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Korach 5770-2010

“And Behold the Staff of Aaron had Blossomed”

by Rabbi Ephraim Z. Buchwald

The rebellion of Korach, about which we read in this coming week’s parasha, parashat Korach, ends in great tragedy for Korach and his cohorts when the earth swallows them up. The 250 men who improperly offered incense also meet an untimely end when they are consumed by a heavenly fire.

Despite this intimidating display of Divine wrath, the very next day, the Children of Israel complain against Moses and Aaron, saying, Numbers 17:6: “Ah’tem hah’mee’tem et ahm Hashem,” You have killed the people of G-d! A plague breaks out, killing 14,700 Israelites before Aaron runs into the midst of the plague with an incense filled fire-pan, forestalling further calamity.

At this point, G-d tells Moses that all tribal princes are to take their staffs, inscribe their names on the staff, inscribe the name of Aaron on the staff of Levi, and place the staffs inside the Tent of Meeting before the holy Ark. G-d tells Moses, Numbers 17:20: “V’hah’yah hah’eesh ah’sher ev’char bo–-mah’tay’hoo yif’rach,” And it shall be that the man whom I shall choose, his staff shall blossom. This, says G-d, will stop the complaints of the Children of Israel against you and Aaron.

Moses places the twelve staffs in the Tabernacle. The very next day, when the staffs are removed, they discover that the staff of Aaron of the house of Levi has blossomed, sprouting a bud with ripened almonds.

The Torah informs us that the staff of Aaron was returned to the Tabernacle for safekeeping, to serve as a sign to prevent future rebellion.

Yehudah Nachshoni (popular Israeli parasha commentator), in his reflections on the weekly Torah portions, notes that the commentators are troubled by the new sign that G-d employs to prove Aaron’s leadership. What is the point of the staff that blossoms? After all, there have already been three very definitive proofs confirming the leadership of Moses and Aaron: 1) Korach and his cohorts were swallowed by the earth, 2) those who brought incense were consumed by a heavenly fire, 3) 14,700 men died in the plague. Who else was there left to convince by the blossoming of the staff? What will this sign prove that the previous signs have not? After all this, how can G-d say, Numbers 17:20: That [with the sign of the staffs] I will cause to subside from upon me the complaints of the children of Israel which they complained against you?

The Ohr HaChaim (commentary on the Pentateuch by the famed Kabbalist and Talmudic scholar R’ Chaim Ibn Attar, 1696-1743) suggests that even after the death of Korach, the people doubted Aaron’s right to the priesthood. Although the people agreed that Korach deserved to die because he rebelled against Moses, his death did not in any way confirm that Aaron was entitled to be the High Priest.

The Ramban, Nachmanides (Rabbi Moshe ben Nachman, 1194-1270, Spanish Torah commentator), maintains that the issue was not the priesthood. In fact, the people had been convinced that Aaron was indeed entitled to be High Priest. They were, however, unconvinced that the Levites should serve as ministers in the Temple in place of the first-born. The blossoming staff of Aaron, representing the tribe of Levi, confirmed, once-and-for-all, that the Levites were to be the ministers, in place of the first-born.

Rabbi Ben-Zion Firer suggests two lessons that are taught by the blossoming staff. Rabbi Firer maintains that open miracles such as a staff blossoming, in general, do not effectively address an issue such as jealousy. Those who are caught up in jealousy, like Korach and his followers, are so emotionally invested that no miracle and no logic can sway them from their position. The miracle of the staff could, however, address the issues of those who honestly complained about the role of Aaron. Since those who questioned Aaron’s leadership did so sincerely, therefore, when the staff blossomed, their questions were addressed and they accepted Aaron’s leadership.

Rabbi Firer further points out that the staff, in this instance, does not represent a scepter of authority over others, but serves rather as an example of service to others. The other miracles that the People of Israel witnessed were signs of power and punishment. In general, weak people are not convinced of the righteousness of the powerful because of the strength of the powerful. Indeed, it is often a cause for greater resentment and desire for vengeance. The staff of Aaron, on the other hand, represents pleasantness and conciliation, which effectively persuades those who disagree with Aaron’s communal appointments to finally accept it.

It is important to note that, previously, in the time of Pharaoh (Exodus 7:12), the staff of Aaron had swallowed the staffs of his challengers. In this instance, however, Aaron does not wish to rule over the others. That is why the staff simply blossoms amidst the others and gently convinces the others of its exceptionalness. It is a staff of peace, tranquility, and brotherhood. In this gentle way, the people are convinced of Aaron’s suitability far more effectively than by power and punishment.

Rabbi Isaac Judah Trunk (d. 1939, Chief Rabbi of Kutno, Poland, author of Mikreh M’furash, a lively commentary on the Torah) points out that there are some candidates for leadership who, on the surface, seem to be appropriate and well qualified. But, as soon as they assume the reins of leadership, they rapidly lose their talents and their pleasantness. There are others, who, once they enter into the office of leadership, seem to blossom, and their talents, goodness and kindness grow. This is the symbolism that the blossoming staff is intended to convey. In order to lead the Al-mighty’s flock, Aaron and the future leaders of Israel must always grow in stature, talent and kindness, striving to become more perfect and effective leaders.

May you be blessed.