There is a lot of anger in this week’s portion: the anger of Korah and his collaborators against Moses and the anger of God against the protestors. It is in fact Moses, potentially most injured by Korah’s rebellion, who attempts to calm God’s anger and whose pleading deflects the destruction of all the Israelites.
A strange ritual is devised, whereby the leader of each tribe offers a staff in an appointed tent, and one staff is chosen to bloom, causing the Israelites to cease their incessant complaining. But the most fascinating thing about this ritual is that it seems to be a process through which God calms down.
Rashi points out that the word used for “cause to cease” is also used in Genesis 8:1, when God causes the waters to cease flooding and destroying the world. In the Genesis instance only one clan is saved; by Numbers, perhaps with Moses to intervene, God is more easily reminded that total annihilation isn’t a good solution.
So why is it that Aaron’s staff (which is chosen from the twelve to blossom) grows beautiful almond blossoms which ripen into almonds? In Hebrew, the word for almond, shaked, has at its root both early-waking and striving. The almond tree is often the first to awaken from winter’s sleep, and thus the almond branch that blossoms may also symbolise God’s responsiveness and watchfulness (also reiterated in Jeremiah 1:11 through the almond metaphor).
It seems that though this portion is full of anger, the almond branch is perhaps being offered as the rainbow was in Genesis. When we see an almond, it can remind us that it takes hard work to contain anger, and we might need help, but if we do the hard work, beautiful things blossom forth.