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G-d spoke to Moses: "Speak to the Israelites and take from each of them… twelve staffs, one from each of the houses of their fathers. Inscribe Aaron's name on the staff of Levi… You shall put them down in the Tent of Meeting before the Testimony, where I will meet with you. The staff belonging to the man I choose will blossom… And I will (thus) put a stop to the complaints of the Israelites…" Moses came to the Tent of the Testimony and behold – it was the staff of Aaron which had blossomed… sprouted a bud, and ripened into almonds. Moses brought out all the staffs from before G-d to the Israelites. They saw, and each man took his staff (17:16-24).
Up until now, the Parasha recounts a wave of revolts against Moses' and Aaron's authority. These were responsible for the death of Korach and his 250 men, and a further 14,500 in the plague (17:14).
In order to put a stop to further 'complaints of the Israelites' – which was also detaining them forty years in the desert – G-d told Moses that He would co-operate in an object lesson. Each tribe – including Aaron from the tribe of Levi – would place his staff in the Holy of Holies. Only Aaron's staff would blossom. That would signify that Aaron and the tribe of Levi were those exclusively chosen by G-d for His service in the Tabernacle (and later the Temple).
The text relates that indeed Aaron's staff was the one that blossomed. All the staffs were then returned by Moses to their respective tribes and 'they saw, and each man took his staff''. Nobody claimed that Aaron's flowering staff was witchcraft.
The only other recorded miracles where nature was defied in the presence of a large public to show that G-d was supreme and meant what He said was in the Northern Kingdom of Israel. That was after the Division of the Kingdom, under the Prophet Elijah. Recall that the ten-tribes Northern Kingdom of Israel was generally materially successful and prosperous, but idolatrous and almost completely broken away from its spiritual roots. (In contrast, the Southern Kingdom of Judea with the Temple in Jerusalem was materially less well-off, but kept to its spiritual moorings for much longer.)
Unlike Moses and Aaron, Elijah put G-d to the test without His instruction. Would He indeed consume the offering dedicated to Him before the public of Israel on Mount Carmel? 'Answer me, O G-d, answer me' (Kings I 18:37), prayed Elijah. The Rabbis bring the tradition that the double use of 'answer me' is two separate pleas. The first is that He should bring down the fire that would consume the offering and the water. And the second was that the people should indeed recognize the Hand of G-d in the miracle, and not claim that Elijah used witchcraft. And both prayers were answered: 'the fire came down and consumed the offering and the water… All the people saw and fell on their faces and declared: "The Almighty: He is G-d! The Almighty: He is G-d!"' (Kings I 18:38-9). None of the public claimed that Elijah had done an act of sorcery.
It might be suggested that Elijah treated the passage in this Parasha as an indication of what to do when a whole people was turning away from the authority of G-d and those He chose – in his case with the Jezebel-imported and most popular Phoenician practice of Baal worship. He learnt that from this story that G-d intervenes to show His people that 'the one he chooses' is the one who should be followed.
But with Moses it was one miracle – and one miracle only. Never again was the authority of the spiritual leadership to be reinforced by supernatural divine intervention. It was to be supported by the mitzvot – passed on from generation to generation. These mitzvot form the content of the final part of the Parasha: the priesthood were to receive regular supplies of meat, grain, and fruit from the people. That would establish the regular tradition, from generation to generation. It would not only enhance the receiver, but also the giver. By performing those regular mitzvot, he would bring himself closer to G-d – and 'tune in' to His 'still small voice'. As an individual.
Which essentially is what G-d gently reminded Elijah. After the miracle of the fire and his flight from Queen Jezebel's attempt to murder him, he arrived at a cave on Mount Sinai – 'the mountain of G-d at Horev' (Kings I 19:8). G-d showed him that He did not appear in powerful wind gust, not in the earthquake, nor in the fire – but instead in the 'still small voice'. That still small voice may be interpreted in the individual following sacred tradition enabling him to tune into G-d – within nature, not outside it.
It is not that the age of miracles has past. But it could be that G-d has given us means to find Him within the Creation, and mitzva observance creates a path to that goal.
For those looking for more comprehensive material, questions and answers on the Parasha may be found at http://www.shemayisrael.com/parsha/solomon/questions/ and on the material on the Haftara at http://www.shemayisrael.com/parsha/solomon/haftara/ .
Written by Jacob Solomon. Tel 02 673 7998. E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org for any points you wish to raise and/or to join those that receive this Parasha sheet every week.
Parashiot from the First, Second, and Third Series may be viewed on the Shema Yisrael web-site: http://www.shemayisrael.com/parsha/solomon/archives/archives.htm
Also by Jacob Solomon:
This article is provided as part of Shema Yisrael Torah Network
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