Jewish learning The Blossoming Almond Staff of Aaron
Reflections on Parashat Korach (Numbers 16:1 – 18:32)
Inspired by Rabbi Giulia Fleishman’s `22 teaching of BeMidbar
For Van Gogh, white almond blossom branches set against the blue sky were a favorite subject of painting. In 1890, he made a gift of the famous “Almond Blossom” painting (above) to his brother Theo and his sister-in-law, Jo, who had just had a baby son. They named their son after their brother, Vincent, who later that year took his own life. The artist’s nephew, Vincent Willem, then went on to found the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam. Hope and despair, life and death cling to the same branch.
What grants hope in the wake of calamity? This week’s Torah reading, Parashat Korach (Numbers 16:1-18:32), is rife with rebellion and divine death decrees: the 250 chieftains, wielding their firepans, are burnt alive (16:35); Korach, Dathan and Abiram, along with their followers, are swallowed by the mouth of the earth (16:32-33); 14,700 Israelites are swept away in a plague ostensibly because they blame Moses and Aaron for bringing all this death upon the people (17:6). All this death, indeed! That whole generation would walk, over the course of the next forty years, through the Valley of Death, subject to God’s judgment. They were destined to die for their faithlessness in heeding the spies’ report (14:32-34). According to one ghoulish image, every year on Tisha b’Av (1), Moses sent out a crier, telling them to dig themselves bed-tombs at night; most would rise in the morning, though every year 15,000 went missing, swallowed by unmarked graves in the desert sand. On the last Tisha b’Av of the fortieth year, all the survivors arose alive, brushing off the sand, blinking in the bright morning light (Lamentations Rabbah Petichta 33, author’s paraphrase).
As a reprieve to this morbid narrative, we are given an image of Aaron’s blossoming staff. It appears in the context of a dispute about the legitimacy of the divinely chosen leadership. The chieftain of each tribe was ordered to contribute a staff, inscribed with his name, along with the staff of Levi, inscribed with Aaron’s name, and the twelve staffs were placed before the Ark in the Tent of Meeting. God tells Moses: “The staff of the man whom I (God) have chosen shall sprout, and I will allay from Myself (va-hashikoti me-‘alai) the grumblings of the Israelites that they grumble about you (‘aleikhem, pl. Moses and Aaron)” (Numbers 17:20, author’s translation). They did so; the next day, when Moses entered the Tent, “there the staff of Aaron of the house of Levi had sprouted: it had brought forth sprouts, produced blossoms, and borne almonds” (v. 23). What message does this remarkable blossoming staff convey? And to whom is the message directed?
According to the biblical botanist, Noga Hareuveni, the almond is one of the first fruit trees to blossom in spring in the Land of Israel. It rapidly buds leaves, develops new branches, and forms its sustaining fruit—all before the flower’s calyx drops off. That is, the fruit and outermost petals of the blossom cling to the tree at once; the fading sepals and bitter nut, process and product, hang out together simultaneously. Its Hebrew name, shaqed, means “the early waker,” and it signifies God’s watchfulness and vigilant response (Jeremiah 1:11-12). Is Aaron’s almond blossom staff then a symbol of God’s scrutiny and quick judgment—a warning to the Israelites—or is it a sign of hope, of life in the death-wracked camp?
God orders Aaron’s staff to be placed before the Pact “as a memorial (le-mishmeret), as a sign to rebels, so that their grumblings against Me may cease lest they die” (Num. 17:25). Yet, as soon as it is placed in the Ark, in the Holy of Holies, along with the jar of Manna (Exodus 16:32-34), and the shards of the first and second sets of Tablets of the Law (T. Sota 13:1, b. Horayot 12a), it becomes inaccessible to the people! Once Solomon placed the Ark in precincts of the First Temple, it was presumably never taken out again (1 Kgs 8:1–11; cf. 2 Chr 5:2–14). Perhaps the memorial, mishmeret, is meant rather for God and posterity. God avowed in setting up the test: “I will allay, or cause to abate (va-hashikoti, root sh.k.k.) from Myself the grumblings of Israel” (Num. 17:20), just as the waters of the Flood abated from the face of the earth (va-yashoku, Genesis 8:1) and the anger of the Persian King Ahasuerus was allayed (ka-shokh, Esther 2:1, and shakhakhah, 7:10). Perhaps the flowering staff reminds God to burst out—not in fury but in blossom, and then to hold tenaciously to the process of the people’s growth, like the calyx of the blossom holds the hard, bitter nut of the almond in the spring.
In her book Orwell’s Roses, Rebecca Solnit recounts how, in the spring of 1936, Orwell planted roses in the yard of his house in Wallington, England. Though he left to fight in the Spanish civil war, he returned six years later to find that “the little white rose, no bigger than a boy’s catapult when I put it in, had grown into a huge vigorous bush, while the blossom of the pink rose was tumbling over the fence.” The author of the dystopian 1984, and of numerous articles critical of fascist regimes and rapacious capitalism, lived with a deep abiding love for roses and trees, for growing things. In placing a seedling in the ground, Orwell expressed a commitment to hope, alongside his vigilance to see the cause of suffering in the world around him.
According to legend, the staff of Aaron was created at twilight on the Sixth Day of Creation (M. Avot 5:6, b. Pesachim 54a); it will be the very staff that the Messiah wields upon entering Jerusalem in the End Days (BeMidbar Rabbah 18:20). The staff thus represents continuity, a kind of time capsule, like the rings of the great Sequoia trees in California. Solnit offers us an idea-word for this:
There’s an Etruscan word, saeculum, that describes the span of time lived by the oldest person present, sometimes calculated to be about a hundred years. In a looser sense, the word means the expanse of time during which something is in living memory….To us, trees seemed to offer another kind of saeculum, a longer time scale and deeper continuity, giving shelter from our ephemerality the way that a tree might offer literal shelter under its boughs.
Aaron’s staff in the Ark, as it traveled with the people through the desert sojourn, served as a kind of saeculum. The never-dying blossom offered hope, even if only in the imagination as it was sequestered, unseen, in the Holy of Holies. There would be generations to follow, to carry that Ark into the Temple precincts and plant trees in the Land of Israel, reap their fruit and paint their blossoms.
(1) The great day of calamity for the Jewish people, associated with the Destruction of the First and Second Temple, ‘inaugurated’ first by the people weeping in response to the Spies’ report (Num. 16:1, b. Taanit 29a).
Rav Rachel Adelman (PhD, the Hebrew University of Jerusalem) is Associate Professor of Hebrew Bible at Hebrew College, where she recently earned rabbinic ordination (2021). She is the author of several academic and popular articles in Jewish studies, as well as two books: The Return of the Repressed: Pirqe de-Rabbi Eliezer and the Pseudepigrapha (Brill, 2009) and The Female Ruse: Women’s Deception and Divine Sanction in the Hebrew Bible (Sheffield Press, 2015). She is currently working on a new monograph: Daughters in Danger, from the Hebrew Bible to Modern Midrash. When not writing books, papers, or divrei Torah, it is poetry that flows from her pen.