During Rabbi Mark’s sabbatical this summer B’nai Emunah members are helping lead services and prepare drashiot. This drash was delivered June 23, 2017 by Sharon Bleviss.
This parashah is a packed one. It is filled with rebellious Jews, people begging for mercy, others falling on their faces, the wrath of G-d, a plague, commandments and laws of the Priesthood. It comes on the heels of other parashiot , which also involve rebellious Jews and the wrath of G-d. And all of this causes one to ponder the purpose these repetitive actions.
First, a summary:
The Levite Korah son of Izhar joined with the Reubenites Dathan and Abiram, sons of Eliab, and On, son of Peleth and 250 chieftains of the Israelite community to rise up against Moses. Moses told Korah and his band to take their fire pans and put fire and incense on them before God. Moses sent for Dathan and Abiram, but they refused to come.
The Presence of the Lord appeared to the whole community, and God told Moses and Aaron to stand back so that God could annihilate the others. Moses and Aaron fell on their faces and implored God not to punish the whole community. God told Moses to instruct the community to move away from the tents of Korah, Dathan, and Abiram, and they did so, while Dathan, Abiram, and their families stood at the entrance of their tents. Moses told the Israelites that if these men were to die of natural causes, then God did not send Moses, but if God caused the earth to swallow them up, then these men had spurned God. Just as Moses finished speaking, the earth opened and swallowed them, their households, and all Korah’s people, and the Israelites fled in terror. And a fire consumed the 250 men offering the incense. God told Moses to order Eleazar the priest to remove the fire pans — as they had become sacred — and have them made into plating for the altar to remind the Israelites that no one other than Aaron’s offspring should presume to offer incense to God. The next day, the whole Israelite community railed against Moses and Aaron for bringing death upon God’s people. A cloud covered the Tabernacle and the God’s Presence appeared.
God told Moses to remove himself and Aaron from the community, so that God might annihilate them, and they fell on their faces. Moses told Aaron to take the fire pan, put fire from the altar and incense on it, and take it to the community to make expiation for them and to stop a plague that had begun, and Aaron did so. Aaron stood between the dead and the living and halted the plague, but not before 14,700 had died as a result of the rebellion.
God told Moses to collect a staff from the chieftain of each of the 12 tribes, inscribe each man’s name on his staff, inscribe Aaron’s name on the staff of Levi, and deposit the staffs in the Tent of Meeting. God said, “The staff of the man whom I choose shall sprout.” The next day, Moses entered the Tent and Aaron’s staff had sprouted, blossomed, and borne almonds.
God instructed Moses to put Aaron’s staff before the Ark of the Covenant to be kept as a lesson to rebels to end their mutterings against God.But the Israelites cried to Moses, “We are doomed to perish!”
God spoke to Aaron and said that he and his dynasty would be responsible for the Tent of Meeting and the priesthood, and accountable for anything that went wrong in the performance of their priestly duties. God assigned the Levites to Aaron to aid in the performance of these duties. God prohibited any outsider from intruding on the priests as they discharged the duties connected with the Shrine, on pain of death. And God gave Aaron and the priests all the sacred donations and first fruits as a perquisite for all time for them and their families to eat. And God gave them the oil, wine, grain. God’s covenant with the Aaronic priesthood was described as a ‘covenant of salt‘, but God also told Aaron that the priests would have no territorial share among the Israelites, as God was their portion and their share.
God gave the Levites all the tithes in Israel as their share in return for the services of the Tent of Meeting, but they too would have no territorial share among the Israelites. God told Moses to instruct the Levites to set aside one-tenth of the tithes they received as a gift to God.
(Of special note: The description of the Aaronic covenant as a “covenant of salt” in Numbers 18:19 is mirrored by the description in 2 Chronicles 13:5 of God’s covenant with the Davidic kings of Israel as a “covenant of salt.”)
This continues the theme of Israel’s unhappiness and rebelliousness. Ramban theorizes that it may be that a series of discouraging events—including the deaths at Taberah (11:1-3) and at Kibroth-hattaavah (11:10-34), along with the terrible episode of the scouts (13-14)—have demoralized the people to the point at which they are vulnerable to this uprising.
Our chumash commentary explains: “The uprising is put down only after two miraculous events. Once miracle destroys the rebels and affirms the primacy of Moses and Aaron, and a second miracle authenticates the primacy of the Levites for the divine service.
In Jewish lore, Korah is the arch-demagogue, lusting for power to inflate his own prominence, not to serve the people. The Mishnah describes illegitimate controversy for personal gain “not for the sake of Heaven” as being “like the dispute of Korah and his followers.” (Avot 5:17) Each faction in the rebellion had its own agenda. They were united only in their opposition to Moses and Aaron. They defined themselves by what they were against, not a vision of what they stood for.”
A Midrash (Num R 18:4) pictures Korah complaining about the tithes and offerings Moses demanded of the people, saying, “You lay a heavier burden on us than the Egyptians did.” He never mentions that these taxes were designed to help the poor, to maintain the sanctuary and to give the Israelites ways of expressing their gratitude to G-d and their dependence on G-d. Another midrash (Num R 18:3) portrays Korah as caricaturing the rituals of the Torah by making them extreme: Does a library full of Torah scrolls require a mezuzah on the doorpost? Does a completely blue tallit need the required blue thread added to its tsitzit? Korah was thus challenging not only Moses and Aaron’s authority, but that of Torah and, ultimately, of G-d.”
There is some discussion about what is meant by “community” when referenced in this parashah. The 20th century Reform Rabbi Gunther Plaut read the words “Korah gathered the whole community” in Numbers 16:19 to indicate that the people did not necessarily side with Korah but readily came out to watch his attack on the establishment. Plaut noted, however, that Numbers 17:6 indicates some dissatisfaction rife among the Israelites. Plaut concluded that by not backing Moses and Aaron, the people exposed themselves to divine retribution.
So why did Korach revolt? There are many possible answers.
Professor James Kugel of Bar Ilan University wrote that early interpreters, including the 1st or 2nd century CE author Pseudo-Philo, saw in the juxtaposition of the law of tzitzit in Numbers 15:37–40 with the story of Korah’s rebellion in Numbers 16:1–3 a subtle hint as to how Korah might have enlisted his followers. Forcing people to put a special blue tassel on their clothes, ancient interpreters suggested Korah must have argued, was an intolerable intrusion into their lives. Korah asked why, if someone’s whole garment was already dyed blue, that person needed to add an extra blue thread to the corner tassel. But this question, ancient interpreters implied, was really a metaphorical version of Korah’s complaint in Numbers 16:3: “Everyone in the congregation [of Levites] is holy, and the Lord is in their midst. So why then do you exalt yourselves above the assembly of the Lord?” In other words, Korah asserted that all Levites were part of the same garment and all blue, and asked why Moses and Aaron thought that they were special just because they were the corner thread. In saying this, Kugel argued, Korah set a pattern for would-be revolutionaries thereafter to seek to bring down the ruling powers with the taunt: “What makes you better than the rest of us?” Kugel wrote that ancient interpreters thus taught that Korah was not really interested in changing the system, but merely in taking it over. Korah was thus a dangerous demagogue.
In addition, the Jerusalem Talmud read the commandment to wear tzitzit in Numbers 15:37–40 together with the story of Korah’s rebellion that follows immediately after in Numbers 16:1–3. The Jerusalem Talmud told that after hearing the law of tassels, Korah made some garments that were completely dyed blue, went to Moses, and asked Moses whether a garment that was already completely blue nonetheless had to have a blue corner tassel. When Moses answered that it did, Korah said that the Torah was not of Divine origin, Moses was not a prophet, and Aaron was not a high priest.
One may have noted that, as a Midrash taught, Numbers 16:1 traces Korah’s descent back only to Levi, not to Jacob, because Jacob said of the descendants of Simeon and Levi in Genesis 49:5, “To their assembly let my glory not be united,” referring to when they would assemble against Moses in Korah’s band. On his deathbed, Jacob prayed, “If any of my descendants turns out wicked, may my name not be associated with them.” Such a person is not worthy of being called “an Israelite.”
Another explanation? The first-century Roman-Jewish scholar Josephus wrote that Korah was an Israelite of principal account, both by family and wealth, who was able to speak well and could easily persuade the people. Korah envied the great dignity of Moses, as he was of the same tribe as Moses and he thought he better deserved honor on account of his great riches. Josephus further wrote that Moses called on God to punish those who had endeavored to deal unjustly with the people, but to save the multitude who followed God’s commandments, for God knew that it would not be just that the whole body of the Israelites should suffer punishment for the wickedness of the unjust.
Similarly, according to the Qur’an, Korah (who is called Qarun) acted insolently towards his fellow Israelites. God had bestowed such treasure on him that their keys alone would have been a burden to a body of strong men. Korah’s people warned him not to exult in his riches, but to do good and seek the wealth that God bestows in the Hereafter. But Korah said that he had been given riches because of his knowledge, so he went among his people in the pride of his worldly glitter. Those whose aim was the life of this world envied him, but those who had been granted true knowledge pitied him. Then God caused the earth to swallow him and his house, and those who had envied his position the day before began to say on the next day that God rewards or punishes God’s servants as God pleases and could have caused the earth to swallow them up as well.
Another Midrash answered that Korah took issue with Moses because Moses had (as Numbers 3:30 reports) appointed Elizaphan the son of Uzziel as prince of the Kohathites, and Korah was (as Exodus6:21 reports) son of Uzziel’s older brother Izhar, and thus had a claim to leadership prior to Elizaphan. Because Moses appointed the son of Korah’s father’s youngest brother, Uzziel, the leader, to be greater than Korah, Korah decided to oppose Moses and nullify everything that he did.
The Mishnah in Pirkei Avot deduced that the controversy of Korah and his followers was not for the sake of Heaven, and thus was destined not to result in permanent change. The Mishnah contrasted Korah’s argument to those between Hillel and Shammai, which the Mishnah taught were controversies for the sake of Heaven, destined to result in something permanent.
The parashah ends with clarification regarding the roles of the priests and Levites, as if to define how to battle chaos. It includes the following 5 positive and 4 negative commandments, according to Sefer haChinuch.
One cannot help but draw parallels to today’s political situation. Some would say that a person who is like Korah, ‘the arch-demagogue, lusting for power to inflate his own prominence, not to serve the people,’ now occupies the Presidency. And as stated previously, “Each faction in the rebellion had its own agenda. They were united only in their opposition to Moses and Aaron. They defined themselves by what they were against, not a vision of what they stood for. “ This could easily describe the Republican party. Although Korah perhaps clearly had nefarious goals, people eagerly rallied around him and, when the earth swallowed him, Moses and Aaron were blamed for his destruction. Again, one can find many parallels today.
I will close with this reflection by Rabbi Rachel Barenblat:
“Torah teaches us in this portion that when people jockey for power as did Korach and his followers, damage is done to the entire community. Torah shows us a model for leadership in Moses and Aaron, who act in the best interests of the people they serve, even though the community has added insult to injury by blaming them for the damage experienced by those who attacked them. And Torah offers us a path to healing from this kind of communal division.
When ugly behaviors have rent a community asunder, Torah calls us to center ourselves in a place where we can access the flow of holiness. Torah calls us to ensure that the community can be a safe place for healing. And Torah calls us to open our hearts to the miraculous flowering-forth of new possibilities and community renewal that can unfold when we are safe, and our hearts are open, and we have trust in the One.”
My benediction: May our community continue to be a safe place for healing, and may we all look forward to the new possibilities and community renewal that may result from communal division.
And as a community, I look forward to celebrating with you the 33rd anniversary for Kirk and me, the retirement after 36 years of teaching for Kirk, as well as the birthday of Hal Tauber, and the anniversary of Frank and Linda Kurtz.