] path. Rashi says that by going toward her, he deviated from the way.
We are called “Jews” after יְהוּדָה/Judah. Although he deviated from the path, he was able to recognize where he had gone wrong and was able to correct his deviance and return to the straight path.
The מַעַשֶׂה of Yehudah and Tamar is discussed in the Gemara in Sotah where, appropriately, the סוֹטֶה/Sotah woman is defined as someone who has deviated and who causes others to deviate from the path, as it says, אַל יֵשְׂטְ אֶל דְּרָכֶיהָ לִבֶּךָ אַל תֵּתַע בִּנְתִיבוֹתֶיהָ/do not turn in the ways of your heart and do not stray in its ways, which means: do not let your heart cause you to turn to the way that leads to the house of ill-repute, and do not stray from the straight road to go in its ways.
Tamar, in desperation, posed as a prostitute in order to entice Yehudah to have relations, which she knew from ruach hakodesh would bear the royal lineage of Mashiach and Beis David. One of the items given as a guarantee for payment was the שֶׁבֶט/the tribal staff of Yehudah. When it was found out that Tamar had become pregnant, bringing shame to the royal house of Yehudah, she was placed under penalty of death. Rather than disgrace Yehudah publicly, Tamar discretely returned the guarantee of their courtship. Yehudah immediately recognized the staff and admitted the error of his ways, especially because the מַטֶּה was symbolic of his deviance from the straight path.
This was the gadlus/greatness of Yehudah, who could easily have covered up his ways by proceeding with the death sentence of Tamar but instead humbled himself and ruled over his yetzer hara. This is real kingship, and this is the nature of the Jew.
The Gemara in Sotah ends with a description of the עִקְבְתָא דִּמְשִׁיחָא /footsteps of the Mashiach, which quite aptly describes the generation we are in now. We are literally at the endgame, and the footsteps of the Mashiach are approaching. We are living the חֶבְלֵי הַמָשִׁיחַ/ birth pangs of Mashiach, where the whole world is against us, and it is at this point the mishnah declares: עַל מִי לָנוּ לְהִשְׁעֹן/who can we lean on? עַל אָבִינוּ שֶׁבַּשָׁמַיִם/on our Father in Heaven.
The מַטּוֹת are also known as שְׁבָטִים, where שֶׁבֶט means a staff, a scepter, a symbol of leadership, since the leader of each tribe had his own staff. A staff is also found in the hands of the shepherd who leads his flock. In the hands of the elderly, it is a support, a מִשְׁעֹן/something to lean on. So too a מִטָּה/bed supports our body. In Tehillim it says: אַל יִתֵּן לַמוֹט רַגְלֶךָ/[Hashem] will not cause our legs to falter. Hashem is our support.
Man is compared to a tree, כִּי הָאָדָם עֵץ הַשָֹּׂדֶה, so in order to branch out we must be firmly rooted. Without a solid foundation, our branches have no support system, and our tree will be uprooted.
Hashem took us out of Egypt with a יַד הַחָזָקָה/mighty hand, symbolized by aבִּזְרוֹעַ נְטוּיָה/outstretched arm. The מַטֶּה is an extension of the hand; so too, when we are firmly rooted in the world, we personify the מַטוֹת/tribes of Hashem, where we are in effect an extension of Hashem’s hand in the world. In this way, when we allow Hashem to be our support, we in turn become His supporters. To all who trust in Hashem, Hashem will be their trust.
But if we are not rooted in the world, then we cannot extend ourselves, for the tree will fall over. The stick, instead of being a support, becomes a נָחָשׁ/snake, which causes us to deviate and יָנוּס/flee in sheer terror, and instead life is a scary place full of fears.
The sapphire-like quality of the מַטֶּה signifies its ability to give us crystal-clear clarity, which can only be achieved by taking the “me” out of the way. When we choose a life free of נְטִיָה/bias, where we extend our point of reference to encompass friends and rabbis, then we will have greater clarity and awareness of Hashem, which in turn will empower us to want to be Hashem’s emissary and ambassador in the world, to be a מַטֶּה ה’. These are the מַטּוֹת of Hashem who are a living extension of Hashem’s hand.
1 Bamidbar 30:2.
2 Pirkei D’Rebbe Eliezer 40.
3 See Rashi to Shemos 7:22.
4 For further reading, see “The Root of Evil,” in Rabbi Akiva Tatz’s Living Inspired (New York: Feldheim Publishers).
5 Pesachim 50a.
6 Shemos Rabbah 15:6. See also Ramchal, Derech Hashem, 2:4.
7 Sotah 2a.
8 Avos 1:6.
9 Ibid., 1:16.
10 Mishneh Torah, De’os 1:3
11 Bereishis 38:16.
12 Mishlei 7:25.
13 Metzudas Dovid on Mishlei ibid.
14 Bereishis 49:10.
15 Tehillim 121:3.