By Rabbi Joshua (perpetually known as The Hoffer) Hoffman [z"l]
In order to quell the rebellion of Korach and his followers against the legitimacy of Aaron and the tribe of Levi as the spiritual leaders of the nation, Moshe has them all offer incense as an offering to God, saying that God’s acceptance of the offering will be the test of legitimacy. A fire then descends from heaven, accepting the proper offerings and consuming the rebels. Subsequently, Moshe conducts a second test of Levi’s legitimacy, telling each tribe to place a staff in the tent of meeting. The staff of the chosen tribe will blossom and bear fruit, while the other staffs will not. Aaron’s staff blossoms and produces the fruit of the almond, and his legitimacy is again proven. Why was there a need for a second test, after the test of the firepans? What further function did this enterprise serve?
My teacher, Rav Aharon Soloveichik, zt”l, said that the second test came to demonstrate that the tribe of Levi was specially chosen for divine service not only while the nation was in the wilderness, but for all time, under all circumstances. This was indicated by the fact that Aaron’s staff blossomed with almonds, which grow in any environment, and do not require any special conditions to flourish. So, too, this test proved that Levi was chosen to represent the nation before God in all environments and under all circumstances.
Rav Elimelech bar Shaul, in his Min HaBe’er, offers a different explanation for the second test. He says that the first test, while effective, was reflective of contention and strife, and resulted in the tragic death of the challengers. The second test did not end in tragedy, but, rather, reflected the special love that God had for the tribe of Levi, and projected, thereby, a positive message, which is more lasting. Perhaps we can add to this explanation the observation that the role of Aaron, and the tribe of Levi in general, was to promote peace among the various elements of the nation, and it was therefore appropriate for the test of Levi’s chosenness to be conducted in a positive way.
An additional element of the second test is noted by Rav Bar Shaul, in that the Torah points out that each tribe, after the test of the staffs, took its respective staff back. Why is it important to mention this? What difference does it make? Rav bar Shaul cites an unnamed Chassidic source which says that in reacting to a miracle, it is important for each person to consider his personal relationship with the miracle, to note any special element in the miracle that relates specifically to him, thereby personalizing it and making it more meaningful and effective. While the blossoming of Aaron’s staff proved that his tribe was chosen, the fact that the staffs of each of the other tribes did not blossom proved that they were not chosen. In this way, each tribe played a role in perpetuating the reality of Levi’s chosenness. To highlight this fact, each tribe made a point of retrieving its respective staff, to personalize the effect of the miracle inherent in the test.