Korach: The Staff of Service

Copyright 2011 Neal Joseph Loevinger

Torah Portion: Korach

Happy Independence Day, for my American readers!

Perhaps the 4th of July weekend is a good time to be reading
parshat Korach, because our Torah portion is very much
concerned with issues of leadership, community, freedom, and
responsibility. Briefly, Korach is a prince of the people who
challenges Moshe and Aharon and disputes their right to lead
the people.

A ritual test shows that God supports the current leadership,
Korach and his gang of rebels are swallowed up in the earth.
After this crisis is resolved, Moshe also demonstrates the
worthiness of Aharon’s role as High Priest (more on this below),
and the parsha concludes with laws pertaining to the proper
handling of sacred donations to the Mishkan (the portable
Sanctuary) and the priests who serve in it.

The story of Aharon’s rod of leadership, which comes after the
Korach crisis, doesn’t get much attention in commentaries and
sermons, but it’s a fascinating narrative, rich with symbolic
meaning. Basically, what happens is that God tells Moshe to
take a staff- a rod- from each tribal leader, twelve in all, each
inscribed with the name of its owner. Moshe puts them all
together in the Tent of Meeting- the sacred center of the Mishkan-
and the next day, here’s what he found:

“The next day Moshe entered the Tent of the Pact, and there the
staff of Aharon of the house of Levi had sprouted: it had brought
forth sprouts, produced blossoms, and borne almonds. Moshe
then brought out all the staffs from before the Lord to all the
Israelites; each identified and recovered his staff. ” (Bamidbar/
Numbers 17:23-24, JPS translation.)

Now, what are we supposed to make of this miracle? Do
almond blossoms really appear overnight on sticks of wood in
the desert?

Let’s review: Aharon, if you remember from way back in Exodus
4, was originally assigned to be Moshe’s “mouthpiece” in
confronting Pharaoh. Not only that, but that story (Exodus 4- the
burning bush) also contained a miracle involving a staff:
Moshe’s staff turned into a serpent in order to convince him that
God could indeed bring a great miracle of liberation, through
Moshe, to the people oppressed in Egypt.

So now we’ve come full circle from Moshe’s reticence at the
moment of his commission for leadership. Back then, he was
unsure of himself, and needed the promise of Aharon’s
assistance in order to go forward. Now, he’s fully in charge, and
needs to demonstrate to the people that Aharon is the legitimate
High Priest, a role entirely separate from Moshe’s more judicial
and political position.

So what does all this have to do with miraculous almond
blossoms?

We might imagine the blossoms and fruit on Aharon’s staff –
clearly a symbol of his leadership role and authority as High
Priest- as images of productivity, vitality and creativity (in the
broadest sense.) Even in contemporary English, when we say
that something is useful and meaningful, we say that it is
“fruitful,” and I think that’s close to what’s being represented
here. Aharon’s leadership, which was accepted in humility and
servitude, is life-giving and “fruitful” precisely because he’s not
like Korach, who wanted power for reasons of ego and self-
aggrandizement (according to most readings of the Korach
story.)

Aharon became a leader almost inadvertently, because his
brother Moshe needed help- not because he sought out the
spotlight but because he sought to give support. In later Jewish
literature, Aharon is seen as the model of compassion and love
for his fellow human beings- again, the opposite of Korach, who
is willing to start a civil war for the sake of his pride and ego.

Aharon’s staff blossoms and gives fruit because his leadership
is about giving to others, bringing forth good things for the
community and sustaining them through service. The
relationship of a servant-leader to her or his community is fragile
and delicate- like a blossom- but also nourishing and
sustaining, like an almond itself. Humility and generosity of heart
bring forth beautiful things; this is the example of Aharon’s life,
which is the deeper truth behind the story of the miraculous
blossoms.

As always, you can read the full text of this week’s Torah portion
and haftarah here:

http://www.jtsa.edu/community/parashah/jpstext/korah.shtml

While we’re on the topic of leadership, I’m proud to be
associated with a group of rabbis taking a leadership position
on the issue of greater inclusiveness in the Conservative
movement:

http://www.keshetrabbis.org/

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