Blossoming Bough

Adapted by Channie Koplowitz Stein

Korach, cousin of Moshe and Aharon and one of the foremost leaders of the generation, came with 250 men to challenge Moshe’s authority in appointing Aharon as kohein gadol. His challenge was now tested by having Aharon, Korach and all these men bring their incense pans to the altar. Whoever’s offering Hashem would accept was the one chosen by God, not by nepotism. When the validity of Aharon’s appointment was confirmed, Hashem punished the challengers. Korach and all that belonged to him and his family was swallowed up by the earth, leaving no trace, and his 250 followers were consumed by fire. The next day, Bnei Yisroel complained to Moshe and Aharon, saying that Moshe and Aharon had killed the people of Hashem. Hashem then brought a plague to punish Bnei Yisroel until Aharon stopped the deaths by running with his incense pan between the dead and the living.

This episode was not yet over. Hashem wanted Moshe and Aharon to provide Bnei Yisroel with one final proof that Aharon was Hashem’s choice for the position of kohein gadol. Hashem commanded Moshe to to take the staff of the leaders of each of the tribes and to put Aharon’s staff for the Tribe of Levi among them, each staff inscribed with its identifying name. After the staffs were collected, they were to be placed in the Tent of Meeting where Hashem would provide proof. The next day, the staff of Aharon had blossomed. Not only that, but even the buds appeared and the almonds actually ripened. The flower, the bud and the ripe almonds all appeared overnight. The Rashbam notes the multiplicity of miracles here. Not only did a dry piece of wood suddenly blossom, but a process which takes some time and is sequential here all took place simultaneously overnight. This miracle would be the final proof to silence the complainers in Bnei Yisroel. As such, it would be preserved in the Holy Ark as long as we had the Ark and the Temple.

Rabbi Mordechai Druck z”l raises several questions here. First, why is this blossoming staff the appropriate final proof against Korach’s challenge? Equally important, could not Hashem have used this proof at the outset instead of waiting until after Korach, 250 men and another segment of Bnei Yisroel had died? Actually, Rabbi Druck z”l posits that this same question can be raised hundreds of years later when Elijah decreed that there be a drought on the land because Bnei Yisroel was serving Baal. He too had a final confrontation with the false prophets, but only after three years of drought during which time many of Bnei Yisroel died. Could not Elijah have had the “showdown” at Mount Carmel three years earlier and avoided the drought?

The truth is that sometimes people are so closed minded that they refuse to acknowledge the truth  even with the proof staring them in the face. Bnei Yisroel at the time of Elijah, during the reign of the evil Ahab and Izevel would not have accepted Hashem as the true God without first having experience the drought and the famine it produced. Only after that experience could they view the miraculous fire descend onto a water drenched altar to consume Elijah’s sacrifice and proclaim, “Hashem is God.”

Bnei Yisroel here were equally unready to accept the legitimacy of Moshe’s leadership and Aharon’s appointment. Truth is especially difficult to accept when the challenge is presented mockingly, as Korach did, writes Rabbi Yehudah Chasman z”l. Only when that mocking attitude is broken would Bnei Yisroel be ready to accept truth. It was necessary for Bnei Yisroel to first witness Korach’s defeat and punishment, and remove the element of Korach’s jealousy from the controversy. Then they would they be able to acknowledge Moshe and Aharon as God’s appointed leadership adds Rabbi BenZion Porer in Hegyonah shel Torah.  Only by first removing any personal bias is one ready to see the truth, for bias will always lead to its preconceived destinations, like a faulty GPS system.

But why was the staff itself and the resultant miracle such a perfect teaching instrument for Bnei Yisroel? First, Rabbi Mordechai Ezrachi notes that the staff is a symbol of stability and reliability. One can lean on it for support. According to Rabbi Ezrachi, Bnei Yisroel knew that Moshe and Aharon were legitimately Hashem’s choices for leadership. What they wanted to know was why Moshe and Aharon were the most suitable of leaders. The staff signified that just as one could put one’s trust on the stability of the staff, so could Hashem fully trust the reliability of the Tribe of Levi and of Moshe and Aharon, and their connection to Him. After all, it was only the complete Tribe of Levi that did not sin with the golden calf and that answered Moshe’s call, “Who is for God come to me.” And this staff blossomed and bore fruit, for the verse in Tehillim states that the righteous “shall be like a tree deeply rooted alongside brooks of water, that yields its fruit in due season and whose leaf never withers...” They are “Planted in the house of Hashem …, they will flourish.”

The almond tree is particularly well suited for these lessons. Its name itself, shekeidah/diligence, zeal provides the answer to our question. As Rav Hirsch z”l points out, the almond tree is the first to produce fruit, it hurries to fulfill its purpose. Just so were the Leviim in quickly answering Moshe’s call, and just as diligent is Aharon whose sons would continue this service. The kohanim and Leviim serve in the Beit Hamikdosh where they are planted and flourish in God’s presence, adds Rabbi Ezrachi.

A staff helps us navigate the path we are on. We live in a finite world, full of angles and curves, whereas the spiritual path is straight, writes Rabbi Tatz in Living Inspired. It is difficult for us to see around the corners toward the straight path that our names allude to. We are meant to be Yashar El/Yisroel, those who are straight with God, and Yeshurun, straight to the “nun”, the fiftieth level of sanctity and God. But a mateh/staff is at the crossroads and is noteh/bends to let us see around the corners back toward where our journey began, back to our Source. This is the job and the history of the Tribe of Levi, to reconnect us to the trunk of the Tree of Life, and to teach us to be loyal and zealous in our service to Hakodosh Boruch Hu.

 It was Aharon’s character that gave him the merit of being kohein gadol, writes Rabbi Asher Weiss. Just as the almond tree has the external beauty of its flowers and the internal substance of the fruit, so too did Aharon wear the royal, beautiful garments of the high priest while within himself he cultivated pure character traits that reflected the quality each garment atoned for. That’s why Aharon’s staff blossomed and bore fruit and retained both the blossom and the fruit simultaneously. The Torah itself validates that Aharon was “happy in his heart” when Hashem told him that his younger brother would lead Bnei Yisroel out of Egypt. Korach, on the other hand, was interested only in the external trappings, the splendor and glory of the priestly garments, without working on himself to perfect his character and uproot the jealousy he felt, adds Rabbi Wachtfogel z”l

There is no growth without preparation, whether it’s fruit or personal growth, writes Rabbi Feinstein zt”l in Dorash Moshe. The blossoms are necessary for the fruit to appear, and Torah study also takes effort. We get rewarded for our effort, over which we have control, rather than for the results, the “fruit,”  which are in Hashem’s control.

What was so unusual about the growth on Aharon’s staff was that the blossoms did not fall off when the fruit appeared. Both remained, teaching us that we must always strive to continue growing. Observing this symbolism, Rabbi Scheinerman quoting the Chidushei Harim reinterprets the verse in Mishleh/Proverbs, “Train a child in the way he should go, and even when he is old, he will not depart from it.” He puts a little twist on this verse, explaining that we should train a child to always be in education mode so that even when he is old, he will continue to learn and to grow.

This is an important message. Rabbi Friefeld zt”l discusses a medrash that states that those who are involved with Torah illuminate the world. The medrash is praising those who continue to work on their Torah, even if they are ordinary people and not talmidei chachamim. Hashem values the struggle.

This lesson of constant growth was an eternal lesson embodied in the flowering and fruitful staff of Aharon, and therefore it was enshrined in the Holy Ark, writes Rabbi Schorr in Ohr Gedalyahu. It is the struggle that creates a meaningful life, not necessarily the results.

The Sifsei Daas, citing the Sefas Emes z”l takes a completely different approach to the lessons of the flowering and fruitful staff. Aharon’s role was to be the representative of Bnei Yisroel when he entered the Kadosh Kadoshim. While Bnei Yisroel knew that Aharon was chosen to enter, they did not realize that he symbolically took all of them with him when he entered. That’s why his staff was put among all the other staffs of the leaders of Bnei Yisroel. A kohein does not serve alone, but serves as part of all of Bnei Yisroel. That’s what the flowers represent. While the staff indeed belongs to Aharon, the blossoms and the fruit belong to Bnei Yisroel, writes Rav Chaim Hakohein, Hachalban. As Rav Sheinerman notes, each leader then took his own staff back as he understood that although he had not been chosen for this particular mission of kohein, each nevertheless had his own individual mission.

On Rosh Hashanah we recite that Hashem remembers the deeds of each man and his mission. Hashem judges if we are living up to the potential of our personal mission. But then we say, “Vayehi b’Yeshurun Melech... yachad shivtei Yisreol/Hashem is King when all of the tribes of Yeshurun/Israel are together.” We coronate Hashem when all the tribes/mateh/staffs are united toward our common goal.

We are all different, and therefore each of us has a unique mission, writes Rabbi Friedlander z”l in Rinat Chaim. In order to reach our common goal, we must recognize that our individual missions support each other as our personal path in serving Hashem. Then we won’t be jealous of anyone else and we ourselves will continue to grow and help others to grow. The tree grows and blossoms and bears fruit when we each contribute our gifts and talents to the whole. Then truly will Hashem be King.