In Parashat Shemot, one of the most interesting conversations in the Torah takes place between Hashem and Moshe, concerning Moshe’s appointment as Hashem’s messenger for the Jewish people. Hashem has just offered Moshe the position only to have Moshe push back and claim that the Jews won't believe in him. At that point, the Pasuk informs us (BeReishit 4:2), “VaYomer Eilav Hashem, ‘Mah Zeh BeYadecha?’” “And Hashem asked Moshe, ‘What is that in your hand?’” The Torah continues, “VaYomer, ‘Mateh,’” “And Moshe said, ‘It’s a stick!’” At face value, it seems like quite a bizarre conversation. Doesn’t Hashem know what was in Moshe’s hand? What was Hashem truly asking Moshe?
The Malbim is bothered by this question, and points out that there are actually three words in Hebrew for a stick. One is ‘Makeil,’ which refers to a rod used to whip animals. The second is ‘Mishenet,’ a cane, which is used to lean on for support. The third is ‘Mateh,’ a staff, a symbol of authority like the scepter of a king.
Rabbi Dr. Norman Lamm, in a sermon delivered in January, 1961, elaborates on this Malbim. To paraphrase Rabbi Lamm’s words, the Malbim explains that these three forms of the stick - the Makeil, the Mishenet, and the Mateh - each represent a different model of leadership. The Makeil, or rod, is the symbol of the power-hungry leader who drives his people mercilessly. The Mishenet, or cane, represents the self-seeking, conniving parasite who leans on the public to serve their own personal needs. Lastly, there is the Mateh, which comes from the word ‘Noteh,’ to stretch forth - an allusion both to stretching one’s hands out to aid the people, and to point to new horizons, which represents the true, selfless leader. “Whereas the Makeil dictates, and the Mishenet exploits, the Mateh guides. Whereas the Makeil model fulfills a psychological desire for power and the Mishenet fulfills a desire for wealth and fame, the model of the Mateh satisfies not the needs of the leader, but those of the people.”
The Malbim understands the peculiar dialogue between Hashem and Moshe as a conversation about leadership. God turns to Moshe and asks, “What is that in your hand?... What kind of stick are you holding?” In essence, He was asking Moshe what kind of leader he would be. Would he lead with the rod, the cane, or perhaps the staff? Moshe was not a young man, so the imagery of the Mishenet, the cane, may be his staff of choice. Alternatively, Moshe was a shepherd, and therefore may be more comfortable using the staff of the Makeil, the rod used to keep animals in line.
In response to God’s question, Moshe answers: I am holding the Mateh. I am not power hungry, and I don’t have an appetite for personal gain. I will be the type of leader who will stretch forth his hand and extend myself to help others. I will be the type of leader who raises his staff to point towards new goals and greater achievements. I carry the Mateh!
With Moshe’s response comes an understanding that the leadership model of the Mateh, or of Neti’ah, extension, goes well beyond the reaches of his own outstretched fingers. For Moshe to be an effective leader, he must not only extend himself, but also learn to extend his constituents. He must urge the Jewish people to practice Neti’ah - to extend themselves beyond their measures. By pointing the people in the right direction, the Mateh leader strives to give the people a sense of purpose and destiny. As Moshe showed us throughout his lifetime, with that type of leadership, one can perform miracles! With such a perspective, one can forge a nation and free slaves. With the model of the Mateh, one can even lead a nation in the direction of the Promised Land.