Sermons and Parsha'iot         Parshat Korach:  Numbers 16:1-18:32

Summary

This week’s parasha, Korach, is named after one of the men who led a serious rebellion against Moses and Aaron. (In addition to Korach, who – like Moses and Aaron – was a Levite, the other ringleaders were Datan and Aviram of the tribe of Reuben.) Korach gathered 250 leaders of the Israelite community and asserted that all members of the community were holy. If so, he asks, by what right did Moses and Aaron raise themselves above the rest of the people? Moses responded by telling Korach and his followers to come to the Tent of Meeting the next day in order to offer their fire pans in sacrifice to God – in a kind of incense-making contest. God would make known who is holy. Moses then went to Datan and Aviram, asking them to accompany him. They refused, implying that he was a corrupt leader.

The next day, Moses and the elders of Israel went to the tents of Korach, Datan and Aviram where God caused the ground to open and swallow the ringleaders, their tents and their possessions. At the Tent of Meeting, Korach’s 250 followers prepared their fire pans as Moses had directed, but God sent forth a fire which consumed them. Eleazar, Aaron’s son made the now-charred copper fire pans into plating for the altar, a reminder to all who looked at the altar to avoid offering incense to God unless they were  proper priests.

The following day, members of the community appeared before Moses and Aaron, blaming them for the deaths of so many people. God became angry and sent a plague to wipe out the entire community. Aaron offered a sacrifice on behalf of the people, but by the time that God accepted the sacrifice, 14,700 people had already died from the plague. God then instructed Moses to take a staff from the chieftain of each of the twelve tribes and to place all of the staffs in the Tent of Meeting. God would choose one of the staffs and cause it to sprout. The next day, Aaron’s staff is sprouting, bearing blossoms and producing almonds – a sign that the tribe of Levi was the tribe selected for the priesthood.

Chapter 18 focuses on the responsibilities, rights, and privileges of the Levites as priests. Specifically, God tells Aaron he will not have any territory or land, but that all of the donations and gifts that the Israelites bring to God – meal offerings, the best oil, wine, grain, first fruits of each harvest and all first born animals – will belong to him and his family. First born male children are also to be offered, but they can be redeemed – that is, purchased back – by their families for five shekels. (This is the origin of the ceremony of pidyon ha-ben.) The Levites are then to offer one-tenth of each tithe to God. The offering to God is to be the best portion of whatever the Levites receive. 

Commentary

  • Some commentators see three separate rebellions combined into one story in this week’s parasha. The first and major challenge was to Moses’ and Aaron’s spiritual leadership. This challenge was made by a mob of Levites, especially Korach. It was answered by the charring of the 250 men who brought incense, as well as by the plague which was arrested only through Aaron’s intervention (again with incense). The second challenge, brought by the family of Reuben (who was, after all, Jacob’s first born) focussed on whether Moses should be the political leader. This challenge was answered by the earth’s swallowing up the rebels. The third challenge was to Aaron’s priestly leadership. This challenge was answered by Aaron’s staff sprouting as opposed to the staves of the other twelve tribes. 

  • Korach and his confederates state that “all the people are holy.” At first glance one might agree with this statement, and point to other biblical verses which characterize the Israelites as a kingdom of priests and a holy people. Some non-Jewish commentators feel that the rebels wanted to achieve religious and political democracy for the people, in opposition to the political and religious dictatorship of Moses and Aaron.

    Jewish commentaries on the other hand see Korach and his band as fundamentally evil. In Numbers Rabbah it says: “Korach, like all who rebel with no cause, contradicts himself. First he maintains that Israel needs no leaders, since all Israel is holy and Adonai is among them. Then we discover that Korach and his Levite followers wish to replace Aaron and the Kohanim in the worship at the mishkan. They wish no leaders but themselves.” Think of the number of times in the 20th century when an inefficient tyranny was replaced by a brutal and fanatical one masquerading as a democracy (e.g., Stalin, Pol Pot, Saddam Hussein, etc.). 

  • According to Pirkei Avot 5:8, the mouth of  the earth the swallowed Korach was one of ten things made just before the first Shabbat of creation. The pre-existence of certain objects in nature which acted in wonderous ways was used by the rabbis to explain miracles that seemed to go against the laws of nature – they could be seen to be parts of the natural order. 

Some Thoughts and Questions

  1. Avot 5:17 teaches, “Any controversy that is for the sake of Heaven (l’shaym Shamayim) is detined to result in something of permanent value. A controversy that is not for the sake of Heaven shall not result in anything of permanent value. Which kind of controversy was for the sake of Heaven? The one between Hillel and Shammai. And which kind was not for the sake of Heaven? The one involving Korach and his band.” Dissent is acceptable depending on its purpose. Leaders (and parents) are often faced with people who challenge their authority or decisions. Describe an argument “for the sake of Heaven” in your own words. What ways of expressing dissent do you think are acceptable? Can you give examples of disagreements that you’ve had at home, at shul, at work or school, or in the nation at large  that were b’shaym Shamayim? How were they resolved? What about disagreements that were not l’shaym Shamayim? Give examples of them and any differences that you experienced between them and your first examples. 

  2. Psalm 1, verse 1 says, “Happy is the person who has not followed the counsel of the wicked, or taken the path of sinners, or joined the company of scoffers.” Yalkut Shimoni comments “This refers to Korach who mocked Moses and Aaron. What did he do? He assembled the whole community and began to speak works of mockery before them.” There is midrash that describes this mockery. For example, in the midrash, Korach asks Moses if a house full of Torah scrolls requires a mezuzzah on the doorposts. When Moses replies that it does, Korach laughs and says that it is ridiculous that the entire Torah cannot qualify a house, but only two passages from the Torah can. Discuss the power of being ridiculed – how you have felt when someone has made fun of you or teased you? How does this affect the way others see you? … the way you see yourself? Korach only saw absolutes, e.g., right/wrong, good/evil. Do you know people who see life similarly? How do you relate to them? The concept of kavod ha-briyot (respecting others) is an important lesson that we learn from parshat Korach. 

  3. The Rambam (Maimonides) taught that it is permissible to disagree with those in authority and even to publically express your disagreement. It is not, however, permissible to act contrary to the decision of the authority. How does this teaching apply to America today? Think about the civil disobedience campaigns of the civil rights movement, or of the protests against the Vietnam war a generation ago.