Two Miracles In The Desert
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Two Miracles In The Desert

Rabbi Lawrence A. Hoffman is a professor of liturgy, worship and ritual at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion, and the author of “My People’s Prayer Book: Traditional Prayers, Modern Commentaries,” winner of the National Jewish Book Award.

Candlelighting, Readings:
Candlelighting: 8:12 p.m.
Torah Reading: Numbers 16:1-18:32
Haftarah: I Samuel 11:14-12:22
Sabbath Ends: 9:21 p.m.

The story of Korach is a revolution in three days of screaming headlines: “Rebels Master Moses in Surprise Israelite Coup!” Then, “Earth Swallows Rebel Leaders!” And, finally, “Aaronite Priests Purges Rebels, Regain Power.” This looks like a banana-republic revolt suppressed by the old-guard leadership, which then restores the status quo.

But the Rabbis rarely limit their vision to such prosaic retellings. Among other things, they focus on two miracles, with which the sedra ends. In the first, the rebels die by being swallowed up into a fissure that miraculously opens up in the earth’s crust. In the second, a staff belonging to the Levites suddenly blossoms as if it were still alive.

The story could have ended with the first miracle alone: the rebels perish; Moses and Aaron are vindicated; end of tale. But nothing in Torah is gratuitous; it is very carefully composed. Why then do we get the second miracle, and why precisely here?

Its appearance here provides the literary finesse of two miracles arranged back to back as mirror images of each other. First the rebels, full of life, are sucked up into the earth to die. Then a staff — just a piece of wood, really — miraculously flowers as if it were still part of the living tree that sprouted it. The Hebrew for “staff” (“mateh”) also means “tribe.” So this is no mere story of political rebellion. It is a subtle treatment of life and death. The Levites’ blossoming staff is a sign that its owners will take the Israelites forward in their ongoing struggle with the desert.

The rebels go from life to death; the tribes who follow Moses and Aaron celebrate life renewed.

We should think of the staff as a conductor’s baton or a magician’s magic rod. Owning and operating them produce music or magic, but only in the hand of the right user. The rebels most assuredly had their own staffs, but produce only death. The Levitical staff is deposited in the sacred shrine where God’s presence is manifest. That is to say, it is used only for sacred ends.

At one extreme, then, Korach’s demonic abuse of power reverses the miracle of life. At the other extreme, we see the possibility of music from a dead baton, magic from an ordinary wand, and flowers from a leader’s sacred staff.

Few of us are actual conductors, magicians and chiefs (tribal, family, corporate or other). But we all work with staffs of some sort: the extensions of our hands, minds, and hearts by which we hope to make life flourish — pen and paper to dash a note to those we love; a preschooler’s paintings that get magnetically fastened to the refrigerator door; or a camera that takes family photos charting stage by stage how an infant grows from toddler to teenager. Pens, paint, or cameras: these are examples of modern-day staffs that can blossom.

The death of the rebels is dramatic and memorable. But I prefer the flowering of the staff: not the way the earth opens up to swallow evil, but the way it opens also to let a green shoot of promise reach toward the sunlight. Judaism regularly elects that image. What do we say whenever we eat bread, that staple which we call also the staff (!) of life? “Blessed [is God] for bringing forth bread from the earth.” We do not, upon experiencing an earthquake, praise God for swallowing up evil.

Savor, then, the ability to love, to create, to weave miracles into life’s tapestry. Let your home and work be places where you wave your wands of life and bring forth music and magic. You, too, can watch the earth on which you walk open up, but for good and not for evil. 

Rabbi Lawrence Hoffman, co-founder of Synagogue 3000, and professor of Liturgy, Worship and Ritual at the Hebrew Union College, is the author of “My People’s Prayer Book,” winner of the National Jewish Book Award for Modern Jewish Thought and Experience.

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