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Torah Sparks

June 19, 2004 – 30 Sivan 5764

Annual: Numbers 16:1 – 18:32 (Etz Hayim, p. 860; Hertz p. 639)
Triennial Cycle: Numbers 17:25 - 18:32 (Etz Hayim, p. 869; Hertz p. 645)
Haftarah: Isaiah 66:1 – 24, 66:23 (Etz Hayim, p. 1219; Hertz p. 944)
Maftir: Numbers 28:1 - 15 (Etz Hayim, p. 929; Hertz p. 694)

Prepared by Rabbi Howard Buechler
Dix Hills Jewish Center, Dix Hills, NY

Department of Congregational Services
Rabbi Martin J. Pasternak, Director

Sedra Statistics

The portion of Korach contains 95 verses. It is also the basis of 9 of the 613 mitzvot. There are six Torah portions (out of 54) that are named for individuals: Noah, Hayyei Sarah, Yitro, Korach, Balak and Pinchas (what values are lived and exemplified -- or not -- by each of these salient individuals?)

Torah Talk

As the Israelites begin to assimilate the knowledge that the generation that left Egypt is going to die off in the wilderness due to events in last week's Torah reading, events begin to swirl and storm around Moses. The adage that you can take the Jews out of Egypt, but you cannot take Egypt out of the Jews seems to assume new meaning in the portion of Korach.

Moses, a member of the tribe of Levi, is confronted by revolt and revolution as two strands of rebellion coalesce in the narrative. Korach is also descended from the tribe of Levi and he stokes up a religious revolt against the leadership of Moses. Woven into this complex combustible confrontation is a civil uprising led by the enigmatic leaders Dathan and Abiram. They are descendants of Reuben, Jacob's firstborn, and claim their title of leadership based upon primogeniture, first-born rank birth order. Two hundred fifty prominent leaders also protest the leadership of Moses and join forces with Korach.

Moses accepts the gauntlet of challenge and speaks to Korach and his company of revolutionaries and offers to engage them in a test of faith as to whom God truly has chosen as a leader of the Israelites and through whom the Divine message is channeled. A remarkable gathering of 250 men with Korach and their incense pans (in a test of faith later paralleled and demonstrated on Mt. Carmel by Elijah in his confrontation with the Priests of Ba'al) opposite Moses and Aaron ends in a seismic denouncement – the earth itself opens up and the revolutionaries and their possessions are swallowed alive.

Aaron's son Elazar then forges the charred remains of their incense pans into the copper plating for the incense altar. This was meant to be a perpetual sign and reminder of the perils of revolting against the divinely chosen leadership. In addition, a plague then breaks out in the encampment and a significant number of Israelites perish "on account of Korach" (17:14). This outbreak abruptly ceases when Aaron offers atonement for their transgressions utilizing the copper-plated incense altar made from the charred remains of Korach's revolt.

The elevated status of Aaron is also confirmed in a most unusual fashion. Aaron's wooden staff and those of the 12 princes are gathered together. In a remarkable phenomenon, Aaron's staff blossoms and is then preserved in the Ark of the Covenant as a perpetual sign of his anointed Priestly leadership. The Torah then describes the roles of the Aaron and his Priestly descendants (Kohanes) and their role in leading the rituals in the Tabernacle and the subordinate role and division of labor amongst the Levites. The responsibility of the people to tithe and provide for the sanctuary and those who perform the sacred roles there is delineated. For example, the Levites are to receive the ma'aser rishon from the appropriate harvest, while the Kohanes receive the terumah, the best portions of the crops.

Word of the Week

Levi is the tribe into which Moses and Aaron are born. As Aaron demonstrates his loyalty to Moses and fidelity to God, he and his progeny are promoted to become Kohane’s - the Priestly aristocracy, while all others of the tribe of Levi remain as Levites. Over time, the Levitical role in the sanctuary was not only subordinate to the Priests, but they were also responsible for transporting the portable tabernacle, singing Psalms and functioning as intermediaries between the Priests and the people.

Levi is also the proper name given to the third son of Jacob and Leah and the root of Levi is related to the word "attach" as in the etymology given in Genesis 29:34 "my husband is attached to me and has given me this son, also". In this parasha, there is a deliberate word pun on Levites and attachment to the sanctuary in the word "yelavu" (18:2) which reads that the Levites will be attached to you (Aaron) and serve you and your sons.

The term Levi is often identified in triads, arrangements of threes. Levi is the third son of Jacob and is a three-letter name. Moses is the third child of Amram and Yocheved and has a three-letter name. Furthermore, Moses, a Levite, is hidden for three months in order to be spared potential destruction by Pharoah. Moses also receives the Torah in the third month of the Exodus from Egypt.

Sedra Spark #1 - Sin City

The demagoguery of Korah, Datan and Aviram permeates this Torah reading. Their rebellions and revolutionary posturing is alluded to in the very first phrase of the Torah reading "Va-yikah Korah" which translates as "and Korah took.” There is no modifier for what Korah took and Rashi (the classic interpreter of Torah who lived in the 11th century in France and Germany) notes that Korach took himself and placed himself at odds with the community, communal values and communal leadership. He tried to seize the reins of leadership and grab glory and grandeur for himself. His envy and jealously of his distant cousin Moses sparked his fanatic passion to create the chaos revealed in this Torah reading.

Pirkay Avot, the Ethics of the Sages teaches that controversy for the sake of Heaven (as the invigorating discussions of Hillel and Shammai) will have lasting value, while controversy NOT for a Heavenly cause will not endure (as in the schism of Korah and his community). Hillel and Shammai disagreed on many points of Jewish law, yet they never became disagreeable! Ideas to explore include how can one convey an opinion or firmly held belief without resorting to verbal pyrotechnics, degrading comments or poisonous rhetoric? What are the techniques and values, which enable different viewpoints to be articulated without generating controversy and arguments? What are the guidelines to use our speech as a gift?

As Korach and his band of followers are dispatched in a seismic event of tremendous magnitude, look carefully at the Biblical verses that capture this moment. "They and all that was theirs descended alive to Sheol; the earth covered them over, and they were lost from among the community (16:33).” The Midrash speculates that Korach descended to Sheol, which is literally translated as a shadow/netherworld. The term Sheol is in fact one of the rare Torah allusions -- later amplified by Jewish theologians throughout history -- that life transcends our physical world and part of our humanity/soul always survives. The Midrash comments that Korach was kept alive forever in order to cry out: Moses was right!

A cursory reading of the text would have one believe that Korah died along with his family and the other households -- and this is in line with the thinking that the rebellious nature of Korach contaminated all around him, and that he, his family and all his followers were filled with evil and deserved punishment. Yet there is a curious and compelling notation in Numbers 26:11 that succinctly states, "The sons of Korach did not die.”

As Jews, we affirm that each person is responsible for their own actions and deeds, and that the transgressions of past generations are not always an indicator for the future generations. The apple does not fall far from the tree is a nice aphorism, but not always good theology as God teaches that each person is responsible for their own sins. There is a remarkable prayer recited in our services, the Psalm for Monday, which commences with the phrase, “A song composed by the sons of Korach” (and other psalms as well!). The paradox is self-evident -- Korach is the paradigmatic demagogue and rebel leading people astray and suffering punishment divinely ordained. Yet his sons survive and go on to lead lives whereby they compose uplifting and inspiring poetry. This is a startling realization in that a man, who led so many to revolt, is blessed with children who lead us to piety. Korach the rebel provides faith in the future through his righteous children. How can we apply this teaching to historical figures? There are dynasties that seek to do evil, yet, at times, we must be careful not to prejudge. How do you react to this idea? Does evil always disappear and can goodness at times be filtered from horrific moments?

Torah Q & A

  1. How many people gathered with Korah, Datan and Abiram in their rebellions?
  2. Why is there only one staff representing the Tribe of Levi?
  3. This Shabbat commences Rosh Hodesh -- when one looks in the nighttime sky, what does the moon look like at the beginning of the month?

(1. 250 men. 2. To symbolize the unity of Aaron (elevated to Priestly status), Moses and other Levites served the people on behalf of God. 3. The new moon which appears is a slender crescent that waxes from the right and then wanes towards the left (the mnemonic device is that the moon progresses in the evening sky in the same fashion by which we read Hebrew - from right to left. The full or harvest moon is mid-month!

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