by Rabbi Dr. Rachel Adelman
Parashat Korach (Numbers 16:1 – 18:32)
Inspired by Rabbi Giulia Fleishman’s teaching of `22, BeMidbar Spring of ’20.
For Van Gogh, the branches of white almond blossoms silhouetted against the blue sky were a favorite painting subject. In 1890, he donated the famous painting “Almond Blossom” (above) to his brother Theo and his sister-in-law, Jo, who had just had a baby boy. They named their son after their brother, Vincent, who committed suicide later that year. The artist’s nephew, Vincent Willem, then founded the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam. Hope and despair, life and death cling to the same branch.
What gives hope in the wake of a calamity? This week’s Torah reading, Parashat Korach (Numbers 16:1-18:32), is plagued by rebellion and divine decrees of death: the 250 chiefs, brandishing their braziers, are burned alive (16:35 ); Korach, Dathan, and Abiram, along with their followers, are swallowed by the mouth of the earth (16:32-33); 14,700 Israelites are swept away by a plague apparently because they blame Moses and Aaron for bringing all this death upon the people (17:6). All this death, indeed! This entire generation would march, over the next forty years, through the Valley of Death, subject to the judgment of God. They were destined to die for their infidelity to heed the report of the spies (14:32-34). According to a macabre image, every year in Tisha b’Av (1), Moses would send a crier, telling them to dig themselves grave-beds at night; most got up in the morning, even though every year 15,000 people disappeared, swallowed up by unmarked graves in the desert sand. On the last Tisha b’Av of the fortieth year, all survivors rose alive, brushing the sand, flashing in the bright morning light (Lamentations Rabbah Petichta 33, author’s paraphrase).
As a reprieve from this morbid tale, we are given an image of Aaron’s flourishing staff. It appears in the context of a dispute over the legitimacy of the divinely chosen leadership. The chief of each tribe was ordered to contribute a rod, inscribed with his name, and the rod of Levi, inscribed with Aaron’s name, and the twelve rods were placed before the Ark in the Tent of Meeting. . God said to Moses, “The staff of the man whom I (God) have chosen will sprout, and I will depart from myself (va-hashikoti me-‘alai) the murmurings of the Israelites that they murmur against you (‘aleichem, PL. Moses and Aaron)” (Numbers 17:20, author’s translation). They did it; the next day, when Moses entered the tent, “there had sprung up the staff of Aaron of the house of Levi: it had brought forth shoots, brought forth flowers, and brought forth almonds” (v. 23). What message is conveyed by this remarkable flourishing staff? And who is the message addressed to?
According to biblical botanist Noga Hareuveni, the almond tree is one of the first fruit trees to bloom in spring in the Land of Israel. It quickly buds leaves, develops new branches and forms its supporting fruit, all before the flower calyx drops. That is, the fruit and the outermost petals of the flower cling to the tree immediately; the withered sepals and the bitter nut, the process and the product, drag together simultaneously. His Hebrew name, shaken, means “early awaker,” and it signifies God’s vigilance and vigilant response (Jeremiah 1:11-12). Is Aaron’s almond blossom staff then a symbol of God’s scrutiny and swift judgment – a warning to the Israelites – or is it a sign of hope, of life in the ravaged camp? by death?
God commands that Aaron’s staff be placed before the Covenant “as a memorial (the-mishmeret), as a sign to the rebels, that their murmuring against me may cease lest they die” (Numbers 17:25). Yet, as soon as it is placed in the Ark, in the Holy of Holies, with the pot of Manna (Exodus 16:32-34), and the fragments of the first and second sets of Tables of the Law (T. Sota 13:1, b. Horayot 12a), it becomes inaccessible to the people! Once Solomon placed the Ark within the precincts of the First Temple, it was likely never removed (1 Kings 8:1-11; cf. 2 Chr 5:2-14). Perhaps the memorial, hodgepodge, is addressed rather to God and to posterity. God confessed in setting up the trial: “I will appease, or I will diminish (va-hashikotiroot sh.kk) from me the grunts of Israel ”(Numbers 17:20), just as the waters of the flood subsided from the face of the earth (va-yashokuGenesis 8:1) and the anger of the Persian king Ahasuerus was appeased (ka-shokhEsther 2:1, and shakhakhah, 7:10). Perhaps the flower stick reminds God to burst forth, not with fury, but to blossom, and then cling tenaciously to the process of people’s growth, as the flower chalice holds back the hard nut and bitterness of the almond tree in spring.
In his book Orwell’s Roses, Rebecca Solnit recounts how, in the spring of 1936, Orwell planted roses in the yard of her home in Wallington, England. Although he had gone to fight in the Spanish Civil War, he returned six years later to find that “the little white rose, no bigger than a child’s catapult when I put it in, had grown into a huge vigorous bush, while the flower of the pink rose fell over the fence. The author of dystopia 1984, and numerous articles criticizing fascist regimes and rapacious capitalism, lived with a deep and lasting love for roses and trees, for things that grow. By placing a seedling in the ground, Orwell expressed a commitment to hope, alongside his vigilance to see the cause of suffering in the world around him.
According to legend, Aaron’s staff was created at dusk on the sixth day of creation (M. Avot 5:6, b. Pesachim 54a); it will be the very rod that the Messiah will wield when entering Jerusalem at the End of Days (BeMidbar Rabbah 6:20 p.m.). The stick thus represents continuity, a sort of time capsule, like the rings of the great redwoods of California. Solnit offers us an idea-word for this:
There is an Etruscan word, saeculum, which describes the period of time lived by the oldest person present, sometimes estimated at around one hundred years. In a broader sense, the word means the length of time something is in living memory… To us, the trees seemed to offer another kind of saeculum, a longer time scale and deeper continuity, sheltering us of our ephemeral like a tree could offer literal shelter under its branches.
Aaron’s staff in the Ark, as he traveled with the people through the desert sojourn, served as a sort of saeculum. The flower that never dies offered hope, if only in the imagination as it was sequestered, invisible, in the Holy of Holies. There would be generations to follow, to carry this Ark within the precincts of the Temple and plant trees in the Land of Israel, harvest their fruits and paint their flowers.
(1) The great day of calamity for the Jewish people, associated with the destruction of the First and Second Temples, “inaugurated” first by the people weeping in response to the report of the Spies (Numbers 16:1, b. Taanit 29a ).
Rav Rachel Adelman (PhD, Hebrew University of Jerusalem) is Associate Professor of Hebrew Bible at Hebrew College, where she recently obtained rabbinical ordination (2021). She is the author of several academic and popular articles in Jewish studies, as well as two books: The Return of the Repressed: Pirqe de-Rabbi Eliezer and the Pseudepigrapha (Brill, 2009) and The Female Ruse: Women’s Deception and Divine Sanction. in the Hebrew Bible (Sheffield Press, 2015). She is currently working on a new monograph: Daughters in Danger, from the Hebrew Bible to Modern Midrash. When she is not writing books, articles or divrei Torah, poetry flows from her pen.