Korach | The Blossoming Staff of Aharon
Parashat Korach introduces us to Moshe and Aharon's infamous cousin, who seeks to unseat the two brothers from their positions of leadership. Blessed with a true demagogue's sense of timing, Korach steps into the fray in the immediate aftermath of the catastrophe of the Spies. The people of Israel, recently denied entry into the Promised Land, condemned instead to perish in the inhospitable wilderness, are seething with disappointment, and Korach quickly seizes upon that discontent to advance his own narrow and personal political aspirations. Claiming to represent the people's best interests, he gathers around himself a disgruntled kaleidoscope of malcontents, some of them upset at the election of the tribe of Levi in place of the firstborn, others distressed by Aharon's seemingly selfish cornering of the priesthood, and still others dissatisfied with Moshe's perceived ineffectiveness in averting God's wrath concerning the Spies.
Quickly, things come to a head. Korach and his cohorts promptly answer Moshe's challenge of the firepans, and two hundred and fifty of them are summarily incinerated by Divine fire. Datan and Aviram, two of Korach's most ardent supporters and Moshe's most bitter opponents, are miraculously consumed in a sudden earthquake that swallows them, their families, and all of their worldly possessions. The people of Israel, those who had thrown their support behind Korach and his men and now bemoan their unnatural demise, are stricken with plague, and many perish before Aharon arrests the death by supplicating God with an offering of incense.
THE SIGN OF THE BLOSSOMING STAFF
The people, however, still suspecting the brothers of nepotism, remain unconvinced of God's appointment of the tribe of Levi as His ministering servants and of Aharon as High Priest, and so He provides them with one more sign:
God spoke to Moshe saying: Speak to the people of Israel and take a staff from each of their tribal princes; these twelve staffs shall each be inscribed with their respective names. As for Aharon's name, inscribe it upon the staff of Levi, for there shall be only one staff for each chief of their clans. Deposit them in the Tent of Meeting, before the testimony where I meet with you. The staff of the man whom I have chosen will blossom, and thus will I bring an end to the complaints of the people of Israel who rail against you. Moshe spoke to the people of Israel and each one of their princes gave him a staff, one staff for each tribal prince, and Aharon's staff was among theirs. Moshe deposited the staffs before God in the Tent of Meeting. On the next day, Moshe entered the Tent of the Testimony and behold the staff of Aharon from the tribe of Levi had bloomed, it gave forth blossoms, and made flowers, and then produced young almonds. Moshe removed all of the staffs from before God's presence and brought them to the people of Israel, and each one saw his staff and took it (BeMidbar 17:16-24).
The reading of the above episode is straightforward enough. The people of Israel had questioned the veracity of the election of the tribe of Levi, and had ascribed it to Moshe's despotic whims rather then to Divine command. For similar reasons, they had doubted Aharon's appointment to the priesthood. The sign of the staffs was therefore meant to counter both of their reservations. On the one hand, it was the staff of the tribe of Levi that came to life. On the other hand, that very staff was inscribed with the name of Aharon (see commentary of the Ramban, 13th century Spain, to 17:17), thus affirming his appointment to the priesthood.
At the same time, the sign of the staffs does raise a number of queries. Why did God choose to reinforce Aharon's election with a display of blossoms? What is the significance of the drawn-out description of the flowering process ("…behold the staff of Aharon from the tribe of Levi had bloomed, it gave forth blossoms, and made flowers…")? Why, of all possible things, does the staff produce almonds?
THE INTERPRETATION OF RASHI
Rashi (11th century, France), while only addressing one of the above issues, posits that there was special significance about the fruit of the staff:
…and why did the staff produce almonds? Because it is the fruit that blossoms before all of the others. So too, one who criticizes the priesthood, his punishment is swift in coming. Thus we find concerning Uzziyahu (9th century King of Judea who attempted to usurp the role of the priesthood – see Divre HaYamim 2:26:16-20) that the verse states that: "the tzara'at suddenly shone upon his forehead…."
Rashi correctly surmises that the sign of the almonds is a metaphor for haste. Of all of the fruit-bearing trees that are prevalent in the lands of the east, the almond is first to bloom. The cold and wet rainy season has not yet come to an end in the land of Israel when its bright white blossoms suddenly appear towards the end of January or the beginning of February (roughly corresponding to the Hebrew month of Shevat). While there are typically five months or so that elapse between the first appearance of the almond blossoms and the final ripening of the nuts, in the fertile environs of the Tent of Meeting, the process was vastly accelerated: "On the next day, Moshe entered the Tent of the Testimony and behold the staff of Aharon from the tribe of Levi had bloomed, it gave forth blossoms, and made flowers, and then produced young almonds." In other words, the haste here is twofold. On the one hand, the staff of Aharon produces almonds, in and of themselves powerful symbols of suddenness and speed. On the other hand, the staff does so overnight, further reinforcing the theme of alacrity.
Therefore, what had appeared initially as a drawn-out and unnecessary description of the blossoming process is now revealed to be another emphatic note of speed. When the verse indicates that "behold the staff of Aharon from the tribe of Levi had bloomed, it gave forth blossoms, and made flowers, and then produced young almonds," it is not simply tracing the well-documented botanical process for us, but actually highlighting the fact that all of the steps that incrementally transpire from the first appearance of the blossom until the final completion of the fruit were here wondrously accelerated. Taken together, though, Rashi reads in the episode not only a straightforward statement of miraculous speed, but a threatening note of caution as well: those that rise up against the priesthood and deny the ascendancy of Aharon and his descendents risk not only eventual retribution, but swift and severe doom.
THE THEME OF SWIFT RETRIBUTION
It is instructive to note that Rashi's identification of the almond blossoms with the theme of haste can now be understood as informing the larger context as a whole. Considering the rebellion episode in its entirety, we now note that the theme of haste seems to underlie it from beginning to end. Thus, while Korach quickly gathers followers and rallies the people against Moshe and Aharon, Moshe just as quickly responds: "Thus shall you do: Korach and his assembly shall take firepans. Place fire in them and incense upon them and present yourselves before God TOMORROW, and the one whom God shall choose shall be deemed holy…" (16:6-7). When Korach and his men prepare on the morrow and gather a threatening throng, God bids Moshe and Aharon to separate themselves from them: "for I shall destroy them IN AN INSTANT!" (16:21). Although the brothers forestall God's wrath, it soon remanifests itself in the form of the sudden earthquake that consumes Datan and Aviram without a trace, "AS SOON AS HE (MOSHE) FINISHED HIS WORDS…" (16:31). Again, when the congregation of Israel bitterly bemoans the fate of Korach and his people, God's threat is repeated, this time with more sinister consequences: "God spoke to Moshe saying: separate yourselves from this congregation for I will destroy them IN AN INSTANT!" Quickly, Moshe bids Aharon to take his own firepan and to offer supplicatory incense before God to stave off the destroyer: "take the firepan and place fire and incense upon it, and RUN QUICKLY to the congregation to atone for them…" (17:11). Aharon does as Moshe commands him, for "he RAN to the midst of the congregation…" (17:12). Finally, the matter is conclusively decided by the speedy sign of the staffs as discussed above.
It is as if Korach's attempts to quickly and irreversibly whip up the people's frenzy to depose Moshe and Aharon are an initiative that he undertakes fully aware that time is not on his side. Students of history recognize that rebellions and coups are most successful when they are swift and unexpected. The end of many a provocateur has been spelled by their hesitation at the moment of destiny, thus granting the ruling power the time that it needs to respond and then to regroup, to muster its usually superior (but often more cumbersome) forces and then to decisively react. Here, however, it is God who meets Korach's challenge, by repeatedly insisting upon a quick resolution of the conflict. In this way, the Torah indicates that God will intervene to protect His chosen ones, Moshe and Aharon, and will not suffer the abuse of His selected servants.
ANOTHER EXAMPLE OF THE ALMOND BLOSSOM
Significantly, the "shekedim' or almonds of our passage, also occur elsewhere as symbols of haste, as well as of Divine retribution. The prophet Yirmiyahu, who was active during the final decades of the First Temple, was invested into his mission with a startling vision:
God's word came to me saying: "before you were formed in the womb I already knew you, and before you were born I already selected you, for as a prophet to the peoples I have destined you." I said: "Woe, Almighty God, behold I know not how to speak, for I am but a lad!" But God said to me: "do not say that 'I am a lad' for wherever I shall send you, you shall go, and whatever I command you, you shall speak"…God's word came to me saying: "what do you see Yirmiyahu?," and I responded "I see a staff blossoming with almonds." God said to me: "you see well, for I am determined ("shoked") to soon fulfill My word…for from the north shall the evil soon break forth upon all of the inhabitants of the land!" (Yirmiyahu 1:4-14).
In the prophet's revelation, God's resolve to soon bring an end to the Kingdom of Judea at the hands of the Babylonians ("the north") is signified by the appearance of the blossoming almond staff. For Rashi at least, there is no doubt that this vision was inspired by the episode of our Parasha, in which the blooming almonds indicated that God meant business. While in their natural surroundings, almond trees are greeted as welcome harbingers of the springtime, here they have metamorphosed into more ominous heralds.
THE VERB FORM
Additionally, the passage from Yirmiyahu demonstrates another dimension of the matter. We note how the almond staff ("ShaKeD") of the vision, a typical NOUN by grammatical standards, becomes a VERB in God's response: "I am determined ("ShoKeD")…." In fact, the verb form that was inspired by the almond blossom carries elsewhere as well the meaning of fortitude, resolve, and tenacity, and just as often in a positive light:
Therefore, a lion from the forest has struck them down, a wolf of the valley has robbed them, a leopard watches over ("shoked") their cities to tear any who venture forth, for their iniquities are great and their backslidings massive (Yirmiyahu 5:6).
Just as I watched over them ("shakadeti") to uproot and to knock down, to destroy, to demolish and to afflict, so too I will now watch over them ("eshkod") to build and to plant, says God (Yirmiyahu 31:27).
A song of ascents by Shelomo: if God will not build a House, then its builders have labored in vain, if God will not watch over the city, then its guards stay alert ("shakad") in vain…(Tehillim 127:1).
Happy is the man who hearkens to Me, to daily stand with resolve ("lishkod") at My gates, to wait at the posts of My doors (Mishlei 8:34).
THE READING OF CHIZKUNI
In light of the above, there is another way. As Chizkuni (13th century, France) perceptively explains, the blossoming almond staff signified that "from him (Aharon) young priests ("pirchei kehuna") would emerge, from him would descend priests who would wear the crown of the holy headband ("tzitz"), from him would issue priests who would perform their service with resolve (shokdim)…" (commentary to 17:23). In contrast to Rashi, therefore, who saw in the symbol of the almond staff intimations of impending destruction for all who would oppose the priesthood, the Chizkuni succeeds in interpreting the matter in accordance with its more organic optimism. The various stages of blooming that the Torah describes – "perach" (flowering), "tzitz" (blooming), and "shekedim" (almond fruit) – are connected with their priestly analogs. Thus in Rabbinic literature, the young apprentice priests are called "pirchei kehuna," the holy headband of the High Priest is referred to by the Torah as the "tzitz" (see Shemot 28:36), and the loving resolve that is often indicated by the verb "ShaKeD" is associated with their loyal and dedicated service in the Mishkan. In other words, Chizkuni detects in the entire episode not a warning to the opponents of the priesthood but rather a positive charge to its members to perform their service with determination and love.
Perhaps, both views can be harmonized. There is, of course, a duality associated with the respect due to Aharon and his descendents, and by extension to all those who labor in God's service. On the one hand, as God's ministers, they are to be respected and appreciated. Those that would oppose them must in turn be opposed. But on the other hand, that respect is not an entitlement that must be extended even in situations when it is so obviously undeserved. Those who outwardly align themselves with all that is holy and upright, demanding the respect due to their august position but themselves failing to internalize and to uphold its Divinely inspired dignity, are not God's dedicated ministers but rather only hollow and empty pretenders. Moshe and Aharon merit God's swift and determined support because they themselves embody that very same resolve to serve God and Israel with utter dedication. And those are the qualities that no Korach can ever challenge.