There are three separate and distinct questions found in Parshat Korach; yet, their answers all thread together to relay the fundamental lesson of the entire parshah. The first query is found right in the beginning of the parsha, “ויקח קרח בן יצהר בן קהת בן לוי” – And Korach ben Yitzhar ben Kehat ben Levi took – but the Torah never mentions what Korach actually took. Second, in the middle of the parsha, we are told about the test of the 12 staffs. Aharon’s staff is the only one to flower, blossom and produce almonds, distinguishing him as the one uniquely chosen by God. But why did Aharon’s staff specifically bear almonds? (When perhaps olives – or even grapes – may have been more fitting? ). And the last question concerns the entire final chapter of the parsha, in which the Torah verbosely enumerates the laws of the varied gifts for the Kohanim and the responsibilities of the Leviim. We have already been taught these laws previously in the Torah, and although it is perhaps fitting to reiterate these ideas after an uprising which sought to specifically challenge the very nature of these laws, it is still puzzling that the Torah spent 32 pesukim on a repetition.
We will address the second question first. Rav Hirsch points out that because the Hebrew root of almond – שקד – is also found in the word for persistence and zealousness, the almonds that appear on Aharon’s staff are therefore there to symbolize and publicly mark that laudable trait. He explains that this trait is distinctly found amongst the Leviim, most significantly portrayed when they zealously answered Moshe’s call of ‘who is for God’ after the sin of the Egel HaZahav. And therefore, the message of the specific appearance of almonds upon the staff which uniquely ‘chooses’ Aharon would be the clear declaration that it is Levi who is chosen – and will continue to be chosen – because of their unending fervent devotion to God and His ideals.
I believe there are two difficulties with this explanation. Textually, while the ‘persistent’ or ‘zealous’ meaning of this root is found in Neviim and Ketuvim, the root שקד isn’t used to convey this meaning at all in the Chumash itself. It is difficult, therefore, to assume that meaning here, too. And conceptually, and perhaps more problematically, according to Rav Hirsch’s explanation, wouldn’t this symbol therefore be validating Korach and his rebellion? Weren’t they specifically claiming that, as Leviim, they are entitled to more!? According to Rav Hirsch, the almonds on the staff would seemingly be answering ‘yes’!
We therefore need to use a different approach to answer this question. There is another place in the Torah where the word שקד is used, also clearly meaning almonds – in regards to a shape on the Menorah – “שלשה גביעים משוקדים” – the branches of the menorah were to have almond shapes engraved within them. And now the appearance of the almonds on Aharon’s staff is perfect – for it was Aharon’s unique job to clean and light the Menorah in the Mishkan each day! So the response to the nation challenging Aharon’s role is clear: God has chosen him specifically for this position; this is his unique part to play and no one else’s! (It is also very compelling that the other unique job Aharon had in the Mishkan was the twice-daily offering of the קטורת – which is mentioned in the same pesukim as his obligation vis a vis the Menorah – which is the symbol used in the first test that challenged the rebellion waged against him!).
However, looking more deeply at this vehicle which God chose to defy Korach and his cohorts’ rebellion, we can reveal another (surprising) layer of meaning. The symbol(s) God chose to declare Aharon’s Divinely chosen status were representing his unique roles and responsibilities in the Mishkan, not merely his unique status. For example, Aharon’s staff could merely have flowered – as Moshe had originally described – and it would have served to distinguish his staff from the other leaders’, therein distinguishing his status from theirs. However, God instead chose to use the almond/Menorah symbol, which focused on the role Aharon performed in Mishkan, as opposed to the responsibilities of the rest of the leaders. And therefore what God is actually proclaiming is that, in fact, Korach and the other Leviim were not wrong when they said ‘we are all holy’; where they erred was how that holiness was to be expressed! By specifically employing the symbols of the almonds (and the קטרת) God was teaching that in His nation, status doesn’t define the role, but rather the role defines the status. Aharon’s status is unique only because of the responsibilities he has to perform as a Kohen Gadol; similarly, the Leviim are also ‘holy’ because of their responsibilities in caring for the Mishkan; even Bnei Yisrael are unique –a ‘גוי קדוש’, and are eternally expected to be ‘קדושים תהיו’! – because of their responsibilities to God and the world around them! In God’s nation, one is only ‘as good’ as the jobs they fulfill, regardless of what that specific job is; one’s sanctified status is only a direct reflection of the sanctified role they play.
And now we can appreciate that this message is exactly what Moshe was conveying in his initial rebuke of Korach and the other Leviim:
“Is it not enough for you that the God of Yisrael has set you apart from the community of Israel and given you direct access, to perform the duties of His Mishkan and to minister to the community and serve them? Now that [God] has advanced you and all your fellow Levites with you, do you seek the priesthood too?” (Bemidbar 16: 9-10)
Moshe clearly creates this same equation which God would later proclaim – and confirm – through the almond imagery: the Leviim ‘were set apart’ from the rest of the nation by being ‘given direct access to perform the duties’ in the Mishkan! In other words, because they had specific functions to perform, they were therefore given their distinct status. And therefore, the true error of Korach and the Leviim was that they were arguing the exact opposite truth, stating: ‘we are special and therefore we deserve more to do!’; but, in fact, their specialness as ‘elevated’ Leviim only stemmed from the ‘elevated’ responsibilities they had already been given.
Based on this lesson, we can now understand why the Torah spends the final 32 (!) pesukim of this parsha on a reiteration of the gifts given to the Kohanim, and the responsibilities of the Leviim. Scanning these pesukim, we find that the root נתן, ‘giving’, is mentioned no less than 12 times! For the next level of understanding of the message we learned from the appearance of the almonds is that one’s unique status – which is specifically only established through one’s unique role he plays – is a responsibility and privilege that has to be given by God to His people. Which fits very nicely into the significance of the (only) other root in this chapter which is also repeated 12 times: קדש! The source of the holy status of the Kohanim and Leviim (represented here through the gifts they receive and responsibilities they are charged with) – a holy status only achieved through the unique duties they are commanded to uphold and perform – is directly bestowed upon them (נתן) from God.
And this, of course, serves to answer our first question. What is it that Korach actually ‘took’? The Torah never mentions it because it doesn’t matter; for it’s not about what he took, but rather that he thought there was something he could obtain by taking. The privileged responsibilities of every member of God’s nation, which then, in turn, define the privileged status of that person within that nation, is specifically and only given to them by God. Individuals cannot “appoint” themselves. Roles are uniquely bestowed upon – and must be accepted by – each individual, in order for him or her to play their uniquely significant role in the national entity of Bnei Yisrael and God’s mission for it.
 A related question is why did the staff bear fruit at all? In explaining the test, Moshe states the staff that blossoms will be the sign of God’s choice; so why did the staff ultimately also produce fruit?
 It is also found with Levi himself (along with Shimon) when they free their sister Dena.
 Shemot 30:7-8
Okay., that’s a lot more literal… even If it’s “almond-shaped” and not literally almonds, that odd term for “oval” indicated the nut was the well-known paradigm, so it’d resonate here. I buy that.