This is my 23rd consecutive post connecting the parasha to Israel’s pro-democracy protests.
Another week, another leadership crisis. Several, in fact. The one that interests me in this week’s parasha, Korach, is settled by a miracle, and in a welcome change from the recent norm, no-one dies.
The Israelites rail against Moses and Aaron, and God devises a test to demonstrate that Aaron is indeed his chosen representative. He instructs Moses to gather staffs from the chieftains of each tribe and inscribe each one with the chieftain’s name. Moses should inscribe the staff belonging to the tribe of Levi with Aaron’s name, God says, and he should deposit all the staffs in the Tent of the Pact. The staff that belongs to the man God chooses will sprout. Moses carries out God’s instructions and checks back in the morning. Aaron’s staff (rod) has sprouted (Numbers 17:16-26).
This is not the first time God has performed a miracle with a staff for the purpose of showing who’s boss. When God spoke to Moses at the burning bush and ordered him to confront Pharaoh and the Egyptians, Moses expressed doubt that they will accept his authority. What’s that in your hand, God asks? A staff, Moses replies. Throw it on the ground, says God.
Exodus 4:3 …So he threw it on the ground, and it became a snake, and Moses ran from it. 4 But the Lord said to Moses, “Put out your hand and catch it by the tail”—so he put out his hand and caught it, and it became a staff in his hand.
That was preparation. Once they’re standing before Pharaoh, it’s Aaron’s staff that becomes a snake. And although Pharaoh’s magicians can do the same, Aaron has the last word.
Exodus 7:10 So Moses and Aaron went to Pharaoh and did as the Lord had commanded; Aaron threw down his staff before Pharaoh and his officials, and it became a snake. 11Then Pharaoh summoned the wise men and the sorcerers; and they also, the magicians of Egypt, did the same by their secret arts. 12Each one threw down his staff, and they became snakes; but Aaron’s staff swallowed up theirs.
Moses’ staff plays a crucial role when the Nile turns to blood. Tell Pharaoh to let my people go, says God, and say to him, Thus says the Lord.
Exodus 7:14 ‘By this you shall know that I am the Lord.’ See, with the staff that is in my hand I will strike the water that is in the Nile, and it shall be turned to blood.
This was also the staff with which Moses struck the rock that brought forth water for the thirsty Israelites. A different kind of miracle.
Exodus 17:5 The Lord said to Moses, “Go on ahead of the people and take some of the elders of Israel with you; take in your hand the staff with which you struck the Nile and go. 6 I will be standing there in front of you on the rock at Horeb. Strike the rock, and water will come out of it, so that the people may drink.”
It’s not hard to see why staffs are so central in these miracles.
A staff can play the role of a wand, mediating between the magician and the magic, the miracle-worker and the miracle.
Even without turning into a snake, a staff is a symbol of authority. That’s why leaders, religious and royal, carry ceremonial staffs.
A staff can stand in for the person who owns it, extending his authority even when he’s not present. That’s the case for Aaron’s staff, which was not returned to him, but kept in the Tent as a reminder to future rebels.
A staff can point to the ideal relationship between a leader and his followers. He should guide and protect them as a shepherd leads his flocks. Your rod and staff they comfort me, says Psalm 23.
And a staff can hint at the potential for violent enforcement, or even abuse, of authority. Moses interacts with a rock in relation to water twice. The first time, above, God orders him to strike the rock with his staff. The second time (in next week’s parasha), it gets confusing. God tells him to take his staff but speak to the rock.
Numbers 20:8 “Take the staff, and assemble the congregation, you and your brother Aaron, and command the rock before their eyes to yield its water.
Angry with the Israelites, Moses doesn’t listen. He raises his hand and strikes the rock twice. Water comes out but there’s bad news. Moses and Aaron will not get to enter the Promised Land. Moses used his staff inappropriately.
Aaron’s staff may have elements of all the above, but it’s worth considering the specifics of the miracle. A branch that had been cut from a tree and shaped into a staff somehow remained alive or was restored to life. And in the compressed or accelerated time that often characterizes miracles, the annual cycle of a tree occurred in a single night.
Numbers 17:23 When Moses went into the Tent of the covenant on the next day, the staff of Aaron for the house of Levi had sprouted. It put forth buds, produced blossoms, and bore ripe almonds.
It’s reminiscent of another miracle, albeit one that takes place in a dream. The cupbearer who was imprisoned with Joseph dreamed of a vine that miraculously budded, blossomed, and bore grapes before his eyes.
Genesis 40:9 In my dream there was a vine before me, 10and on the vine there were three branches. As soon as it budded, its blossoms came out and the clusters ripened into grapes.
This miracle too confirmed the choice of one man over, in this case, just one other – Pharaoh’s baker. And it too is concerned with status. The cupbearer’s dream heralds his return to office.
The cupbearer dreamt of a vine because his responsibilities included giving Pharaoh wine. Why was Aaron’s staff made from the branch of an almond tree? Perhaps there was a naturalistic explanation, but more likely, I think, it connected Aaron’s staff, which would henceforth be kept in the Tent, to the menorah, lampstand, which it was Aaron’s responsibility to light (Numbers 8:1-3). According to the original instructions, the menorah was modelled after an almond tree, with branches, calyxes (leaf-like petals), and petals, and with cups shaped like almond blossoms (Exodus 25:31-39).
Aaron’s role as priest and leader, as symbolized by his staff, was to bear fruit and bring light.
The disparate leaders of Israel’s pro-democracy protest movement are struggling. In Jerusalem, co-operation broke down between demonstrators calling for the end of the Occupation and demonstrators who wanted to maintain the original focus on judicial reform. Two weeks ago, there were two separate demonstrations in different locations.
I understand why it happened. The anti-Occupation demonstrators were drowning out speeches at the main demonstration, not because they necessarily objected to the contents, but because they have their own agenda and their own way of promoting it. Many demonstrators who had come to hear the speakers were frustrated, and some felt alienated by hardline anti-Occupation protests involving Palestinian flags.
I’m sure the organizers worked extremely hard to bring the demonstrations back together. No miraculous sign came to tell them which path to follow, which struggle to prioritize. And I’m relieved that, this time, they succeeded. It’s easy for me to say – I’m just writing about the demonstrations, not running them – but it would be a tragic waste if the protest movement splintered now, as such movements often do in Israel. We need the demonstrations to bring light in these dark days of disinformation and division, and they absolutely must bear fruit.