In our weekly Shabbat morning study of Tanakh we recently discussed the events at Mt. Carmel, where Elijah demonstrated the futility of pagan worship and the great power of the Lord. At a showdown between Elijah and 850 pagan priests Elijah was the clear winner. Jezebel, upset by Elijah’s mockery of her pagan culture, issued a death threat to Elijah and he immediately fled. Commentaries explain that despite having wowed the entire nation, gaining their allegiance to the Lord of Israel, Elijah knew that on the morrow everyone would return to their prior habits, dismissing the supernatural events of yesterday. Jezebel’s death threat indicated that she knew well the fickle nature of the people, and that Elijah’s spectacular win would not gain him any enduring political credibility.
So Elijah fled, eventually arriving in the Sinai desert, crouching in the same cave where Moses stood when pleading for God’s forgiveness of his nation. Elijah despaired of Israel’s future. He complained to God that he alone remained a prophet of the Lord, and that in all of Israel there were just 7000 Jews faithful to their heritage.
The Lord then taught Elijah a lesson. God brought out all the forces of nature to demonstrate their terrible and magnificent power. A great tempest blew, shifting boulders and changing the landscape with its power. “But not in the tempest was God.” (1 Kings 19:11) A volcanic fire then erupted, but God was not present in the fire. The earth shook and rumbled, but the Lord was not in the quake. After the earth had calmed and the tempest subsided was there a thin and quiet voice, and the Lord proceeded to communicate with Elijah.
In the Torah portion of Korach we see a clear villain of the story. A rebellion was instigated by a powerful and wealthy man who felt that leadership was due to him. He riled up the nation with messages of populism, drawing support from a cadre of leaders who bought into his appeal. Moses, the most humble of men, was loathe to fight a challenge to the leadership he had never asked for in the first place. But this challenge got under his skin. Moses was angered by Korach’s false statements, and this anger was further fueled by frustration when seeing the nation swayed by a charlatan. Moses’ reaction then dominates the narrative. Maimonides believes that Moses, on this and a few other occasions, fell under the control of his emotions, and he reacted impulsively. Moses demanded that an example be made of Korach and his followers, describing a terrible and unnatural demise for them. A sinkhole opened up, and with great noise and terror it swallowed up Korach and his cohorts, along with their households.
Perhaps even more astonishing than Korach’s fate is the response of the nation. Rather than subduing the nation and shaking them back to sobriety, Korach’s end sparks more complaints and anxiety. The following day the people blamed Moses and Aaron for killing the people of the Lord, sparking yet another plague.
What is the resolution to such a vicious cycle? How can Moses restore calm and faith in God’s appointments? The answer comes shortly thereafter. God instructed that each tribal leader should submit his staff with his name etched upon it. 12 staffs were brought forth from the 12 tribes, and Aaron submitted his staff on behalf of the Levite tribe. The next day the staffs were brought out of the Tabernacle, and Aaron’s staff had budded, blossomed with flowers and produced ripe almonds. This demonstrated clearly to the people that Aaron’s appointment was at God’s behest, and it put to rest any further challenges to his leadership.
The silent, soft-spoken lesson of the staffs succeeded where the violent and dramatic demonstration of the sinkhole had failed. The emotional reaction of Moses did not achieve his desired results. The wisest of men wrote in Ecclesiastes (9:17) “The words of the wise are accepted when spoken softly, more than the cry of a ruler among fools.” An emotional response evokes an emotional reaction, and it does not speak to the intellect of people.
Elijah thought his dramatic demonstration would win the day, and it did – it spoke to the hearts of the people. But it didn’t speak to their minds and therefore it didn’t win the tomorrow. The Lord’s lesson to Elijah was that wind, fire, shaking, all this drama does not reflect God; the Lord is not present in impulsive reactions. The thin still voice is where God can be found, the gentle flowering of Aaron’s staff was more decisive than all the unnatural and dramatic consequences we can conceive of.