Waving wands of life

Waving wands of life

Korach | Numbers 16:1-18:32

The story of Korach is a revolution in 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 leadership, which then restores the status quo ante. 

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 in the earth’s crust. In the second, a staff belonging to the Levites suddenly blossoms as if it were alive. 

The story could have ended with the first miracle: The rebels perish, Moses and Aaron are vindicated, end of tale. But nothing in Torah is gratuitous; why the second miracle, and why here? 

Its appearance here provides the literary finesse of two miracles arranged as mirror images. First the rebels, full of life, are sucked into the earth to die. Then a staff — just a piece of wood — miraculously flowers as if it were still part of a living tree. The Hebrew for “staff” (mateh), moreover, 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 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 had their own staffs, but wielded them the way riot police swing clubs, producing only death. The Levitical staff is deposited in the sacred shrine where God’s presence is manifest — 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: 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 on the refrigerator door, a camera that takes photos charting a baby’s growth from toddler to teenager: These are 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 to let a green shoot of promise reach toward the sunlight. Savor, then, the ability to love, create, weave miracles. 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 open up, but for good, not evil.

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