The Lord spoke to Moses, saying: Speak to the Israelite people and take from them — from the chieftains of their ancestral houses — one staff for each chieftain … twelve staffs in all. Inscribe each man’s name on his staff… also inscribe Aaron’s name on the staff of Levi. Deposit them in the Tent of Meeting before the Pact, where I meet with you. The staff of the man whom I choose shall sprout, and I will rid Myself of the incessant mutterings of the Israelites against you…
Moses deposited the staffs before the Lord, in the Tent of the Pact. The next day Moses entered the Tent of the Pact, and there the staff of Aaron of the house of Levi had sprouted: it had brought forth sprouts, produced blossoms, and borne almonds. Moses then brought out all the staffs from before the Lord to all the Israelites; each identified and recovered his staff. (B’midbar 17:16-24)
Twelve staffs of chiseled wood, long since severed
from a living tree, lie inert and barren
before the Ark.
Early light shimmers on the burnished staves;
the dawn zephyr breathes through sacred stillness
and fragrance fills the air.
Aaron’s staff alone has blossomed; crowned
with pink-flushed blooms, as oval almonds dangle
from green and tender stalks.
In Parashat Korach, we see how this eponymous figure mobilises a rebellion against Moses and Aaron. Ultimately the rebels, their families and possessions are destroyed when the earth swallows them up. Subsequently God sends a fire which annihilates another 250 of their followers. One might suppose that such miraculous and dramatic occurrences would persuade the Israelites that Moses is their God-ordained leader and the revolt would be quelled! Not so. The next day, the entire community rails against Moses and Aaron that they have brought about the deaths of God’s people! God becomes angry and brings a plague which destroys 14,700 more people, while Aaron runs to offer incense to atone for the people and check the plague.
Then comes the miracle of Aaron’s staff and only then the rebellion subsides.
In an article in Covenant and Conversation, http://www.rabbisacks.org/covenant-conversation-5769-korach-a-lesson-in-conflict-resolution/, Rabbi Jonathan Sacks addresses the episode of Aaron’s staff which he believes holds a profound message. “The use of force never ends a conflict. It merely adds grievance to injury. Even the miracle of the ground opening up and swallowing his opponents did not secure for Moses the vindication he sought.
“What ended the conflict was something else altogether: the visible symbol that Aaron was the chosen vehicle of the G-d of life. The gentle miracle of the dead wood that came to life again, flowering and bearing fruit…”
On the phrase, “the staff of the man whom I choose shall sprout,” the Malbim says that the one whose staff sprouts is the one in whom God’s holy spirit rests, and who will bring forth holy fruit…
The medieval commentator Abrabanel links the phrase, “and it had borne almonds” to two verses in Jeremiah (1:11-12). Jeremiah has a vision and God asks him what he sees and he responds, “Makel shaked ani ro’eh – I see a rod of an almond tree.” God says, “Heitavta lir’ot ki shoked Ani al devari la’asoto – You have seen well, for I watch over My word to perform it.” The message of the vision is conveyed through the etymological connection between shaked – an almond tree and shoked (to be) watchful, diligent. Abrabanel denotes this as a sign that that Aaron’s descendants have been chosen to watch over the priesthood for all time.
In an article on the website of Yeshivat Birkat Moshe, http://www.ybm.org.il/hebrew/LessonArticle.aspx?item=3895, Rabbi Avraham Wolfson brings an insight into the episode of Korach’s rebellion.
He cites a Midrash which Rashi brings, in which the sages attribute to Korach a complaint which does not appear in the text. The text says that Korach complains that the entire congregation is holy and Moses and Aaron have arrogated to themselves too much power. The Midrash however says that Korach’s complaint is a personal one, relating to the order of succession in the tribe of Levi: Kohath (Levi’s son) had four sons: Amram, Yizhar, Chevron and Uzziel. Korach argues that Moses and Aaron, the sons of the first-born Amram, have received their due (as King and High Priest). But the next rank, prince over the sons of Kohath had been awarded by Moses (at God’s behest) to Elzaphan, the son of Uzziel, the youngest brother. Korach’s claim in the text is an ideological one with which he is able to sweep the people along, (after all God had told them they were to be a kingdom of priests and a holy nation). However, his personal, underlying motives were not pure.
Rabbi Wolfson suggests that the people did not accept the sudden destruction of Korach and his followers as a legitimate answer to the question Korach had raised, and although their murmuring against Moses and Aaron, that they had killed God’s people angered God, He never-the-less addressed their complaint with a further sign of the flowering staff. Rabbi Wolfson comments, that even though on the surface, all the staffs appeared identical, it became apparent that there was an essential difference between Aaron’s staff and the others. Only Aaron’s staff contained the capacity to blossom and bring forth fruit in the presence of holiness. And here, he says, is the hint which answers the people’s claim that they are all holy, and that there is no justification in singling out only Aaron and his tribe to perform the holy service. Rabbi Wolfson quotes the verse in Samuel l 16:7, “Man looks at the outward appearance while God looks at the heart,” and comments that God’s choice of Aaron and his sons stemmed from His ability, which humans lack, to see within.
Rabbi Moshe David of Tchortkov comments on the final verse of this episode. He says that it is clear why Moses would show Aaron’s staff to the people, so they should see the miracle, but why, he wonders, does the Torah add the detail that the chieftains’ staffs were also displayed? He answers that it says that they took their staffs, to show that they had not blossomed. Each of the chieftains, he says, was on a sufficiently high level to have the strength to show that Aaron had been chosen and not he.
In a commentary on the sprouting staff from 2011, http://www.rebjeff.com/blog/korach-the-sprouting-staff,
Rabbi Jeffrey Goldwasser addresses a modern perspective of submitting to authority. He notes “Modern people do not like authority much. We always have to have a reason why we should allow someone else to make decisions on our behalf, tell us what to do, or have any measure of control over us. We’re always asking, “Who made you king?” ” He adds that Korach’s challenge to Moses and Aaron (that all of the people are holy, so why do Moses and Aaron raise themselves above the congregation) is one that “resonates with our own skepticism about authority.” He continues that God’s action basically shows that it is He Who gives Moses and Aaron the authority by splitting the the earth to swallow up Korach and his followers. And that, says Reb Jeff, might seem to be the end of the argument. And he adds that the episode that follows, of Aaron’s sprouting staff, might seem to confirm this. So Reb Jeff wonders what this teaches us in our struggles with the idea of authority. Today, we see no miracles telling us whom to obey (and if we did, he surmises, it probably wouldn’t work). Reb Jeff comments that we do need authority, in order for society to function and not descend into anarchy. He cites the philosopher Thomas Hobbes who said that life without authority would be, “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short.” He says that he perceives the episode of the sprouting staff, following as it does the “wrathful story of the earth swallowing Korach whole” as affirming that “authority equals life. Authority is symbolized by a dead piece of wood bearing fruit, reminding us that without submitting ourselves to the authority of something outside of ourselves, we’re all dead meat.” He concludes, “The story of the sprouting staff challenges us, as Jews and as human beings, to ask what authority we place over us in our lives. Whom do we serve? Our own desires? Our fears? Our jobs? Money? Or, do we accept the authority of something higher — values, ethics, devotion to family and community, God? Are we ruled by the stick that threatens to chase us, or are we ruled by our own pursuit of the sweet scent of values that affirm life?”
In Itturei Torah (compiled by Aaron Yaakov Greenberg) a story is related about Rabbi Shlomo Zalman Kook (father of Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook) who once was sent abroad as an emissary. He arrived in a congregation where there was a huge controversy raging between the congregants and the gabbai. Rabbi Kook who was known to be a great Torah scholar and had come from the Holy Land, was received warmly and asked whether he would adjudicate and be the “messenger of peace.” He agreed and mounted the podium. In his derasha, he mentioned the conflict of Korach and his followers and asked why Aaron’s staff had borne almonds and not another fruit. Here, he said, is hinted the result of a conflict. There are two species of almonds – bitter and sweet. The first sort, he said, are sweet at first and end up bitter, while the other sort are bitter first but end up sweet. Here is the principle of strife and peace. Rabbi Kook said the first sort hints at conflict in which the rivalry, opposition and wrangling are “sweet” but the end is very bitter. And the opposite is peace – at the beginning it is bitter, how hard it is to give in to a rival, the urge burns within not to surrender. But in the end, he concluded, when someone gives in to his better self, and surrenders a little in order to make peace, how good and sweet it is for all parties.
Rav Shlomo Zalman Kook’s words entered the hearts of his listeners and he was able to bring peace to the congregation.