Rabbi O’s Weekly Parsha: Korach (Numbers 16-18) This Bud’s for You

One Sentence Synopsis of this week’s Torah portion: A man named Korach convinced 250 men to join him in challenging Moses’ leadership and accuses him of placing his (Moses’) own interests before the rest of the people [due to his choice of his brother, Aaron, as Kohen Gadol (High Priest)].

The Almighty commands Moses to prove once-and-for-all that G-d, not Moses, makes the choice of who would serve Him. Moses was told to take a staff from each tribe and to inscribe the name of the leader of the tribe on it. The staffs were then placed inside the sanctuary “And it shall be that the man whom I shall choose, his staff will blossom.” (ibid. 17:16-20) A miracle would be needed to confirm this. When Moses entered the sanctuary the next day he noticed that the staff of Aaron, of the tribe of Levi, had blossomed. It brought forth a blossom, sprouted a bud, and had grown ripened almonds. (17:23) Moses took the staffs and showed them to the nation, thus proving unequivocally that it was G-d who had chosen Aaron as Kohen Gadol.

There were many aspects to this miracle: staffs don’t usually bear fruit and almonds don’t grow overnight but there was something odd here. One does not need a degree in horticulture to know that first a plant buds, then produces flowers and finally yields fruit. When the fruit begins to grow, the flower falls off the plant. The Talmud (Yoma52b) asks, if Aaron’s staff had already produced fully ripened almonds, how did the people know it had budded and flowered? The answer teaches us a unique aspect of the miracle; the flower remained on the staff even after it had already produced fully ripened almonds. Even though there was no practical use for the flowers after the staff had already borne fruit, it remained in order to increase the magnitude of the miracle. However, one there is still an obvious question: why was it necessary for the Jews to bear witness to the staff’s budding and flowering? (A lifeless staff that suddenly grows almonds would be called a miracle by most people; why did they need to see it bud and flower also?)

Rabbi Moshe Feinstein (1895-1986) has an instructive insight: G-d wanted the people of that generation as well as the rest of us to realize that there is value not only in the fruit but also in the flowers and buds which proceed it. The fruit, he explains, is the end product; 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 but the process is of minor importance. For example, if farmers were to come up with a method of growing wheat without first having to till the land, we wouldn’t really care as long as the final product does not suffer as a result.

This rule, however, does not apply to Judaism and the Torah and mitzvos that are its bulwark. The buds and flowers – the effort we put into a mitzvah; the time, preparation, energy and enthusiasm – are just as important as the final fruit–the mitzvah itself. At times one may expend great effort to learn Torah or do a mitzvah but in the end fail to achieve one’s goal. Normally we would think of this as a great failure; after all, his or her labor did not bear fruit. This is not so; G-d is pleased not only by the results of our efforts, but even by the efforts themselves.

This idea is uniquely relevant in contemporary society. We live in a world that places the emphasis on the “fruit.” Chickens are given hormones that make them grow fatter quicker. They are grown in coops that are lit 24/7 in order that they eat more and sleep less. Who cares – as long as our foods are better, fatter and cheaper. So, too, for genetically-modified tomatoes and other fruits and vegetables. It is also true of school–good grades trump effort. The gifted student who doesn’t study will receives the honors; the hard working and committed less gifted student will remain unrecognized. We need not list every example but the main thing for us to realize is that it is so easy for this attitude to trickle into our Torah and mitzvos as well. Once upon a time, one had to be dedicated and expend time and energy to know the basic laws regarding Jewish observance but now one can easily and effortlessly find them online. One can buy ready-made food for Shabbat and there is no crime in it but it cannot compare to a house in which Shabbat preparations are a family activity that begins earlier in the week. Passover is a different experience for those who spend weeks cleaning the house and preparing the food and discussion for the Seder. Chanukah can be a Menorah lighting experience (and one has fulfilled the minimal mitzvah requirement by doing so) but it is not the same as learning about the ancient Greeks, the Hellenists, and the ideas culled from the festival.

In Jewish consciousness, preparation is sometime seen as being as important as the mitzvah itself. If someone worked hard to fulfill a mitzvah and was not able to do it, s/he is still rewarded for the effort. If one cooked food for a person in need and then the person found another source of food, the person or people who bought, prepped and cooked the food is still rewarded. G-d does not merely want us to do mitzvos, He also values the effort we put into it. ON a human level we understand this. When a husband spends hours, days, and weeks preparing for a meaningful anniversary celebration at the same waterfall where they originally met, and prepares the same lunch they had on their first date and other details in the history of their relationship, even if his wife is called away on an urgent matter and plans have to be cancelled, her love for him due to his effort cannot be described, nor can the new level of endearment she now has for him in her heart.

The love between a husband and wife serves as a metaphor in Jewish classical sources for the relationship between G-d and the Jewish people. Sometimes we tragically default into a thought process that focuses on the end product but lose sight of the value of what it took to get there. The next time we get seduced by flowerless fruits (i.e. just results) we need to change our focus and think about the inestimable value in the “flowers and buds” in our lives and most importantly as it relates to our mitzvos.
(Sources: Ritva, Yoma 52b; Drash Moshe; Rabbi Eliyahu Hoffman