Excerpted from Rabbi Shmuel Goldin’s ‘Unlocking The Torah Text: An In-Depth Journey Into The Weekly Parsha- Bamidbar’ co-published by OU Press and Gefen Publishers
Is This Miracle Really Necessary?
In the aftermath of Korach’s rebellion, after harsh punishments have been meted out to the perpetrators, God turns to Moshe with one final set of instructions. He directs him to collect a staff from each of the tribes of Israel, to inscribe the name of each tribal leader upon his respective staff – with Aharon’s name etched onto the staff of the tribe of Levi – and to place the staffs overnight in the Sanctuary.
These staffs, God explains, will serve as miraculous indicators of His own divine will: “And it shall be that the man whom I [God] shall choose, his staff will blossom; and I shall cause the complaints of the children of Israel to subside from upon Me.”
Moshe complies with God’s instructions, and twelve staffs, each emblazoned with the name of a tribal leader, are brought to the Sanctuary where they remain overnight. On the morrow, when Moshe enters the Sanctuary, he finds that Aharon’s staff alone has “brought forth a blossom, sprouted buds and mature almonds.” God has, once again, made known His selection of Aharon for the role of Kohen Gadol, High Priest.
After Moshe brings the twelve staffs out for the people to see, God commands him to return Aharon’s staff to the Sanctuary where it will serve as a continual reminder, an impediment to further rebellion against God’s choices for leadership.
Why is this miracle necessary?
Hasn’t God, in the most decisive ways possible, already declared His clear choice of Moshe and Aharon for leadership? Weren’t the targeted earthquake, the heaven-sent fire and the devastating plague that punished Korach, his followers and the rebellious Israelites powerful enough indications of God’s resolve?
If the Israelites have not been convinced by now of God’s choices, will the quiet additional miracle of Aharon’s flowering staff really make the difference?
Perhaps the key to understanding the miraculous coda of the Korach narrative lies in focusing not on the final miracle in isolation but, instead, on that miracle’s contextual message. The flowering staff of Aharon could hardly be more different from the preceding phenomena that marked God’s response to Korach’s rebellion. Gone, suddenly, are the terrifying images of earthquakes, fires and plagues. In their place, in stark contrast, now appears the peaceful vision of a budding staff.
As God, over the course of Korach’s rebellion, moves from death and destruction towards this culminating miracle of quiet beauty, He conveys a powerful message to the Israelites:
Although I was forced to respond to the uprising against Moshe and Aharon with overwhelming force and power, I do not want the election of these leaders to remain forever rooted in those tragic, necessarily destructive events. Let, instead, the flowering of Aharon’s staff become the enduring symbol of his priesthood. Let the leadership of “this lover of peace and pursuer of peace” be forever associated in your minds with a quiet final miracle of creation. And, through this miracle, let both leaders and disciples alike learn that there is no more powerful force in God’s arsenal, nor in their own, than the force of creation.
The transition towards the quiet miracle of Aharon’s staff may well herald the onset of an even greater global transition in the nation’s development. If we accept that Korach’s rebellion occurs, as recorded in the text, after the chet hameraglim, the Israelites now stand on the threshold of major changes in the nature of their relationship with God.
Over the course of the next forty years in the wilderness, as one generation of Israelites gives way to the next, the nation will move from the relational level of yira, fear and awe, to the level of ahava, love.
The generation of the Exodus and Revelation will inexorably disappear, erstwhile slaves whose ability to relate to God is limited to the primitive plane of fear. Heirs to a legacy of torment under Egyptian rule, this generation innately responds only to overwhelming power. God, therefore, speaks to them in a language they can understand. Through events such as: the ten plagues, the parting of the Reed Sea, the thunder and lightning of Sinai and the earthquake, fire and plague of Korach’s rebellion, God becomes their new master, to be held in awe and to be feared.
The children of these slaves, however, will experience God differently. Raised for nearly four decades in the bosom of God’s continual protection, surrounded by the clouds of glory, nurtured on the heaven-sent manna, this second generation will learn to relate to God through the more mature dimension of love. To this generation, God will emerge as a loving, benevolent parent Who, with kindness and sensitivity, sustains His people on their continuing journey.
The first step in the monumental transition from yira to ahava may well take place in the quiet of the night, in the solitude of the Sanctuary, as Aharon’s staff begins to blossom. With this miracle, God deliberately moves from destruction to creation, heralding a journey that will bring His people close.
Points to Ponder
Our people’s formative national journey from yira to ahava in its relationship with God creates the paradigm for the individual religious passage we each are meant to experience over the course of our lives.
If as children we necessarily begin with yira, perceiving God as a mysterious, distant and fearsome power, impassively controlling our destiny, a mature relationship with God requires that we successfully transition to the dimension of ahava, as well. The sense of awe that underlies our perception of the divine should certainly never be lost. As the years pass, however, a growing, more pervasive sense of love is meant to fill our hearts, as we learn to believe in an approachable, benevolent deity Who desires our welfare and cares deeply for our concerns.
Fearing God is easy. Loving Him can, at times, be difficult. Inevitably, there will be moments in our lives when God seems distant, when His will and intentions remain unclear, when our relationship with Him is strained. Nonetheless, we are challenged to cultivate a deep, abiding trust that He is with us even then – perhaps particularly then – watching over us and caring for us as a parent would a child.
The journey towards God experienced by our nation at its infancy should be experienced by each of us, as well. Only then can our relationship with God be complete.