I learned a lot writing this week’s dvar Torah. It was surprising and rewarding. After finishing it, I dedicated it to the memory of my friend, Tzvi Epstein. He died months ago, but as you’ll see he lives on in this Torah reading. Please, take the time to read or listen – I think you too will find it a rewarding trip through the Torah.
Welcome back to the Joseph Cox show. This is the episode for Parshat Korach – covering the rebellion of Korach. This episode is dedicated to the memory of Tzvi Epstein – I’ll explain why at the end. His connections to this reading run very deep indeed.
For me, the strangest part of parshat Korach isn’t the earth swallowing the rebels. It isn’t the plague or the emergency offering that brings it to a close. It isn’t the firepans being turned into a covering for the Aron.
No, for me, the strangest part is the story of Aaron’s staff yielding buds, flowers and almonds. Everything about that story is strange. The strangest part of all is the impact that it had.
All of the story of the Exodus has taken only a few years so far. For 38 years after Aaron’s staff blooms, there is quiet. There is no rebellion. There is no violence. There is no plague.
Aaron’s staff yielding almonds seems to bring this peace. And that, after all the miracles and punishments and plagues, is very strange indeed.
Instead of analyzing this reading through the story of Korach, I’m going to work backwards from the story of Aaron’s staff. I believe that through this staff we can understand so much of what came before and so much of what is yet to come.
First off, let’s begin with the simple symbolism of this miracle. I say simple, because there are a number of levels to the miracle and they do start simple. But quickly, very quickly, they begin to get more complicated and their tentacles reach throughout the Torah.
Aaron’s staff yields almonds. Today we tend to think of almonds as a perfectly tasty and easy to find nut. They aren’t actually a nut, but the core of a fruit. More akin to a peach than a walnut. This is not what makes almonds remarkable. What’s makes them remarkable is that wild almonds are poisonous. Very, very, poisonous. The tree, in order to protect itself, infuses its fruit with a compound called glycoside amygdalin. When injected, it breaks down into several components including, you guessed it, hydrogen cyanide. Wild almonds kill. Peach cores will also kill, but we don’t tend to eat them – although they were used as a poison in ancient Egypt.
We aren’t entirely sure of the timelines, but sometime between 12,000 and 3,000 BCE, there was a genetic shift in at least one almond tree. It didn’t produce the glycoside amygdalin. Or, at least, it produced far less of it. I’d guess this happened about the year 3,750 BCE, for reasons we’ll get to.
Humans began to cultivate those almonds. So domesticated almonds were safe and full of wonderful nutrients. And wild almonds could kill. You have to ingest them and the dosage is related to body size – but pretty quickly you’d be feeling very very bad indeed.
So, on one level, an almond represents, in one fruit, good and evil.
See, the connection back to the very beginning. The tree of knowledge of good and evil. If you eat it, you will get very sick and maybe die. You know you will. It is an almond.
And then you eat it and it is good. Then, you learn something new. You learn to use your own judgement. You learn to assess and to discriminate – in a good way. You learn to act independently. You learn that you are capable of all of this. You learn that there is more to you than simply living.
Just before the fruit is eaten, Adam and Chava are called arum. We translate it as ‘naked’, but it used later to describe murder with intent and the walls of the sea forming something solid. It means they had a function and a purpose. But they were not ashamed because they did not know it.
The snake, in the next verse, is described as the most arum of all the animals of the field. It had a purpose. And then after Chava and Adam eat, their eyes are open and they realize they have a function and a purpose. They learn to judge.
And then they make clothing to protect themselves. Not because they know what to do, but because they know there is something worth protecting. And they know they are not living up to their potential.
The almond could do all of this.
For hundreds of thousands of years we have homo sapiens. Smart humans. They we have Adam and Chava, homo divinus, the first people aware of G-d. And moments after their creation we have homo propositum. People with goals.
We were meant to eat of the fruit. G-d doesn’t kick us out because of it. He kicks us out because when we were confronted, we lied and passed the buck. Rather than growing to homo onus – ‘responsible man’ – we shirked our responsibilities and failed to grow our identities.
There’s another connection to the garden story. Bitter almonds aren’t poisonous to smell or to touch. It is only when they are eaten that the enzymes that break down the amygdalin are mixed with it and produce the cyanide.
The Torah doesn’t tell us the fruit in the garden is an almond, but almonds do come up explicitly in one other context.
The Menorah has branches and flowers and pods like almonds. I believe the Menorah, which burns but is never consumed, is a representation of the sneh – the burning bush. Perhaps that too was an almond.
The word sneh is always used for that bush. But the shoresh (root) is used in another context. The three angels strike the townspeople of S’dom with blindness. Rashi suggests this is from the same root. And the Ibn Ezra suggests it can mean inhospitable. There is this darkness to this word.
It suggests a deadly tree. But it burns and there is light.
When this tree burns but is not consumed there is the symbolism of the creation of spiritual energy without destruction – this uniquely divine power.
But there is also this contrast between dark and light.
Judaism famously battled Zoroastrianism. Zoroastrianism holds that there is a good G-d and a bad G-d. emphasize that there is only one G-d. And so, our first blessing of the shema is:
יוֹצֵר אוֹר וּבוֹרֵא חֽשֶׁךְ
He wills light and creates darkness.
There is only one G-d and He creates both good and evil.
The burning almond bush captures this concept as well.
The Menorah captures it as well.
And Aaron’s bush recalls all of this. This is the emblem of Hashem.
But the question still remains: why would this miracle, of all miracles, finally quiet the people?
To answer this question, w need only rewind within this parsha.
When the people complain to Hashem – after the deaths of those who brought incense and the consumption of Datan and Aviram by the earth itself – they say: “You have killed the nation of Hashem.”
There is this massive miracle – the earth opening up and swallowing Datan and Aviram. And before it does, Moshe says:
If these men die the common death of all men, and be visited after the visitation of all men, then Hashem has not sent Me. If Hashem makes a new thing, and the ground opens her mouth, and swallows them up, with all that appertain unto them, and they go down alive into Sheol, then you shall understand that these men have despised Hashem.
How, after this incredible miracle, can the people doubt Moshe? How can they call Datan and Aviram men of G-d? What memo didn’t they receive?
Yes, there was S’dom, but by and large the G-d of their forefathers was a G-d of little miracles. Fecund flocks, abundant crops, promises of a future, interpretations of dreams. These were not grand actions but, by and large, small kindnesses. With the Exodus, Hashem reveals something new – power. But it is not the display of power that makes the people believe. Instead, when Moshe returns from the sneh he shows the little signs he learned in the desert and the people believed. All is good.
In the next chapter, when Moshe and Aaron go to Pharoah, the slavery is made worse and something critical is revealed. The people send their leaders to Moshe and Aaron and they say:
יֵרֶא יְקוָק עֲלֵיכֶם וְיִשְׁפֹּט: אֲשֶׁר הִבְאַשְׁתֶּם אֶת-רֵיחֵנוּ, בְּעֵינֵי פַרְעֹה וּבְעֵינֵי עֲבָדָיו
“The LORD look upon you, and judge; because ye have made our savour to be abhorred in the eyes of Pharaoh, and in the eyes of his servants”
The people are blaming Moshe – for not truly representing Hashem.
This idea carries through. When times are good, they are good. But when they are not, Moshe is blamed.
When they’re cornered at the sea, they say to Moshe: “’Because there were no graves in Egypt, hast thou taken us away to die in the wilderness?”
When they were thirsty in the desert: “the people murmured against Moses.”
When they are hungry in the desert: “the children of Israel murmured against Moses and against Aaron in the wilderness;”
When they were thirsty again, “the people murmured against Moses”
When they rebelled in Parshat Beaalotcha we read: “And the people were as murmurers, speaking evil in the ears of the LORD;”
But it doesn’t say they spoke evil about Hashem. More likely they were like Miriam later in the reading – speaking evil about Moshe, but to Aaron.
We begin to see a shift with the sin of the spies. This sin revealed so much about the nation’s character – listen to last week’s episode to get what I mean. But even here they didn’t directly rebel against Hashem. “And all the children of Israel murmured against Moses and against Aaron…”
They ask: “Why did Hashem bring us here?”
But perhaps that was a prayer – a question for G-d in opposition to Moshe. When they come close to stoning Moshe, Aaron and Yohoshua Hashem says:
And the LORD said unto Moses: ‘How long will this people despise Me? and how long will they not believe in Me, for all the signs which I have wrought among them?
And then a little later…
‘How long shall I bear with this evil congregation, that keep murmuring against Me? I have heard the murmurings of the children of Israel, which they keep murmuring against Me.
Hashem is seeing rebellion. But as a part of that, the people aren’t seeing Hashem. They are seeing something they despise, something that they won’t accept. Something they resist. It is no longer simply resistance to Moshe – they are resisting whatever it is that Moshe has behind him.
As I talked about last week, the people see themselves as grasshoppers. They move, they travel, they shift. Yes, they don’t want to be civilized. But they are little. They are just people. The grandeur of the Canaanites seems beyond them. The grandeur of great events is beyond them. They do not see themselves as a people of great events. And when in the midst of such events, few people do.
We read the text and see the hand of Hashem. See, it says Hashem did X or Y. But the people, they don’t experience it that way. Moshe did X or Y. If something miraculous or incredible happened, but it is Moshe saying that Hashem is behind it. And when Moshe protected them after the sin of the calf or the crossing of the sea? The people simply don’t see it. They aren’t privy to the conversations we can read.
Even when they see Hashem himself, they don’t know what they are seeing.
And then when the actions of Hashem seem incompatible with the nation – when they are great when the people are smell – then the people begin to question Hashem Himself.
It is in this context that Korach and Datan and Aviram rebel. Yes, there are ulterior motives. They are accompanied by men of name – reputation seekers who never turn out well in the Torah. But let’s take their arguments at face value. They argue that all the Congregation is Holy. When confronted by Moshe, Datan and Aviram argue that he has not delivered on his promises. Sure, the people resisted going up into the land. But, even so, Moshe did not deliver. They just wanted to plant their vineyards in the land of milk and honey but all Moshe seems to want is power. He wants, despite his failures:
כִּי-תִשְׂתָּרֵר עָלֵינוּ, גַּם-הִשְׂתָּרֵר
Because you rule over us, also ruling?
And then they say, essentially, “even if you take our eyes out, we won’t come up.”
There’s this idea that Moshe is driven by power and acts through deception. The people’s vision is obscured by him. Datan and Aviram won’t take it anymore. The next day, Moshe comes to them. Hashem has him clear the area out. And then Datan and Aviram and their wives and sons and infants come and stand at the doors of their tents. They stand tall and proud.
And they die that way.
No wonder the people think that they were the men of G-d.
They seemed to represent the G-dly within us.
So what do they think of Moshe? Moshe here was not deceptive, he showed everybody what would happen. Nonetheless, he brings failure and plague and death. Whatever power he serves brings failure and plague and death. The earth opening is no kind of proof. It is a sacrifice to Sheol. The word might come the same root as Sha’al, meaning “to ask”, “demand” or “question.” It suggests a lack of answers. A lack of meaning. If we break the word into two roots, it could be from שוא Shava (lacking value) and אלל Alal (empty). It is a meaninglessness.
Questions, but no answers.
We often translate it as the Jewish version of hell. Being sent down to Sheol is meaningless death just as the sacrifice to AzAzel implies complete disappearance.
This is no proof of Hashem.
Indeed, when the people flee they don’t say they are fleeing G-d.
Instead, they are crying out: “the earth will eat us.”
The lack of proof of G-dliness is increased by Moshe’s speech. The Torah does not show the earth opening as being G-d’s idea. It is presented as Moshe’s. Moshe forces the proof on Hashem. He forces the death of the infants in order to make a point.
There are only two outcomes he allows for – normal lives or miraculous death.
Even if Hashem is the power behind Moshe, this reads more like divine manipulation that divine support.
Moshe rescues the people from Hashem – in front of Hashem – but the people remain unconvinced. As they see it, something must be terribly wrong with the reality they are facing.
Remember, the G-d of their forefathers was a G-d of little miracles.
So G-d brings a plague and Aaron stops it through an incense offering. Kohanim (priests) do not normally bring incense. In fact, I believe the bringing of incense is what condemned Nadav and Avihu and Korach’s Levites in this parsha. Incense is emotion, a Kohen’s offering has no incense. They are a pass-through. Korach’s Levites didn’t see themselves that way and so they died just as Nadav and Avihu had. But here, Aaron offers incense. He offers emotion to stop the plague. It isn’t a sign to Hashem, it is a sign to the people. The message is that Moshe and Aaron are on their side.
וַיַּעֲמֹד בֵּין-הַמֵּתִים, וּבֵין הַחַיִּים
[Aaron] stands between the dead and the living.
Nonetheless, doubts must remain.
What force are Moshe and Aaron manipulating? What danger are they exposing the people to? Is Moshe’s G-d simply a G-d of Power. Is that all Moshe serves?
And then Hashem decides on a new path. The 12 staffs of the leaders of the tribes will be gathered together. They will stay overnight in the Tent of Testimony. And then when Aaron’s comes out, it will have blossomed and yielded the fruit of the almond tree. The goal, Hashem says, is:
I will make to cease from Me the murmurings of the children of Israel, which they murmur against you.’
Hashem will protect Moshe from the rebellions.
And this works. After all the grand miracles, this finally does the trick.
And perhaps now, we can understand why.
On the very simplest level, the flowers sprout from a dead staff – there is the creation of life after death. Digging a bit more and the flowers recall the Menorah and creation without destruction. The staff bears fruit, speaking to the promise of a future.
This sign is not the message of great power. This miracle is like those known by the forefathers. It is the sign of a G-d of little miracles and great promise. It is a symbol they can understand and embrace.
The people know this symbol.
And it shows Aaron is the servant of this power – the carrier of this message.
And, yet, it is hardly a miracle. Moshe could have snuck into the Tent of Testimony with a reasonably straight almond branch. He could have scratched Aaron’s name into it. And voila, miracle! This isn’t the ground opening up in front of the entire congregation. There is ample opportunity for deception. No eyes need be gouged out.
But in that case, the message is even more convincing.
If it is a trick or a deception, it would still show Moshe’s understanding. Life and knowledge of good and evil are symbols of Hashem. The future and life from death are symbols of Hashem. Creation without destruction is a symbol of Hashem.
Moshe, even if this is a trick, demonstrates that he is a representative of the G-d the people expect.
The miracle, though, comes with another message. It comes with:
יוֹצֵר אוֹר וּבוֹרֵא חֽשֶׁךְ
He wills light and creates darkness
The almond is the symbol of life and death and good and evil. It is the symbol of the inhospitable sneh and the light of the Menorah.
Hashem is the G-d of Good and Evil.
The evil the people have suffered is not a trick from Moshe. It is not the result of some dark force. It is not the result of Hashem Himself being evil.
No, everything comes in one package.
From the time the people first claimed Moshe would be judged by G-d for his actions in Egypt, they accused Moshe of representing something else. Something ungodly. Some force of evil.
In this moment, they realize it isn’t true.
וַיֹּאמְרוּ בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל, אֶל-מֹשֶׁה לֵאמֹר: הֵן גָּוַעְנוּ אָבַדְנוּ, כֻּלָּנוּ אָבָדְנוּ. כֹּל הַקָּרֵב הַקָּרֵב אֶל-מִשְׁכַּן יְקוָק, יָמוּת; הַאִם תַּמְנוּ, לִגְוֺעַ.
I’m going to translate Gavah as ‘exhausted’ – it happens just before death when it is used in other cases. And I’ll translate Avad as ‘lost’. So the verse says:
And the children of Israel spoke unto Moses, saying: Behold, we are exhausted. We are lost. Every one of us is lost. All who approach the Mishkan (Tabernacle) of Hashem will die. We will be entirely exhausted.
They realize it all comes in one package. They realize they’ve misunderstood the entire time. At one end, with the sin of the calf (you can listen to that episode), they thought of themselves as being godlike as a community. With Korach and Datan and Aviram they thought of themselves as G-d’s people.
But they did not understand.
Moshe was acting on behalf of Hashem. Hashem is a G-d of power, of control of the past, present and future, of plague and death. But Hashem is also the G-d of life and promise and small miracles. And Moshe has been representing Hashem the entire time.
They are lost because they do not understand. They can not process this. They can’t grasp what they have learned. They know they do not understand and so they know they must remain far from the Mishkan. To be close to Hashem, they must obey that which they cannot grasp.
In a way, they have to reverse the lesson of the tree in the garden.
They know good and evil, but they obey the Almighty.
This realization, this moment of change, leads to 38 years of peace.
The almond branch is the symbol of a still, small, voice. It is the symbol of Hashem.
It is different in another way – from those grand miracles. To understand the almond branch, you must think. The branch raises you up. It isn’t a cudgel or plague. It is relying on you to understand it. Not your emotions or your fears, but your mind.
The people who recognize the branch are not fleeing emotionally like some animal from a sinkhole. They are being spoken to and they are listening.
Near the beginning of the reading, Korach says to Moshe and Aaron: Rav Lachem (It is enough for you). After all, as Korach puts it, all the people are Holy. Moshe and Aaron have too much.
Moshe responds by saying to the Levite rebels, Rav Lachem (it is enough for you) to be Levites. In essence, you are not Holy enough to expect more.
All of this provides a poetic book end. In Devarim, when recalling the events of the next Parsha – Parshat Chukat – Moshe remembers that Hashem banished him from the land of Israel saying: Rav Lach (It is enough for you.)
Moshe criticizes the rebels because they are not the right leaders for the people. The people are not all Holy. But in this reading, they take the first steps to becoming a Holy people. They take on the first steps to being the people of whom “Ma Tovu” “How goodly are your tents” is sung. Or Az Yashir Yisrael – the Song of Israel. They become the people who can dwell in Kadesh.
They become the people who must be spoken to, rather than struck.
And it all starts here.
Moshe criticizes Korach’s band because they are not the right leaders for a people who are not all Holy. And then, only one reading later, Hashem punishes Moshe because he is not the right leader for a nation which is.
At the beginning of this reading, Moshe defends himself against Korach by saying he hasn’t taken a single donkey from the people. The stiff-necked people are like donkeys. I believe Moshe was saying that he hasn’t changed the people. He’s protected them and allowed them to remain who they are.
With this reading, that is no longer true.
Hashem, through the simple sign of a blooming almond branch, has finally transformed the people.
What does all this mean for us, today? On one level, we have to listen for that thin small voice. Our lives may seem entirely plausible within the rules of nature. The little miracles we experience can be explained away like an almond branch snuck into a tent at night. But if we listen, if we are willing to hear, then we can discover another truth. We can unlock another reality.
Twice in this reading Hashem says to Moshe and Aaron:
Get up or separate yourself
מִתּוֹךְ הָעֵדָה הַזֹּאת וַאֲכַלֶּה אֹתָם, כְּרָגַע
from among these testifiers and I will consume them in a moment.
In a way, this is exactly what occurs. They testified to things that were not so: that Moshe was the servant of something other than the divine, that all of the people were Holy and that holiness is defined by us, and that the miracles were the signs of only power – and a dark power at that.
And then in an instant, their testimony was consumed.
We too testify, just as the people did. We imagine all of the people are Holy and that holiness is defined by us. We imagine that the miracles and commands in the Torah speak to a dark G-d who should not be followed. As Christian Bale, who played Moshe in Ridley Scott’s Exodus movie, said: “I think the man was likely schizophrenic and was one of the most barbaric individuals that I ever read about in my life.”
He is speaking about Moshe. We can understand this. We can easily imagine that Moshe was not a servant of any sort of good G-d.
And, yet, if we only open our eyes and accept the thin, small, voice in our lives then – in an instant – we too can be transformed. Our testimony can be consumed and we can enjoy peace with our Lord.
As the famous song says:
עֵץ חַיִּים הִיא לַמַּחֲזִיקִים בָּהּ. וְתמְכֶיהָ מְאֻשָּׁר: דְּרָכֶיהָ דַרְכֵי נעַם וְכָל נְתִיבותֶיהָ שָׁלום: הֲשִׁיבֵנוּ ה’ אֵלֶיךָ וְנָשׁוּבָה. חַדֵּשׁ יָמֵינוּ כְּקֶדֶם:
It is a tree of life for those who hold fast to it, and those who uphold it are happy. Its ways are pleasant, and all of its paths peaceful. Return us to you, Hashem, so that we shall return, renew our days as of old.
There is just one final note.
I mentioned that I wanted to dedicate this episode to the memory of Tzvi Epstein. He was a friend who passed away months ago, but I haven’t dedicated an episode to him. The reason is simple – none of the intervening parshiot (Torah readings) really related to him.
But he had a connection to this parsha. To this interpretation.
For years Tzvi danced on the delicate line between life and death. He lived probably 5 standard deviations longer than normal for his illness. With a few rare bursts, he totally avoided chemo and radiation therapy. He did ‘natural’ treatments combined with Western treatments and thought very carefully about everything. He was like a living almond tree.
Despite all the evil he experienced, he was full of life and joy and caring. He was a deeply happy man. Among other things, he found his joy through his connection to Hashem – and his troubles were somehow a part of that connection.
And, just like Hakadosh Baruch Hu, he took care of us when it was needed. At one point, when we really needed money, he not only realized our situation, but he hired me to research his alternate medical therapies and give a second set of eyes to his thought process. I don’t know if he needed those eyes, he was plenty bright all by himself. But I did need him, and he helped me while preserving my honor.
If you were looking, you could find the thin, small, voice of G-d in the actions of Tzvi Epstein.
Last, but not least, he was a creator par excellence. He invented many things. I don’t know all of them, but I know one – and so do you. He invented the underlying technology that made the inkjet printer possible.
Put all of this together and I am honored for the opportunity to honor Tzvi here in this reading. It is the most fitting of readings for that honor.
Shabbat Shalom and thank you for reading.