Flowers and Buds
In this week’s Parashah, after the episode of Korach and his followers casting aspersions on Moshe’s leadership and his choice of his brother Aharon as Kohen Gadol, after the earth swallows the rebels, the 250 are incinerated, and the 14,700 are killed by plague, Hashem commands Moshe to once-and-for-all prove that He (God), and not Moshe, made the choice of who would serve Him (God). Hashem told Moshe to take from each tribe one staff, upon which the name of the leader of the tribe was to be inscribed. The tribe of Levi was to have their own staff, upon which the name of Aharon was to be inscribed. The staffs were to be placed inside the Ohel Moed (Tent of Meeting), “And it shall be that the man whom I shall choose, his staff will blossom (17:16-20)." So says Adonai!
Moshe did as he was told, and the next day, when he entered the Mishkan, he found that, “the staff of Aharon, of the tribe of Levi, had blossomed. It brought forth a blossom, sprouted a bud, and had grown ripened almonds (17:23).” Moshe took the staffs and showed them to the nation, thus proving unequivocally that it was Hashem Who had chosen Aharon as Kohen Gadol.
Now let’s back up and talk about that miracle for a moment. Normally a plant buds, then flowers, and then produces fruit. The bud grows and opens into a flower. Once the fruit begins to grow, the flower falls off the plant. So, if Aharon’s staff had already produced fully ripened almonds as Torah states, how did they know it had budded and flowered? The Talmud (Yuma 52b) explains that something special happened: Just like Hashem up ended the natural laws back in Egypt with His plagues, so too here. In order that the Jews should bear witness to the fact that Aharon’s staff had budded and flowered, the flowers remained on the staff even after it had already produced the fully ripened almonds. Ritva (a 13th Century rabbi) explains that although there is no practical use for the flower after the staff had already borne fruit, Hashem caused it to remain in order to increase the magnitude of the miracle that had occurred. This was no naturally fruiting branch. (And there were, of course, many additional aspects to this miracle: Staffs don’t usually bear fruit, and the speed with which the almonds had grown (overnight), and so on.) One midrash I read suggests that although the Gemara does not mention it, the buds too remained. And this may be the answer to another natural riddle of this miracle. As I said above, normally a plant buds and then flowers and then fruits. But the Torah text says, “It brought forth a blossom, sprouted a bud, and had grown ripened almonds (17:23).” The order is wrong, and this too must have been a part of the miracle.
So now you may ask: Why was it so important that the Jews bear witness to the staff’s flowering and budding? Was the miracle of a fruit-bearing staff not great enough on its own?
It is in this answer that I will draw our lesson for today. Rabbi Moishe Feinstein, zichrono livrakha, an Orthodox legal authority born in Belarus around the same time as and very nearby where my Great Grandfather Samuel Frankloch, zichrono livrakha, was also born, wrote about this. Reb Moshe says that Hashem wanted us to realize that there is value not only in the fruit, but even in the flowers and buds which proceed it. The fruit, he explained, is the end-product; it is the final result of the process of tilling, sowing, watering, and harvesting. Normally, we judge the success of our work by the fruit it bears. For most of us, the process through which fruits are grown and find their way to our plate are of minor importance, at least in the context of actual fruit. For instance, if farmers were to come up with a method of growing wheat without first having to till the land, most of us wouldn’t really care so long as the final product, our bread and pasta, does not suffer.
In contrast, this is not so with mitzvot. The buds and flowers – that is, the effort we put into each mitzvah; the time, preparation, energy and enthusiasm, our kavanah and keva – are just as important as the final fruit (the mitzvah) itself. At times, we may expend great effort to learn Torah and do a mitzvah, and in the end may fail to achieve our goal. Normally we would think of this as a great failure; after all, our labor did not bear fruit. But that calculus is human, not Hashem. God is pleased not only by the results of our efforts, but even by the efforts themselves.
So why does the Torah teach us the value of the “flowers and buds” here, in the aftermath of Korach’s rebellion? There must be a connection, right?
Perhaps part of Korach’s fatal miscalculation was that he was focused on the end result. Recall Korach declaiming, “The entire assembly – all of them – are holy; so why do you elevate yourselves over the congregation of Hashem (16:3)?" Rashi counters Korach’s objection saying Yes, we all witnessed the Revelation at Sinai! In a narrow sense Korach was right; there was no essential difference between the experience of Moshe at Har Sinai and that of the rest of the Jews. They all heard Hashem’s word directly, without any intermediary. The end result – the fruit – was the same for all. The giving of Torah.
Yet for the rest of the Jews this was a gift. They had done little to deserve Revelation: Just seven weeks before, they had been mercifully removed from slavery in Egypt. Now they were being given the ultimate present, the Torah through direct Revelation.
Conversely, Moshe’s experience at Har Sinai, although similar to that of the rest of the Jews, was in fact very different. Moshe had, in a sense, been working up to this moment his entire life. As a youth in Egypt, he had defended the Jewish slaves. He had been hand-selected as the messenger of Hashem, who then, with God’s help, inflicted the Egyptians with ten plagues. He had led the Jews out of Egypt, and again with God’s help, split the sea for them. For Moshe, all of these were just preparations for the final step, the giving of the Torah. In a sense, Moshe’s “Har Sinai fruits” were fully budded and blossomed; whereas those of Am Yisrael were just “fruits on a stick.” So yes, Korach, “you all witnessed the Revelation at Sinai” – the “fruits” all tasted and looked the same, but in fact they were incomparable.
Now, how relevant is this lesson in today’s day and age. We live in a society where all that seems to matter is the “fruit.” Our chickens are given hormones, well not our chickens, that make them grow fatter quicker. They are grown in factory farms that are lit 24 hours a day so that they will eat more and sleep less. Who cares – so long as our food is good and cheap? Right? The same story can be told regarding our GMO produce. What long term harm are we doing to the environment and perhaps to ourselves by not putting in the time, preparation, energy and enthusiasm, the kavanah and keva of farming. And for those non-farmers among us, the research and preparation that goes into our shopping.
The examples are endless. It’s so easy to let convenience and (short-term) cost determine our actions. Modern society has grown accustomed to receiving everything we want on a silver platter, without considering how it gets there.
One of the midrashim I read about this Parashah had Korach testing Moshe in front of the people. He asked, if he had a Tallis made completely from tekhelet string would he still need to add tzitzit with a thread of tekhelet in each corner? Moshe said “Cayn, yes of course,” while Korach said no, we are already holy and shouldn’t have to do more. Korach was missing the point. It’s the tzitzit with the tekhelet, the highly visible blue string, that are commanded so as to be a reminder for us of the Mitzvot. Tying these special fringes to the 4 corners of our prayer shawls was an unnecessary, time-consuming waste to Korach who was focused on the end-fruit. Both have strings of tekhelet, but only one was the result of time, preparation, energy and enthusiasm. Only one was carefully constructed, with meditation on the 613 mitzvot as its knots were tied. Only one will create an instant mental connection for its wearer to the mitzvot whenever it is gazed upon. Korach’s convenient fruit is not the one.
It’s so easy to focus on the end product and lose sight of the value of what it takes to get there. We must remember the inestimable value of the “flowers and buds” of our mitzvot, and not be seduced by the flowerless fruits of convenience.
May our efforts at the “flowers and buds” of all mitzvot be reinvigorated as we seek to follow our Great Kohen Gadol, in His complete and perfect fulfillment of Torah.