July 18, 2024
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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 Hashem completed the creation of Heaven and Earth, in those liminal moments before the first Shabbat Kodesh descended upon the world, Hashem fashioned items that would emerge at various times in the future. One of those items was the staff of Aharon 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, Moshe and Aharon, 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 Moshe, 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, Hashem called for each tribal leader to submit a wooden staff with their name carved into it. The next day, Aharon’s staff was discovered to have sprouted leaves, blossoms and almonds. The other staffs were still dead. Hashem 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 Aharon.

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

Why not sapphire, as is Hashem’s throne? Why not gold, as the band crowning Aharon? Why not some other meaningful fruit, like pomegranates or walnuts? Midrash Rabbah on Korach (18:23) explains that those fruits have characteristics that are compared favorably to those of the Jewish People and it would be inappropriate to use them to recall this dark episode, so… almonds.

The same Midrash teaches that the almonds (shekaydim; the root word also means “to hurry”) were ripened (va’yigmol; the root word also means “to enact”), to suggest that Hashem “meted out (gamal) retribution to anyone who would hasten (shokayd) to render evil” to Aharon’s tribe.

Rashi attempts to answer the question about almonds. “That is the fruit that reaches maturity most quickly of all—and the punishment of one who illegitimately claims the priesthood is quick to arrive.” He then cites Onkelos who suggests that such a punishment would be as that which afflicted Uzziah—who also challenged leadership—a disfigurement on his forehead that looked like a cluster of almonds.

Rabbeinu Bahya (B’midbar 17:23:2) suggests, “The reason the staff produced almonds instead of some other fruit is because not only are almonds highly regarded, but they are the first to mature after winter. The word shakayd (almond) suggests a kind of eagerness attributed by the prophet Yirmiyahu to Hashem as ‘eager to perform My word.”

Other homiletical interpretations call upon wordplay or imagery to suggest that almonds ripen faster than any other fruits, and the priests, descendants of Aharon, swiftly bring Hashem’s blessings to the Jewish People. Or eagerly perform the Temple service. Or that almonds, with their stems, branches and flowers, represent the Menorah, which was kindled by Aharon and his descendants.

All of these explanations 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 Aharon’s staff would have to unravel scholarly maneuvers to draw the meaning from this symbol that Hashem may have intended: Despite the entire nation’s being imbued with kedusha, it is Aharon and his family who hold the exclusive franchise to lead this endeavor.

Here is how I see it: To understand how Hashem 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 קְדֹשִׁים (holy, kedoshimwith Hebrew letters transliterated as K-D-SH-M), all of them, and Hashem is in their midst. Why then do you raise yourselves above Hashem’s congregation?” (Numbers 16:3)

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

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

When we rearrange the same exact Hebrew letters from “almonds—שְׁקֵדִים/shekaydim” and “holy—קְדֹשִׁים/kedoshim,” we clearly see that,

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

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 revealed 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 him. 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.


Robert Lichtman lives in West Orange, and often draws upon his long tenure of professional leadership to teach and write about strategic issues and opportunities impacting the Jewish community, and other things.

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