There are several times in the story of our ancestors’ wilderness wanderings in which “kvetching” (complaining) rises to a crescendo. In parashat Chukat, the complaint is about being tired of the miraculous manna that served as food through the 40 wilderness years. God punishes the Israelites with snake bites. Then, curiously, the cure for the snake bites is the mounting of a copper snake figure on a standard. Those who looked at the snake statue were healed. (Num. 21: 4- 9). As strange as this story may seem, it is interesting that the snake is a symbol for healing in other contexts and cultures as well. For example, Asclepius, the Greek god of healing, took the form of a serpent. Thus a symbol of medicine to this day is the serpent and the staff.
Korach contains the story of the rebellion against Moses and Aaron’s leadership. The rebels are punished by being swallowed up by the earth, burned, or struck by a plague. Those who choose loyalty to God are rewarded. Just after this incident, God instructs Moses to perform a strange rite. Moses is to gather all of the staffs of the leaders of the 12 tribes, including Aaron’s, and place them in the Tent of Meeting. God promises that the staff that sprouts will be God’s chosen leader. Aaron’s staff not only sprouts, but has flowers and almonds. Thus, the primacy of Aaron’s leadership was confirmed, and Moses was instructed to display Aaron’s rod in front of the Ark as a warning to future rebels. (Num. 17: 16-26.) Although we do not have a blooming almond branch in front of the ark today, one mosaic found on an ancient synagogue floor in Israel (Beit Alpha- 6th century) does show such a symbol before the ark. Look to the right of the menorah on the right below.