Synagogue goers this week will hear the biblical story of Korach: a revolution in three days of screaming headlines: “Rebels Master Moses in Surprise Israelite Coup!” Then, “Earth Swallows Rebel Leaders!” And, finally, “Aaronide Priests Purge Rebels, Regain Power.” This looks like a banana-republic revolt suppressed by the old-guard that then restores the status quo ante.
But the tale is deeper than that. Look at the two miracles with which it 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. Why then do we get the second miracle, and why precisely here? The answer lies in a deft piece of literary construction — the arrangement of two miracles 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 dead piece of wood (the staff) flowers as if it were still alive.
From life to death; from death to life: this is a metaphoric treatment of life and death.
The Hebrew for “staff,” moreover (mateh) also means “tribe,” so the Levites’ blossoming staff signifies that its owners will take the Israelites forward in their ongoing struggle against dying in the desert. The rebels go from life to death; the tribes who follow Moses and Aaron will fight off death to celebrate life renewed.
The staff is like a conductor’s baton or a magician’s magic rod, where owning and operating produce music or magic, but only in the hand of the right user. The rebels most assuredly had their own staffs, but wielded (perhaps) the way riot police swing clubs. They 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, priests or tribal chiefs (who had their own rods, according to the story). 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 we fasten magnetically to the refrigerator door; or a camera for family photos charting a child’s growth 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.