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Tzav Es B’Nei Yisrael (#1)


THETHEME of this week’s Torah portion, Korach, is the unique status ofAaron and his descendants as the kohanim, priests, of the Jewish people.G-d had chosen Moshe (Moses) to lead the Jews, and his brother Aaron to serveas High Priest. A cousin of theirs, Korach, challenged their authority, askingwhy he should not serve instead. After dealing with Korach and his followers(by causing them to be miraculously swallowed up by the earth), G-d instructedMoshe to conduct a public demonstration of His preference: each tribal head(including Aaron for the tribe of Levi) was to submit a rod, and the leaderwhom G-d chose would be identified by the miraculous blossoming of his rod. TheTorah recounts (Numbers 17:23), “And it came to pass, that on the followingday, Moshe went into the Tent of the Testimony [where he had left the rods],and behold, the rod of Aaron for the house of Levi had sprouted, and broughtforth buds, and blossomed, and yielded almonds.”

What isthe symbolism of this unique sign? Why did blossoming almonds, in particular,show that Aaron was the true kohein?

Beforeaddressing this issue, let us first resolve a seeming contradiction:

Eachday, we beseech G-d to grant us our various needs. For example, we pray (in theShemoneh Esreh prayer), “Heal us, O G-d…”; “Bless this year and allits varied crops”; and similar requests. Yet why should this daily supplicationbe necessary? It is an established principle that all a person’s needs for theyear are allocated in advance on Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year. After allour earnest High Holiday prayers for a good year, in response to which G-d setaside for us whatever He saw fit, why do we have to keep asking, day in and dayout, for health, food, and so on?

Theanswer is that the allocation on Rosh Hashanah is a broad, general allocationfor the year, but does not necessarily determine when, and in what amounts, thebenefits will be released. An example given in the Talmud (Rosh Hashanah17b) is that while a certain amount of rainfall may have been decreed for aparticular year, that by itself does not determine whether the crops will begood or bad. It is possible for abundant rain to fall out of season, when it isnot needed, but not enough during the growing season; it is also possible forrainfall to occur in geographic locations that do not need it, e.g., in theforest or the desert, yet not on farms and gardens. Thus, it is perfectlyappropriate to pray steadily for beneficial rain: just the right amount spreadthroughout the year, and in places where it will do some good.

Anotherexample might be the manner in which a corporate employee is reimbursed fromhis or her expense account. At the beginning of each year (let us say), theemployee’s expense account for the year is determined – the funds are allocatedfor that person’s use. However, that is a far cry from saying that the moneyhas literally been given to the person. Before they actually see any funds, theperson must first submit a reimbursement request – which must be filled outproperly, with all the “i”s dotted and “t”s crossed – and wait for it to gothrough the proper channels. At each step along the way, someone reviews theform, and, if all goes well, the money is eventually given to the employee. Butit is also possible that for some reason, a supervisor somewhere along thechain will question something about the request. The employee is seekingreimbursement for new tires on the company car; didn’t they just replace thetires recently? Or perhaps the sum of $1,000. seems excessive for thatoutsourced work; couldn’t it have been found for less?

It iseven possible that nothing in particular is amiss with the request, but theemployee personally is in disfavor, and management is “punishing” them byscrutinizing every request for funds in detail. The opposite could also happen:an especially valuable or favored employee might enjoy the benefit of theirsuperiors’ approving their expense requests with minimum or no scrutiny – “justgive them whatever they want.” The only thing that is out of the question is toincrease the size of the expense account. This can be done only at the beginningof the year, when the budget is being set or the contract negotiated, but onceit has been determined, it is generally final.

When wepray for our daily needs, we hope to get what we ask for right away. However,this is not always granted, even if the thing requested was “budgeted for” onRosh Hashanah. It is conceivable that, like the person in the expense accountexample, a person’s prayers are “fast-tracked” – perhaps they deserve specialtreatment because of some mitzvah they have done – or (G-d forbid) hampered bytheir relationship with G-d generally. There may be the spiritual equivalent ofnitpicking supervisors, “accusers” or “denouncers” that would draw attention toone’s sins or otherwise question one’s merit, thus holding up the flow of blessingto the person. We find an example of this in the Torah: G-d had foretold toKing David that his son Sh’lomo (Solomon) would become king over the Jews andwould build the Holy Temple (see I Chronicles 9-10). Yet, when David commandedTzadok the Priest, the prophet Nathan and B’nayahu the son of Y’hoyada to takeSh’lomo to the town of Gichon and there anoint him king, B’nayahu answered (IKings 1:36), “Amen, may G-d … say so.” Our sages point out (B’reishis Rabba,Vayishlach ch. 76) that, seemingly, B’nayahu should not have needed to wishfor G-d to decree as much, for He had already decreed it in His promise toDavid. However, they explain, what B’nayahu meant was that G-d should not allowanything to hamper the fulfillment of His word, since “Many accusers (kategorin)will arise between here and Gichon.”

It isthe role of the kohanim to guard against this, and to expedite G-d’sblessings to the Jews. To borrow one more time from that expense accountexample, they are, perhaps, like a benevolent mentor in management (or, betteryet, the employee’s uncle who owns the company), and they have the power tospeed the funds through. Indeed, in the Priestly Blessing (recited as part ofour holiday prayers; see Numbers 6:22-27), the kohanim bless us withthis form of “G-dspeed.” This is hinted at by Aaron’s name, which is spelledwith the same Hebrew letters as the word nireh, “we will see.” This is areference to the verse (Psalms 36:10) “For with You [O G-d] is the source oflife; in Your light we will see light.” That is, all the “light” or blessing wesee from G-d, Who is the source of all, comes to us through the spiritualchannel of Aaron and his descendants, the kohanim.

Blessingsfrom G-d originate in G-d’s own goodness, which is a spiritual level so lofty that we cannot compare itwith any form of blessing or goodness known to us. In fact, our forefatherAbraham, who embodied the attribute of kindness, nevertheless said of himself(Genesis 18:27), “I am dust and ashes.” What he meant is that although he epitomized– indeed, embodied – G-d’s attribute of kindness in this world (as explainedelsewhere), there was nevertheless such a vast difference between the G-dlykindness “compressed” as it were, within the human personality of Abraham, andG-d’s attribute of kindness as known to G-d Himself, that Abraham’s version wasbut dust and ashes compared to the real thing. On the way from G-d’s owngoodness all the way down to its expression in physical, worldly goodness –health, food, etc. – that mortals can enjoy, there are innumerable spiritualsteps along the way. At each such point, the spiritual goodness, the blessingfrom G-d, becomes a bit more material; but at each point also the question mayarise, “Is the intended recipient worthy that this extraordinary action betaken, that his or her blessing should proceed to the next stage?”

(Thisconcept – the initial allocation and confirmation on Rosh Hashanah and YomKippur, followed by the ongoing, daily allotment of a person’s blessingdepending upon their merit – is related to the Talmudic dispute (RoshHashanah 16a) as to whether one is judged on Rosh Hashanah or every day.However, this is not the place to analyze this dispute in detail.)

The kohanim’scontribution is to expedite this unimaginable journey, to see to it that ourblessings reach us speedily and without impediment along the way. This is afunction of G-d’s love for us, and is similar to what is written about G-d’srefusal to listen to the sorcerer Balaam as he tried to curse the Jews (G-dforbid) through mentioning their shortcomings. We are told (Deuteronomy 23:6),“G-d, your G-d, would not deign to listen to Balaam … for G-d, your G-d, lovedyou.” G-d would not allow anything to stand in the way of His relationship withus. Similarly, the kohanim recite, before blessing the people, “… Whohas sanctified us with His mitzvos and commanded us to bless His people Israel withlove.”

Thedistinction explained above between the ordinarily lengthy course of G-d’sblessings to the world, and the spiritual “fast track,” is hinted at by theverse (Psalms 147:15), “He sends forth His command upon the earth; His wordruns very swiftly.” The first half of this verse refers to the ordinaryprogression of the blessing with G-d sends forth. However, when we enjoy the“special treatment” conferred through the kohanim and the PriestlyBlessing, “His word runs very swiftly.”

With theabove in mind, we can understand the symbolism of almonds as a sign of thepriesthood. Our sages teach (towards the end of Koheles Rabba, 115b),“What is the distinctive feature of this almond? From the time it sprouts tothe time it ripens is [only] 21 days.” Almonds ripen faster than any otherproduce, and indeed, this fact is expressed by the Hebrew word for “almond,” shaked,which connotes speed and zeal – as it is written (Jeremiah 1:11-12), “And theword of G-d came to me, saying, ‘What do you see, Jeremiah?’ and I said, ‘I seea stick of an almond [tree].’ And G-d said to me, ‘You have perceived well, forI hasten to perform My word.’”

The reason G-d’s kindness flows so swiftly through Aaronand his descendants is that spiritually, there are two levels of kindness,known as “eternal kindness” (chessed olam, which can also be translated“worldly kindness”) and a higher level called “great kindness” (ravchessed). Aaron and the priests draw blessing to the Jews from the level of“great kindness,” which is so strong in its flow that it is like a mighty riverthat simply sweeps away any attempts to dam it up with sticks and things.

Finally, G-d is referred to (in the Shemoneh Esrehprayer) as “High G-d, Who renders (gomel) good kindnesses.” Thedescription of G-d’s kindness as “good” is an allusion to what is written aboutthe G-dly light He created (Genesis 1:4), “And G-d saw that the light wasgood.” As explained above, this image of light can be understood as applying tothe flow of G-d’s blessings upon us, which is why the name “Aaron” is relatedto the word “we will see [G-d’s light].” Thus, the above phrase uses the Hebrewword gomel, “renders” or “performs,” to describe the flow of G-d’skindness and blessing to us. (It is, in fact, a common use of the word, as inthe expression, g’milas chassadim, “performing [acts of] kindness.) Thisis the same word used in our verse about Aaron’s rod, which, as we now see, wasthe symbol of the speedy transmission of that G-dly light to us: vayigmolsh’keidim, it “ripened into almonds.”

Lo Tov Heyos HaAdam Levado
Mayim Rabim Lo Yuchlu L'Chabos
B'Etzem HaYom Hazeh Nimol Avrohom
Erda Na
Chayei Sara
V'Avraham Zakein Ba Bayamim
Vayachp'ru Avdei Yitzchok
Vayashkeim Lavan Baboker
Vayeavek Ish Imo
VeHinei Anachnu M'Almim Alumim
Ner Chanukah Mitzvah L'Hanicha
Vayigash Eilav Yehudah
Chachlili Einayim Miyayin