The theme of this week's Torah portion, Korach, is the unique status of Aaron and his descendants as the priests (kohanim) of the Jewish people. G‑d had chosen Moses to lead the Jews and his brother Aaron to serve as High Priest. A cousin of theirs, Korach, challenged their authority, asking why he should not serve instead. After punishing Korach and his followers (by causing them to be miraculously swallowed up by the earth), G‑d instructed Moses 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 leader whom G‑d chose would be identified by the miraculous blossoming of his rod.

The Torah recounts, "And it came to pass, that on the following day, Moses 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 brought forth buds, and blossomed, and yielded almonds." (Num. 17:23)

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

...a certain amount of itself does not determine whether the crops will be good or bad….

Before addressing this issue, let us first resolve a seeming contradiction: Each day, we beseech G‑d to grant us our various needs. For example, we pray (in the Standing Prayer), "Heal us, O G‑d...", "Bless this year and all its varied crops", and similar requests. Yet why should this daily supplication be necessary? It is an established principle that all a person's needs for the year are allocated in advance on Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year. After all our earnest High Holiday prayers for a good year, in response to which G‑d set aside for us whatever He saw fit, why do we have to keep asking, day in and day out, for health, food, and so on?

The answer is that the allocation on Rosh Hashanah is a broad, general allocation for the year, but does not necessarily determine when, and in what amounts, the benefits will be released. An example given in the Talmud is that, while a certain amount of rainfall may have been decreed for a particular year, that by itself does not determine whether the crops will be good or bad. (Rosh Hashanah 17b) It is possible for abundant rain to fall out of season, when it is not needed, but not enough during the growing season; it is also possible for rainfall to occur in geographic locations that do not need it, e.g. in the forest or the desert, yet not on farms and gardens. Thus, it is perfectly appropriate to pray steadily for beneficial rain: just the right amount spread throughout the year, and in places where it will do some good.

When we pray 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" on Rosh Hashanah. It is conceivable that a person's prayers are "fast-tracked" - perhaps they deserve special treatment because of some mitzvah they have done or (G‑d forbid) hampered by their poor relationship with G‑d generally. There may be "accusers" or "denouncers" that would draw attention to one's sins or otherwise question one's merit, thus holding up the flow of blessing to the person. We find an example of this in the Torah: G‑d had foretold to King David that his son Solomon would become king over the Jews and would build the Holy Temple (see I Chronicles 9-10). Yet, when David commanded Tzadok the Priest, the prophet Nathan and Benayahu the son of Yehoyada to take Solomon to the town of Gichon and there anoint him king, Benayahu answered, "Amen, may G‑d … say so." (Kings I 1:36) Our Sages point out that, seemingly, Benayahu should not have needed to wish for G‑d to decree as much, for He had already decreed it in His promise to David. However, they explain, what Benayahu meant was that G‑d should not allow anything to hamper the fulfillment of His word, since "Many accusers will arise between here and Gichon." (Bereishit Rabba, Vayishlach, ch. 76)

The priest's contribution is…to see to it that our blessings reach us speedily….

It is the role of the priests to guard against this, and to expedite G‑d's blessings to the Jews. To borrow one more time from that expense account example, they are, perhaps, like a benevolent mentor in management (or, better yet, the employee's uncle who owns the company), and they have the power to speed the funds through. Indeed, in the Priestly Blessing (recited as part of our holiday prayers; see Numbers 6:22-27), the priests bless us with this form of "G‑dspeed". This is hinted at by Aaron's name, which is spelled with the same Hebrew letters as the word "nir'eh", meaning "we will see." This is a reference to the verse "For with You [O G‑d] is the source of life; in Your light we will see light." (Psalms 36:10) That is, all the "light", or blessing, we see from G‑d, Who is the source of all, comes to us through the spiritual channel of Aaron and his descendants, the priests.

Blessings from G‑d originate in G‑d's own goodness, which is a spiritual level so lofty that we cannot compare it with any form of blessing or goodness known to us. In fact, our forefather Abraham, who embodied the attribute of kindness, nevertheless said of himself, "I am dust and ashes." (Gen. 18:27) What he meant is that although he embodied G‑d's attribute of kindness in this world, there was nevertheless such a vast difference between the G‑dly kindness "compressed" as it were, within the human personality of Abraham, and G‑d's attribute of kindness as known to G‑d Himself, that Abraham's version was but dust and ashes compared to the real thing. On the way from G‑d's own goodness all the way down to its expression in physical, worldly goodness - health, food, etc. - that mortals can enjoy, there are innumerable spiritual steps along the way. At each such point, the spiritual goodness, the blessing from G‑d, becomes a bit more material; but at each point also the question may arise, "Is the intended recipient worthy that this extraordinary action be taken, that his or her blessing should proceed to the next stage?"

The priest's contribution is to expedite this unimaginable journey, to see to it that our blessings reach us speedily and without impediment along the way. This is a function of G‑d's love for us, and is similar to what is written about G‑d's refusal to listen to the sorcerer Balaam as he tried to curse the Jews through mentioning their shortcomings. We are told, "G‑d, your G‑d, would not deign to listen to Balaam … for G‑d, your G‑d, loved you." (Deut. 23:6) G‑d would not allow anything to stand in the way of His relationship with us. Similarly, before blessing the people the priests recite, "… Who has sanctified us with His mitzvot and commanded us to bless His people Israel with love."

Spiritually, there are two levels of kindness….

The distinction explained above between the ordinarily lengthy course of G‑d's blessings to the world, and the spiritual "fast track", is hinted at by the verse, "He sends forth His command upon the earth; His word runs very swiftly." (Psalms 147:15) The first half of this verse refers to the ordinary progression of the blessing with G‑d sends forth. However, when we enjoy the "special treatment" conferred through the priests and the Priestly Blessing, "His word runs very swiftly".

With the above in mind, we can understand the symbolism of almonds as a sign of the priesthood. Our Sages teach, "What is the distinctive feature of this almond? From the time it sprouts to the time it ripens is [only] 21 days." (Kohelet Rabba, 115b) Almonds ripen faster than any other produce, and indeed, this fact is expressed by the Hebrew word for "almond", "shaked", which connotes speed and zeal, as it is written, "And the word of G‑d came to me, saying, 'What do you see, Jeremiah?' And I said, 'I see a stick of an almond tree.' And G‑d said to me, 'You have perceived well, for I hasten to perform My word.'" (Jeremiah 1:11-12)

The reason G‑d's kindness flows so swiftly through Aaron and his descendants is that, spiritually, there are two levels of kindness, known as "eternal kindness" in Hebrew, "chesed olam", which can also be translated "worldly kindness") and a higher level called "great kindness" "rav chesed") 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 river that simply sweeps away any attempts to dam it up with sticks and things.

Finally, G‑d is referred to (in the Standing Prayer) as "High G‑d, Who renders [in Hebrew, 'gomel'] good aspects of kindness".The description of G‑d's kindness as "good" is an allusion to what is written about the G‑dly light He created, "And G‑d saw that the light was good." (Gen. 1:4) As explained above, this image of light can be understood as applying to the flow of G‑d's blessings upon us, which is why the name "Aaron" is related to the word "we will see [G‑d's light]". Thus, the above phrase uses the Hebrew word "gomel", "renders", to describe the flow of G‑d's kindness and blessing to us. This is the same word used in our verse about Aaron's rod, which, as we now see, was the symbol of the speedy transmission of that G‑dly light to us: "vayig'mol sh'keidim", it "ripened into almonds".

Copyright 2001 Yitzchok D. Wagshul /
Adapted from a discourse in Likutei Torah.

Translator's disclaimer: The Hebrew original contains much more than could possibly be presented here. Thus, for those with the ability to learn in Hebrew, this synopsis should not be considered a substitute for the original discourse.