Robert Lichtman

Almond joy

We are going to solve a mystery older than the Jewish People. It is a mystery that had its genesis at the time of Genesis. The Talmud (Pesachim 54a) tells us that as God completed the creation of Heaven and Earth, in those liminal moments before the first Shabbat descended upon the world, God fashioned items that would emerge at various times in the future. One of those items was the staff of Aaron that was used to quell the rebellion initiated by Korach.

Korach correctly understood the aspirational role of the newly created Jewish People to become a holy nation. He incorrectly challenged its leaders, Moses and Aaron, by claiming that they were not the sole possessors of kedusha – holiness, and therefore, they were not the exclusive leaders of this people.

This mutiny was challenged by Moses, who suggested a showdown with firepans and incense; followed by the “mouth of the Earth” swallowing 250 rebels, and culminating with a plague obliterating another 14,700 insurgents.  To end the argument for all time, God called for each tribal leader to submit a wooden staff with their name carved into it.  The next day, Aaron’s staff was discovered to have sprouted leaves, blossoms, and almonds. The other staffs were still dead.  God called for this flowering staff to be placed near the Holy Ark as an eternal sign that a special kind of kedusha rested upon the family of Aaron.

Here is the mystery.  Of all the things that the Creator of Heaven and Earth could produce to bloom from Aaron’s staff, why almonds?

Why not sapphire, as is God’s throne?  Why not gold, as the band crowning Aaron?  Why not some other meaningful fruit?

For hundreds of years, commentators and creative thinkers have wrestled with this question.  Many offer explanations that are based on wordplay or imagery.  For example, the Hebrew word for almond is shaked, which also means “swift,” therefore almonds on the staff are an allusion to the descendants of Aaron who speedily bring blessings to the Jewish People, or who are eager in their Temple service.  Or that almonds, with their stems, branches, and flowers, represent the Menorah, which was kindled by Aaron and his descendants.

All of these explanations – and there are many – express beautiful ideas and ideals.  They ingeniously interpret the text to derive metaphorical meanings that somehow are meant to counter Korach’s challenge. The problem with all of them is that an observer of Aaron’s staff would have to unravel intricate scholarly maneuvers to extract the simple message that God intended, i.e., Aaron and his family hold the exclusive franchise to lead the national kedusha endeavor.

Here is how I see it: To understand how God responded directly and decisively to Korach’s challenge, we have to look at the words that Korach spoke when staking his position,

“You have gone too far! For all the community are holy (kedoshim – with Hebrew letters transliterated as K-D-SH-M), all of them, and God is in their midst. Why then do you raise yourselves above God’s congregation?” (Numbers 16:3)

This is how God responded with finality to the assertion that everyone is equally holy,

“The next day Moses entered the Tent of the Pact, and there the staff of Aaron of the house of Levi had sprouted: it had brought forth sprouts, produced blossoms, and borne almonds (shekaydim – with Hebrew letters transliterated as SH-K-D-M).” (Numbers 17:23)

When we rearrange the Hebrew letters from “almonds – shekaydim” and “holy – kedoshim,” we clearly see that,

SH-K-D-M = K-D-SH-M, or, “Almonds” on Aaron’s staff testify that his family are the uniquely “Holy Ones.” Aaron’s family are the kedoshim.

I could end this novel interpretation of “Why almonds?” right here, but there’s more to this idea.  I think that a benefit of waiting thousands of years to wade through complicated interpretations to get to this point of seeing something plainly is that it provides a profound lesson for all of us, a lesson that might not have been apparent had this simple understanding been recognized centuries ago. Sometimes we search deeply and struggle mightily in a quest for the things that are right in front of us. We may be searching for lifelong friendship when that person is already at our side. We may be searching for love when our soulmate is already here. We may be searching for meaning in our lives or in our work when opportunities present themselves plainly. Likewise, we may believe that we must endeavor exceedingly to reach a heightened level of kedusha when it may be attained just as well through simple acts of kindness.

When Korach proclaimed that all Jews are holy, what he got wrong was his expectation that everyone should focus on the holiness in Korach.  What he got right, though, is that we are all holy, and from that realization stems our acknowledgment, and our delight, of seeing the holiness in one another.

About the Author
Robert Lichtman lives in West Orange, NJ and draws upon his long tenure of professional leadership to teach and write about strategic issues and opportunities impacting the Jewish community, and other things. He writes his own bio in the third person.
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