Whenever I participate in a raffle, with great anticipation I wait for the drawing, which will declare me, as usual, a loser. And my losing ticket? Ends up in the garbage, of course.
The mature response to not winning is to perhaps congratulate the winner, and to otherwise move on, putting the competition behind us. Is there any merit to keeping the losing ticket?
After Aharon heroically stops the plague that follows the story of Korach, after the people had accused Moshe and Aharon of causing the deaths of “nation of G-d” (Bamidbar 17:6-15), G-d tells Moshe to put a stop to all this rebellion for once and for all. The head of each tribe would write his name on his personal staff and place it in the Tent of Meeting overnight, and the staff that blossomed would serve as the proof that its owner and his tribe had been chosen by G-d.
Sure enough, Aharon’s staff, representing the tribe of Levi, famously blossomed: “It had given forth leaves, and was [now] producing blossoms and almonds were ripening on it” (17:23).
When Moshe brought the staffs out, the Israelites were able to see that Aharon was in fact chosen. Of all the dead pieces of wood, only his had brought forth life. And then we are told, “Each man took his own staff” (17:24).
Each tribe took back its losing ticket. Why?
Perhaps each man had a personal attachment to the staff, perhaps as a walking stick. But whereas Aharon’s staff becomes a mishmeres l’os l’vnei meri — a safeguard and a sign to those who might rebel — what purpose do these staffs serve?
The Netziv explains that there is a deeper message here. When the staffs had been brought into the Mishkan for the test, each leader thought his staff had become sanctified. Each intended that his staff be a gift to the Mishkan, no longer be available for use — ever.
But when Moshe brought the staffs out again, everyone saw that Aharon’s was the one that had blossomed, and that G-d had confirmed a choice that had been made long ago. They then realized that their staffs were not holy, and that with the exception of Aharon’s, were no longer designated for the Mishkan’s use.
This was a powerful lesson for a people who had just seen their peers try to prove that their service at the highest level was acceptable to G-d simply because of their own feelings. Korach and company said “We are all holy, so we can all be High Priests!” Um, no. You can achieve a level of holiness, but you cannot take on a role G-d did not assign to you.
This is why the fire pans used by Korach’s followers were later hammered out to serve as an adornment for the mizbeiach. They would serve as a reminder that there is holiness, and there is holiness. Anyone can bring a korban, but only kohanim can be the representatives through which it is offered. When they looked at the mizbeiach, they would be reminded that you can only go so far.
Similarly, each tribal leader may have had a snippet of a thought, more innocently than Korach’s cohort: maybe maybe maybe my tribe will be chosen. Maybe maybe maybe I have a shot! And the proof is that they came to see if their staffs had “won.”
So they took their losing tickets home, partly because the staffs turned out to not have been sanctified, partly because they may have had a sentimental attachment, and partly to remind themselves and their tribes for all time, “I tried. We tried. Remember that story, so we can always be aware of what our role is, and what it is not.”
But more than that, perhaps the stick was also meant to show — we can hope. We can dream, and if we put in our effort, we can at least be a competitor for the top.
Sometimes we think we are unworthy of even trying. In the Olympics, for example, there are only three medalists in each competition. But even those who don’t come home with a medal still look back on the fact that they competed with the greatest athletes in the world, representing the greatest of their country, and ended up in 10th or 20th place. Competing is still an incredible accomplishment, even for one who does not win.
Not everyone who loses is a “loser.” Losers walk away having learned nothing from the experience, having gained nothing. The tribal leaders were winners. They took home their “losing” souvenirs as a reminder that a winner accepts his role in G-d’s camp, and does not look to usurp a position that was not assigned by G-d’s rules.