When people do the wrong thing in the Torah, God gets angry and kills a bunch of them. This happens over and over again in the books of Exodus and Numbers. We see the same pattern today when parents (standing in for God) overreact to children’s mistakes and lash out at them. And it happens when individuals do something they regret and then cut themselves down.
Does this approach lead to reform and improvement? Rarely. Does the Torah offer a better approach?
In this week’s Torah portion, Korach (“bald”), a Levite named Korach, his 250 followers, and two leaders from the tribe of Reuben, all rebel at once. Their common goal is to depose the leader Moses and high priest Aaron, and take over their jobs. The God-character in the Torah takes this rebellion personally, since God chose Moses and Aaron. Rebelling against their God-given authority is tantamount to rebelling against God.
First God responds the usual way, with overkill. The ground opens and swallows not only the two Reubenites and Korach, but also everyone in their families who did not run away. Fire pours out from God’s sanctuary and kills Korach’s 250 followers who wanted to be priests. The next day, the Israelites blame Moses and Aaron for all the deaths, and God sends with a plague that kills 14,700 more people. (See my earlier post, Korach: Saying No, Saying Yes.)
At this point, everyone even slightly involved in the attempted coup has suffered one of three kinds of horrible deaths. The surviving Israelites become meek and passive for a while, but fear rarely motivates inner change. Later in the book of Numbers/Bemidbar, a number of Israelite men disobey God again, by worshiping Ba-al Pe-or.
However, the Torah portion Korach also provides a counter-example. After all the killing, the God character responds to the attempted coup with a more positive teaching.
God tells Moses to take a staff from the chieftain of each of the twelve tribes of Israel.
You shall carve each man’s name upon his matteh. And you shall carve the name of Aaron upon the matteh of Levi, because there is one matteh for the head of each forefather’s house. Then lay them in the Tent of Meeting before ha-eidut, where I meet with you. And it will happen that the man whom I choose, his matteh will blossom. (Numbers/Bemidbar 17:16-20)
matteh (מַטֶּה) (plural mattot) = staff, branch, tribe.
ha-eidut (הָעֵדוּת) = the “testimony” of God inside the ark. (Either the stone tablets God inscribed on Mount Sinai, or a parchment scroll on which Moses wrote down the first part of the Torah, or both.)
The ark with the testimony of God resides inside the Holy of Holies, the innermost chamber of the Tent of Meeting. God manifests in the empty space above the ark—as a voice for Moses, and as the source of the fiery glory that the Israelites see emanating from the sanctuary tent. Any miracles happening in the Holy of Holies would be a direct expression of God’s will.
The next day, when Moses came into the Tent of the Testimony, hey!—the matteh of Aaron, for the house of Levi, had blossomed. It brought forth blossoms, and it sprouted sprouts, and it ripened shekeidim. Then Moses brought out all the mattot from in front of God, to all the Children of Israel. And they saw, and each man took his staff. (Numbers 17:22-24)
shekeidim (שְׁקֵדִים) = almonds. (The root verb, shakad, means vigilant, alert, attentive.)
There is no question that God chooses Aaron as the high priest, and the tribe of Levi to conduct the religious service at the sanctuary.
The almond flowers and fruits also carry extra symbolism. The gold menorah (lampstand) inside the sanctuary is designed so that its seven branches and various decorative elements look an almond tree, complete with flowers and drupes (fruits containing almonds in their pits). (See my earlier post, Terumah: Waking Up.) Lamps are symbols of enlightenment. Almond trees are the first to bloom, are called attentive and alert. Thus the tribe of Levi, and especially Aaron and his fellow priests, will be the first and the most vigilant servants of God.
What the other tribal leaders do not notice at the time is that their tribes have also been consecrated for service. The matteh that is both Aaron’s staff and the tribe of Levi becomes an early-blooming tree. The implication is that the other eleven staffs/tribes could bloom later. They, too, have spent the night in the Holy of Holies, in front of the ark. They, too, are confirmed as important to God. And when the 40 years in the wilderness end, and the Israelites cross the Jordan into Canaan, every tribe does its job and obeys God’s orders—as transmitted by Joshua, from the tribe of Efrayim.
Alas, in this week’s Torah portion the Israelites overlook the positive symbolism of the twelve staffs. Right after viewing the staffs, they wail: We perish, we are lost, all of us are lost. Everyone who comes close, who comes close to the sanctuary of God dies. Will we ever be done with perishing? (Numbers 17:27-28)
Maybe they are too traumatized by all of God’s death sentences to notice a gentler message. But we can be more alert. What if parents who feel frustrated by their children’s mistakes consider them late bloomers? Instead of cutting them down, these parents might correct the children firmly but gently, and take care to nourish them until they finally bud.
What if when we get upset at our own mistakes, we remind ourselves that we are late bloomers? It is frustrating to be a bare branch—or staff—when we want to be full of flowers and fruit. But as long as we are alive and growing, we can learn better behavior. And we can learn to serve the divine with our own souls, in our own way.
May all late-bloomers be so blessed.