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The Staff of Aaron, Kohen Gadol

Maimonides states in his “Laws of the Chosen House” (4:1):

There was a rock in the western side of the Holy of Holies (the special chamber in the Holy Temple). On this rock the Ark was placed. In front of the rock was the canister on Manna and the staff or Aaron. When King Solomon built the Temple, he knew that in the end it would be destroyed. He built a chamber below (the Temple), in the circuitous, subterranean caverns to hide the Ark. At the time of King Yoshiyahu, he commanded that it be hidden in the chamber that King Solomon had built… and they hid with it (the Ark) the canister of Manna, Aaron’s staff and the Anointing Oil. None of these were returned in the Second Temple.

What was the special quality of Aaron’s staff that made it worthy to be placed in the holiest room of the portable Tabernacle (Mishkan) and later in the Holy Temple built in Jerusalem by King Solomon?

This week’s Torah parsha, Korach, recounts a rebellion that took place after the ill-fated event of the spies. On the surface it appeared to be a rebellion against Moshe and Aaron. In actuality it was a challenge and rebellion against God and the entire system of Judaism. Korach was a first cousin to Moshe and Aaron. In the account recorded by the Torah, Moshe now appointed their youngest cousin, Elitzafon, to be head of the Kahathite family. This appointment by Moshe made Elitzafon superior in a leadership position to his older cousin, Korach. Korach attacked Moshe now, not only for being bypassed for leadership, but retroactively for Moshe taking the position of king and giving Aaron the position of high priest.

After Korach and his 252 followers were killed in miraculous ways, “The entire assembly of the Children of Israel complained on the morrow against Moshe and Aaron saying, ‘You have killed the people of Hashem!” Another plague ensued killing another 14,700 people until it was stopped by the intercession of Moshe and Aaron. (17:5-15)

Then God commands the people through Moshe, to take the staff of the head of each tribe. Aaron’s staff was also taken as he was the head of the Tribe of Levi. Each man’s name was written on his staff. These staffs were placed in the Tent of the Meeting, the Mishkan, before the Testimony (in that holiest chamber where the Ark was kept as described above). The owner of the staff that would blossom in the morning would be the person chosen by God to be the high priest. This process would put an end to the complaints. (17:16-20) The next morning Moshe brought out all of the staffs in plain view of all the people. The staff with Aaron’s name on it had sprouted a full cluster of almonds. The others were bare. (17:21-24)

“Hashem then said to Moshe, ‘Bring back the staff of Aaron before the Testimony as safekeeping, as a sign for rebellious ones, let them cease their complaints from Me that they die not.” And Moshe did as God commanded him.” (17:25-26) Here is the source for placing and keeping the staff of Aaron in the holiest chamber of the Mishkan and Temple directly in front of the Ark. We also see that the Torah reveals that the rebellion was against God but misplaced onto Moshe and Aaron.

What was the cause or source of the rebellion? The Torah only relates events that have relevance to us for all time. Lurking behind conscious mind of people and what is difficult for many to come to terms with is the fact that the Oral Law, the entire system of Judaism, was given by God to Moshe. Who was to be high priest, or what is considered work on Shabbat, or what determines whether something is kosher, or what are legal signs of property ownership, and so on and so on, where not made up by Moshe. If they were in fact man-made, then Korach and others that have taken this position throughout our history would be right. Let the determination of the system of Judaism be democratic (we all stood at Har Sinai) and changeable according to the times.

But the Torah clearly states at the beginning of this parsha, “Moshe said, with this you shall know that Hashem sent me to perform all of these acts, that it was not from my heart.” (16:28, my emphasis). What is the common reaction by people then and today when they don’t like the law? They say it was man-made, and suitable for that time. The law doesn’t apply today. If Moshe were alive in our modern era, he would have never made this or that law.

Why all of these arguments? Accepting the reality of a God given Oral Law communicated to one man, Moshe, (keep in mind nothing had not yet been written down) is without study very difficult. Even with study, if the result of the analysis goes against your feelings, emotions, or desires be they for physical enjoyment (sexual prohibitions) or of the psychological realm (ego of being the leader of the synagogue service), the easiest way out of the problem is to ask who made these laws and in turn answer, just another man like you and me.

The underlying message and theme of this week’s Torah portion is to clearly demonstrate once and for all the source of all that makes up Judaism, God. Aaron’s staff, with his name carved onto it and the almond blossoms adorning it, was placed specifically in front to the Ark of the Testimony to serve as an eternal reminder of the source for the entire system of Judaism. Aaron’s staff still exists today and will be brought back together with the Ark, the canister of Manna and Anointing Oil when the Moshiach rebuilds the Holy Temple in Jerusalem.

May we merit to see the rebuilding of our Holy Temple in Jerusalem and the enactment of the entire system of Judaism in full compliance with the word of God. May Hashem continue His protecting care over Israel, Jews and God-fearing people the world over.

Shabbat Shalom,

Rabbi Robert Kaplan