Rabbi David Walk
This is not an ad for flowers, rather it's a tribute to flowers. Flowers make us feel good. As the golfing great, Walter Hagen, once famously said, 'You're only here for a short visit. Don't hurry, don't worry. And be sure to smell the flowers along the way.' Except for that part about not worrying (that works for Alfred E. Neuman, not for me), that's a great philosophy. And that quote reminds us that flowers appeal to more than one sense. Even those of us with allergies can occasionally appreciate the fragrant allure of flowers. However, in this week's Torah reading flowers are brought to new spiritual heights as we shall soon see. In Les Miserables, Victor Hugo described Jean Valjean's version of paradise as, 'A few flowers at his feet, and above him the stars.' We'll see how much they have in common.
In this week's parsha the Jews challenge the authority of both Moshe and Aharon. From our perspective it's very hard to discern what these malcontents hoped to achieve. It appears to us that God has shown support for the brothers many times over However, Korach, Datan, Aviram, On ben Pelet and at least 250 others are ready to proclaim themselves candidates for leadership. Sounds like the number of politicians declaring for the US presidency in 2016. Their efforts clearly fail and this episode concludes with the death of all those involved. But for some reason God demands one more test. Speak to the children and take from them a staff for each father's house from all the chieftains according to their fathers' houses; a total of twelve staffs, and inscribe each man's name on his staff. Inscribe Aaron's name on the staff of Levi, for there is only one staff for the head of their fathers' house. You shall place the staffs in the Tent of Meeting before the Ark of the Testimony where I commune with you. The staff of the man whom I will choose will blossom, and I will calm down turning away from Myself the complaints of the children of Israel which they are complaining against you (Numbers 17:17-20).
It seems that this final test is intended as encouragement and reinforcement. It's important that each tribal chieftain brings their own staff. They are being informed that their staffs are also signs of leadership and importance. The tribal responsibility is also significant and each of them should feel the need to be the best for their tribe. People don't sense an urge to complain or dissent if they perceive that their own place in society is appreciated and productive. And then there is the staff of Aharon. This demonstration will teach the nation about the true role of the Cohen and the appropriateness of Aharon's appointment. The nation must finally acknowledge that this is a meritocracy, not nepotism.
There's a variation on that theme I just presented, in the Sfat Emet, the second Gerrer Rebbe (1848-1906), we have another reason why all the tribes had to bring their staffs. The power of the Cohen Gadol really derives from his role as representative of the entire Jewish nation. When the tribal scepters were placed in the portable temple the other twelve staffs were placed around that of Aharon and the Levi'im. This arrangement symbolized this concept. The Sfat Emet goes on to explain that this is true of all Jewish leaders, including Chassidic Rebbeim, their power is derived from the support of the followers. The leader collects the potential of all these supporters and brings all of that prospective power to fruition.
It's that metaphor which ended the previous paragraph, which I want to discuss. We use that image all the time. We often talk about the fruits of your labor or as Aristotle said, 'Friendship is a slow ripening fruit.' And we have the same phenomenon in our test of the staffs. We've already seen that the staffs are placed before the Ark, and the results are observed the next morning, 'Moses walked into the Tent of Testimony the next day and saw that Aaron's staff, the staff of the tribe of Levi, had in fact sprouted—buds, blossoms, and even ripe almonds! Moses brought out all the staffs from God's presence and presented them to the People of Israel. They took a good look (17:23-24).' This miracle is wondrous and Divinely proved the status of Aharon, but there's a problem. The verse records that the staff of Aharon blossomed, budded and bore fruit. Did anyone see this process? Did Moshe show the nation the finished product? If so why describe the process. Some say that Moshe observed this phenomenon when he entered the Holy of Hollies, others say that everyone saw this happen. Moshe help up the staff and it went through all the steps like time lapsed photography. Why do we need all that information? Just let us know the winner.
Besides being really cool, witnessing the whole development is critical. Reb Moshe Feinstein explained that the initial steps are important to know because we want leaders that don't only produce ultimate results. We (like those annoying math teachers in high school) want to know how they arrived at that conclusion. We demand that the procedure be pure and moral. We demand from our leaders proper motivations as well as successful outcomes.
There is another important idea for the Cohanim as well. They must go though many steps before reaching the pinnacle of spiritual development. The first step in producing these crucial products is to grow and flower in preparation. This is why our Sages referred to the young Cohanim as pirchei kahuna, the flowers of the priesthood. Then the mature Cohein Gadol wears the tzitz or bud on his forehead. Only after these critical steps have been traversed can the Cohen expect to witness the fruit of his efforts, namely the spiritual development of the nation.
Everybody is interested in the final result, the fruit of our hard work. However, we must bear in mind that there are seemingly many overnight successes, but they all worked hard and long to get there. Remember the fragrance of the flowers lingers in the fruit.