Parshat Korach: The Secret of Aaron's Staff

This article is based on a recorded lecture, whcih you can listen to below.


Leadership Challenged

In parshat Korach, the Torah describes Korach’s challenge to the leadership of Moses and Aaron.

Korach, the son of Yitzhar, the son of Kehat, the son of Levi, and Datan and Aviram, the sons of Eli’av, and On, the son of Pelet of the sons of Reu’ven took men and they rose up before Moshe… They gathered together against Moshe and against Aaron and said to them, “You take to much for yourself. The entire congregation is holy, every one of them, and God is in them. Why then do you raise yourselves above the congregation of God?”1

Korach, like Moshe Rabbeinu, was a Levite and a well-respected leader in his tribe. Indeed, he too possessed a very great and lofty soul and his popularity among people misguided him causing him to dispute Moshe and his brother Aaron’s Divinely appointed leadership.

Like everything else in the Torah, this episode and its lessons are eternal. In this case, the eternal aspect lies in the reenactment of the challenge posed by Korach to Moshe anew in every generation. The Tikunei Zohar explains that Moshe’s soul extends and is reincarnated in every generation. Likewise, posing a challenge to the Moshe of the generation is the Korach in every generation. Only in the generation of Mashiach will the Korach of the generation admit to and follow the leadership of the Moshe Rabbeinu of that generation. Thus, this particular drama has tremendous meaning for us today.

The Blossoming of the Barren Staff

Even though Korach was unsuccessful and God made it clear that Moshe and Aaron were indeed His choice for leadership, there remained a sense of discontent among the people, particularly regarding Aaron’s role as the High Priest. To quiet these feelings, the Almighty instructed Moshe to do the following,

…Take from each one of them a staff, one from each of the princes [of the tribes]… twelve staffs. Write every man’s name upon his staff. And write Aaron’s name on the staff of Levi, for they have one staff for all the heads of their patriarchal households. Lay these staffs in the [Holy of Holies] before the Testimony, where I shall meet with you. And, the man who I choose, his staff shall blossom and thereby I shall quiet the complaints of the Jewish people that they murmur against you.2

The purpose of carrying this process out was to see which patriarchal leader of which tribe was God’s choice for serving as the High Priest. Though the tribe of Levi had no official leader or prince (as did the other tribes), Aaron, as the already anointed High Priest, served as their representative. To indicate His choice, God would perform a miracle of making one of the staffs blossom. Rashi notes that Moshe intentionally placed Aaron’s staff in the middle of all the others, in the most neutral place. This was in order to preclude claims that Aaron’s staff had blossomed because of a more advantageous position, closer to the Ark of the Covenant or further from it.

Masculine and Feminine Aspects of Serving God

To understand the symbolism inherent in such a miracle it is important to first note that blossoming is particularly related to the feminine dimension of reality. We usually associate blossoms, flowers, and fruit with femininity. What then might Aaron as High Priest have to do with blossoming? Moreover, as we shall see in more detail later, the Torah makes it a point that the choice God makes will be between the patriarchal leaders of the tribes. Why would the selection of a patriarchal leader be made with blossoms on his staff? There is a clear mixing of feminine and masculine imagery here.

The answer can be found by first observing that the Tabernacle (and later the Holy Temple), a symbol and manifestation of the marital relationship between the Jewish people and the Almighty, has two centers or focal points.3 The first focus of the Tabernacle is the altar. The second focus was the Ark of the Covenant in the holy of holies. The altar served as the physical focal point, representing the yearning of the mundane to be elevated. On it the sacrifices were burnt, their smell invoking pleasure Above. The ark served as the spiritual focal point, representing God’s yearning to make Himself a dwelling place in the mundane, by revealing His will. From between its cherubs, the Divine Presence would speak and be heard by Moshe Rabbeinu. Thus, the altar represents the feminine yearning for spiritual elevation and the ark the masculine need to conquer and transform the physical realm.

Between Moshe and his brother Aaron, it is clear that Moshe performed the duties related to the masculine, Ark-of-the-Covenant focal point of the Tabernacle, while Aaron’s duties revolved around the service of the altar and the rest of the holy vessels, representing the feminine aspect of serving God. Indeed, as archetypal souls, Moshe and Aaron correspond to the two sefirot victory and acknowledgment, also a masculine-feminine pair.

We can now say that the role of the priesthood, represented by Aaron, is to function as does a woman in her household. In the Tabernacle (and later in the Holy Temple), Aaron and his sons were responsible for lighting the candles, baking the bread, setting the table; roles, that relative to the role given to Moshe Rabbeinu—hearing the Divine speech from between the two cherubs—are feminine in nature. Thus, to a certain extent the blossoming of a staff indicates the ability of the male to not only conquer the physical realm but to be sensitive to its needs and nurture its development and growth.4 God’s choice of Aaron for the role of the High Priest was based on his being a patriarchal leader who could connect with his feminine side and express the feminine yearning for serving God.

The Four Part Miracle

Now, let us return to look at the miracle of Aaron’s staff more closely.

The staff (מַטֶה ), a symbol of leadership, is by definition a barren piece of wood5 that naturally cannot blossom. More specifically, the staff represents the authority granted the patriarchal head of each family. This point is made by the Torah in the verses quoted earlier.

…One staff for all the heads of their patriarchal households…

The phrase “patriarchal households” (בֵּית אָב ) is synonymous with families. But, the Hebrew word for “family” (מִשְׁפָּחָה ) stems from the word “maidservant” (שִׁפְחַה ), linking it with the figure of the mother and her female servants who run the household. Yet, in using the phrase “patriarchal households” the Torah is stressing the paternal side of the family structure.

We tend to see the mother as the central figure of the home. Indeed, in Hebrew, the mother is called “the principal of the home”6 (עֲקֶרֶת הַבַּיִת ). Yet here, we see how the entire house of God (the Tabernacle and the Temple) is dependent on the father figure’s essence being revealed as the progenitor of the entire family. Thus, the Torah describes the miracle that happened to Aaron’s staff with the following words,

In the morning Moshe came into the [Holy of Holies] and behold, Aaron’s staff had blossomed; it had brought forth flowers, it had budded, and it had born almonds.

The first thing to notice is that the miracle included four stages. The first stage involves the staff as an inanimate object before it was placed in the Holy of Holies. Then from an inanimate object, it blossomed in three stages: first it flowered, then it budded, finally it bore fruit (almonds). Conceptually, these four stages correspond to the four parts of a family, the father, mother, son, and daughter and as such they correspond to the four letters of God’s essential Name, Havayah (י־הוה ),7 as follows,

stage Letter of Havayah partzuf
staff Yud Abba (father)
flowers Hei Imma (mother)
buds Vav Ze’er Anpin (sons)
almonds Hei Nukva (daughter)

We have already seen how the staff is a symbol of patriarchal leadership. The first letter ofHavayah, the yud, corresponds to the sefirah of wisdom and the partzuf of Abba (פַּרְצוּף אַבָּא ), also called the father principle. As such, the staff represents a pre-potential essential state that can manifest even its opposite. In seminal form, the father has the ability to manifest the entire family structure. Indeed, this is the true basis of paternal authority. In the context of Aaron’s staff, this point illustrates that God had given Aaron the power to express his pre-potential essence and entrusted him with the feminine responsibilities of the Temple service.

The second stage involves the staff’s flowering and corresponds to the first hei of Havayah, which corresponds to the sefirah of understanding and the partzuf of Imma, also known as the mother principle. The flower represents pregnancy. More conceptually, the flower is a symbol of hidden potential that is still far from realization. In Hebrew, this state is called “ability” (יְכוֹלֶת ).

The third stage, the buds, correspond to the vav of Havayah. This letter (whose value is 6) represents the six sefirot from loving-kindness to foundation; together they make up the heart of the partzuf of Ze’er Anpin, or the small face. In the family, Ze’er Anpin corresponds to the male children, the sons of the family. This stage manifests a more immediate type of potential (כֹּחַ ), which is very close to actualization.

Finally, the almonds are the miracle’s fourth stage and they correspond to the final hei ofHavayah, corresponding to kingdom and the partzuf of Nukva. The Nukva corresponds to the daughter of the family. At this stage the full potential hidden in the father has been revealed and therefore it is represents actualization (פּוֹעַל ).

Let us conclude by expanding our earlier table,

stage letter of Havayah Sefirah partzuf  
staff yud wisdom Abba (father) essence
flowers hei understanding Imma (mother) ability
buds vav loving-kindness to foundation Ze’er Anpin (sons) potential
almonds hei kingdom Nukva (daughter) actualization

The Staff’s Numerology

Since Aaron’s staff is a symbol, we are motivated to look at it from a gematria perspective.Gematria, or Torah numerology, is one of the best methods of Torah analysis for uncovering the essential meaning behind the Torah’s words.

We recall that Aaron’s staff is actually the staff representing the entire tribe of Levi, as such it is referred to in the Torah as “the staff of Levi” (מַטֵה לֵוִי ).8 The gematria of “staff” (מַטֵה ) is 54 and the gematria of Levi (לֵוִי ) is 46. Together the value of both words is 100 or 10 squared. Square numbers represent a state of consummate perfection and inter-inclusion. Aaron’s staff was thus in a state of essential perfection.9

The Ascent and Descent of the Feminine

But, now note that the value of the two initial letters of “the staff of Levi” (מ and ל ) is 70, meaning that the remaining letters’ gematria is 30. 70 and 30 are the values of the two lettersayin (ע ) and lamed (ל ), respectively. Together, these two letters spell the word עַל , which means many things, all of them related to ascent. This indicates that the tribe of Levi is intrinsically connected with ascent.

So far we have described Aaron as simply related to the feminine aspect of serving God, which focuses on bringing holiness into the mundane. Going a bit deeper, the entire tribe of Levi was particularly blessed with an ability to serve God from a feminine perspective. For this reason they were as a whole entrusted with serving in the Temple. However, the feminine form of serving God is more complex. It contains both a yearning to elevate and a desire to return to the mundane. This is the feminine pulse of serving God: first yearning to elevate then a desire to imbue one’s origins with the spiritual gifts received (the masculine pulse is the opposite, first a desire to conquer the mundane and then a yearning to elevate it). The feminine dynamic is therefore described as “ascent for the purpose of descent.” The tribe of Levi as a whole manifested the first half of this dynamic: the yearning to elevate spiritually. Aaron, as the father of the priesthood manifested the second half: the desire to imbue material reality with holiness.

Symbolically, this difference is illustrated in the commandment that the Levites shave off all of their hair before entering service. Hair, which falls from above below, represents the bringing down of spiritual energy into the mundane, opposite to the direction of the Levites service meant to elevate the mundane. Contrastingly, Aaron was known for his particularly unique beard, indicating his special ability to indeed imbue the mundane with holiness.10 In their service the Levites were entrusted with the song and musical accompaniment of the Temple service, a spiritually uplifting instrument of service. Aaron and his offspring as priests were responsible for introducing holiness into the sacrificial service.

Thus, the connection between “the staff of Levi” and ascent is readily understood as the elevating half of the feminine dynamic.
This word עַל is one of the first words in the Torah’s text. In fact, it is the 13th word appearing in the verse,

…and darkness was above [עַל ] the abyss…11

13 is a most important number in Torah and is the gematria of “one” (אֶחַָד ) and “love” (אַהֲבָה ). Though the role of all the Levites is to elevate the entire Jewish people, Aaron is particularly known for his ability to restore peace and happiness between individuals especially married couples (bring them to a renewed feeling of oneness and love). 13 also alludes to the 13 Attributes of Divine Mercy, which the High Priest would invoke in order to restore the love and unity between the Almighty and the Jewish people.

Indeed, in example of inter-inclusion, Aaron as High Priest was entrusted with lighting the candles of the menorah, daily. The verb the Torah uses to describe lighting the candles is based on this same word על , and suggests that Aaron was given the power to elevate the souls of Israel—symbolized by the menorah’s candles—until the flame of their souls ascends on its own. The inter-inclusion between Aaron and the tribe of Levi was illustrated by Moshe inscribing Aaron’s name on the staff. Let us look at the mathematical meaning of this inscription.

We have already seen that “the staff of Levi” equals 100, or 102. The gematria of Aaron (אַהֲרֹן ) is 256 = 162! Both are square numbers. But, now note that the roots of these two squares are 10 and 16, which together equal 26, the value of Havayah (י־הוה ). More exactly, 10 (extracted from “the staff of Levi”) is the value of the first letter of Havayah, theyud (י ), which we saw corresponds to the staff itself, in its inanimate barren form. The 16 (extracted from “Aaron”) is the value of the remaining three letters of Havayah (הוה ), which corresponds to the flower, bud, and fruit. Thus, adding Aaron’s name by inscribing it on the staff proves to be the source of the three miraculous stages!

Floral Sparks

Concentrating on the word for “flower” (פֶּרַח ), we see that its gematria is 288. This is the number of Divine sparks fallen from the World of Chaos and hidden within the mundane. Just as the flower symbolizes the beauty of the potential of the child in the mother, before the bud even manifests, so these sparks represent the potential Divine beauty found in all aspects of creation. The Kabbalistic imagery regarding the sparks is particularly vivid. Though already present within reality, in order to manifest as Divine fruit, the sparks first have to be elevated into the womb of the mother principle in order to be reborn into reality as new fruit.

Aaron’s Forehead-Plate

Aaron did not normally carry his staff with him after this episode. The staff was placed in the Holy of Holies, with the Ark of the Covenant for safekeeping and as a sign of Aaron’s selection by the Almighty. However, one of the four special garments worn by Aaron (and all the High Priest’s after him) was the forehead-plate (צִיץ ). The Torah describes this special vestment with these words,

You shall make a forehead-plate of pure gold and you shall engrave on it the words “Holy unto God” as on a signet ring…. It shall be worn on Aaron’s forehead and [by wearing it] Aaron shall effect atonement…. It shall be on his forehead, to assure them of God’s favor at all times.12

The final two stages of the miracle of the staff, the buds and the almonds are found visually on the forehead-plate. The Hebrew name for the forehead-plate is exactly the same word as “bud.” The inscription engraved on the forehead-plate was “Holy unto God” (קֹדֶש לַ־יהוה ) and the word “holy” (קֹדֶש ) is a permutation of “almond” (שָׁקֵד ). Interestingly, the final letters of the three miraculous stages of the blossoming of the staff, flower (פֶּרַח ), bud (צִיץ ), and almonds (שָׁקֵדים ) spell the word “forehead” (מֵצַח ), another allusion to the forehead-plate.

In another place in the Torah, the forehead-plate is described as “the budding of the holy crown.”13 Here we find an explicit reference to all three stages of flower, bud, and almond, where “the budding” refers to both the sons and the daughter partzufim discussed above, all placed on the forehead of Aaron, the image of the father.

Just as the staff and its miraculous flowering represents the complete family structure and a complete process of actualization of the essence, so meditating on the image of the staff and its four stage process induces in us the power to bring our souls and reality to holy actualization of its essence. This is the unique power that was given by God to Aaron and his descendants and is inherent in their blessing given to the entire congregation, the Priestly Blessing.


1. Numbers 16:1-3.

2. Ibid. 17:17-20.

3. See for instance Maimonides’ wording in Hilchot Beit Habechirah chapter 1, halachot 1 and 5.

4. Note that the dual foci of the Tabernacle and the Temple suggest that the marital relationship between us and the Almighty is only complete when each of us enters our own personal covenant of marriage and becomes a male-female unit. In other words, the husband carries the role of Moshe Rabbeinu and the wife the role of Aaron—all vis à vis their joint relationship with the Almighty who then dwells between them in the form of the Divine Presence (Shechinah).

5. As opposed to another similar word in Hebrew (שֵׁבֶט ), which refers to a branch that can still grow.

6. Psalms 113:9.

7. In other words, by structuring the miracle in this manner, the Almighty had signed His essential Name into it, just as a human painter signs his name on his work.

8. Note that the Torah does not refer to any of the staffs of the other tribes by name.

9. If we write the filling of the letters of these two words, we get, מם טית הא למד וו יוד , whose value is 611, the gematria of “Torah” (תּוֹרָה ).

10. See the Mittler Rebbe’s Bi’urei Hazohar on parshat Korach.

11. Genesis 1:2.

12. Exodus 28:36-9.

13. Ibid. 39:30.

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