Our parsha moves at a frantic pace, disguising within it the nuanced motivations of each of the antagonists. Korach seems to rebel in order to take the position of high priest; Datan and Aviram protest Moshe’s leadership; and the 250 well known men seem to desire the status of priesthood in general – they would like to be kohanim. Plainly, much of the hubbub revolves around Aharon HaKohen, the high priest, whose sons alone are to serve in the capacity of priesthood.
The 250 challengers die, and a plague breaks out. Now Hashem looks to settle the question of priesthood once and for all. So He devises a public demonstration of the choice of Aharon and his family (Bamidbar 17:17-26):
17 “Speak to the children of Israel, and take from them one staff for each father’s house, from all their princes according to their fathers’ houses, twelve staffs; write each one’s name on his staff. 18 And write the name of Aharon on the staff of (the tribe of) Levi, since there should be one staff for the head of their fathers’ houses. 19 And place them in the tent of meeting, opposite the testimony, where I meet with you. 20 And it shall come to pass, that the man whom I shall choose, his rod shall bud; and I will make to cease from Me the murmurings of the children of Israel, which they murmur against you.” 21 And Moshe spoke to the children of Israel; and all their princes gave him rods, for each prince one, according to their fathers’ houses, even twelve rods; and the rod of Aaron was among their rods. 22 And Moshe laid up the rods before the L-rd in the tent of the testimony. 23 And it came to pass on the morrow, that Moshe went into the tent of the testimony; and, behold, the rod of Aharon for the house of Levi was budded, and put forth buds, and bloomed blossoms, and bore ripe almonds. 24 And Moshe brought out all the rods from before the L-rd to all the children of Israel; and they looked, and took every man his rod.
25 And the L-rd said to Moshe: “Put back the rod of Aharon before the testimony, to be kept there, for a token against the rebellious children; that there may be made an end of their murmurings against Me, that they die not.” 26 Thus did Moshe; as the L-rd commanded him, so did he.
This episode begs many questions and we cannot get to them all. Let us ask only three:
- If you are like me, you prefer immediate results to slow ones. For instance, I think we would all prefer it if the Covid PCR tests were as quick as the “rapids.” We wait longer only because we have to. Given that in the eyes of G-d the results are already known and given how publicly those results will be shown to the people, why delay? Why not do a “rapid” test?
- The story concludes with the note that “vayiruh vayikchu ish matei’hu” (pasuk 24), that each of the princes looked at and then took his staff home. Why is this information pertinent to us? What is it supposed to add to a story that could easily have been told without it?
- Aharon’s staff, which has now sprouted almond shoots, is to be a sign for future rebellious people: “Put back the rod of Aharon before the testimony, to be kept there, for a token against the rebellious children.” Yet, we learn that it will be placed inside the Holy of Holies, where no one but Aharon can go! How is that to function as a sign for rebellious people?! No one but Aharon will ever see it!
Famously, the Mishna in Avot, 5:17 tells us that this parsha addresses the question of motives in altercation and controversies:
Every dispute that is for the sake of Heaven will in the end endure; But one that is not for the sake of Heaven will not endure. Which is the controversy that is for the sake of Heaven? Such was the controversy of Hillel and Shammai. And which is the controversy that is not for the sake of Heaven? Such was the controversy of Korach and all his congregation.
Despite the fact that Korach and his group come with the claim that every member of Israel is holy (“Ki kol ha’edah kulam kedoshim,” 16:3), they really come to swap out their current leaders for themselves. This indicates a rather cynical view; they don’t intend to remove government or create democracy; they just want to be the people in charge.
The same is true with Datan and Aviram’s charge that Moshe brought the people into the desert just to kill them. Would making Datan and Aviram more powerful or turning them into Levites solve this problem? Again, the argument strikes us as rabble rousing rather than honest and straight forward.
Further, Korach and his group may be cynical, but they make good claims. Indeed, every member of the Jewish people is holy! Is that not so? In fact, not only do their claims look good to the outside, but it is not easy to discern, even internally, whether or not the claims we ourselves make are honest and straightforward, based in ethical uprightness and not in something less wholesome.
Take again, for example, the 250 men who think that if only they might be priests then that would validate the holiness of the Jewish people. Why did they agree to take part in bringing spice offerings once they were warned this would end in their deaths if they were not chosen? It must be that they, themselves, were taken in by their arguments on some level, however flimsy they may look to us on the outside. And so, believing in their own, weak claims, they lost their lives. If only these challengers would have known themselves better, they could have led long and healthy lives.
I think that it is here that we may return to the test of the staffs. If you recall, the test has three oddities to it: It is slow, its results are private to Aharon, and we must learn unnecessarily of the princes each examining and then taking their own staffs home. Why?
If the problem is motivation, this test seems to suggest that the answer is slow, personal, reflection.
Why do we want the things that we want? Shall we determine this quickly or slowly? The slow test comes to tell us it should be slow.
Indeed, we understand why each of the princes must examine and take home their own walking sticks. They have fallen short, have they not? Their staffs did not produce anything, they were not chosen. Yet, such feedback is not given in order for them to “stay in their place,” as it were; rather, such failures are an invitation to more work, more growth, and yes, more introspection.
Last, we understand who the bnei meri (rebellious ones, 17:25) refers to. It is Aharon! Who makes trouble in Aharon’s life? Who makes poor decisions on his behalf? Who is less than perfectly honest and clear regarding his motivatioins? It is all Aharon. And who must examine us? We, ourselves, of course! For this reason, Aharon is the only person to look at his staff. It represents looking in the mirror, a sort of picture of Dorian Gray.
And so it is with us.