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Torah Sparks

June 27, 2009 – 5 Tammuz 5769

Annual: Numbers 16:1 – 18:32 (Etz Hayim, p. 860; Hertz p. 639)
Triennial: Numbers 16:20 – 17:24 (Etz Hayim, p. 863; Hertz p. 641)
Haftarah: I Samuel 11:14 – 12:22 (Etz Hayim, p. 877; Hertz p. 649)

Prepared by Rabbi Joyce Newmark
Teaneck, New Jersey

Torah Portion Summary

Korah and his followers challenge the authority of Moses and Aaron and, indeed, of God Himself. Moses responds, “Isn’t it enough that God has given you and the other Levites special status; do you want to be a priest as well?” Datan and Aviram, members of Korah’s faction but from the tribe of Reuben, challenge Moses from another direction, claiming that he has brought the Israelites from a land of milk and honey to die in the wilderness.

Moses tells the rebels they are to be tested by God. They and Aaron are each to bring a fire pan with incense to the entrance of the Tent of Meeting. God tells Moses to instruct the rest of the community to stand back from the tents of Korah, Datan, and Aviram. The earth opens and swallows them and their households, and a heavenly fire consumes the 250 Levites offering incense.

God has made His position clear, but the Israelites continue to blame Moses and Aaron for their problems, claiming they are responsible for the deaths of Korah and his followers. Yet again, God angrily threatens to wipe out the Israelites. At Moses’ direction, Aaron runs into the community and offers incense, putting an end to the plague that had broken out, killing more than 14,000.

God instructs Moses to offer one more demonstration. Each of the tribal chieftains is to bring a staff inscribed with his name. These, along with Aaron’s staff, representing the tribe of Levi, are to be placed in the Tent of Meeting. On the following day, it is discovered that Aaron’s staff has produced flowers and almonds, confirming that he is God’s chosen priest.

God speaks to Aaron, confirming the role of the priests and the Levites. The gifts and tithes to be given to the priests and Levites are described.

1. You’re Going Down!

And the earth opened its mouth and swallowed them up with their households, all Korah’s people and all their possessions. (Numbers 16:32)

  1. “The earth closed over them.” The verse tells us that this opening (of the earth) was unlike the opening caused by an earthquake, which does not close immediately. In this instance, however, it closed at once, similar to someone who opens his mouth to swallow something and closes it after swallowing. (Rabbi Ovadia ben Jacob Sforno, 1475-1550, Italy)
  2. The opening of the earth adjusted itself to the girth of each person. Beginning at a man’s soles, it opened slightly to admit the feet, widened for the legs, the thighs, and the abdomen, and then finally narrowed again for the neck. Korah and his company sank slowly bit by bit, and, as the earth was suffocating them, they kept crying in anguish: Moses is the truth, and his Torah is truth. (Yalkut Reuveni, Bamidbar 16:31)
  3. Our rabbis said: Even if they had clothes at a washerman’s these came rolling over and over and were swallowed up with Korah and his company. (Bamidbar Rabbah 18:13)
  4. Antigonus of Sokho taught: Do not be like servants who serve their masters expecting to receive a reward; be rather like servants who serve their master unconditionally, with no thought of reward. Also, let the awe of God determine your actions. (Pirkei Avot 1:3)
  5. Rabbi Aha said: God has made uncertain the reward of those who perform the commandments of the Torah so that they may do them in fidelity. (Jerusalem Talmud Pe’ah)

Sparks for Discussion

There can be no doubt about God’s response to Korah’s rebellion. Our commentators add details, making it clear that what happened to Korah and his followers was not the result of any natural phenomenon. Why was that an important point to make? Do you think Korah’s punishment was appropriate?

God’s response to Korah’s rebellion was immediate and dramatic. Imagine that we lived in a world in which all sins were met by swift and certain punishment. Would human beings still have meaningful free will? How would our relationship to God change?

2. For Heaven’s Sake

Eleazar the priest took the copper fire pans that had been used for offering by those who died in the fire; and they were hammered into plating for the altar, as the Lord had ordered him through Moses. It was to be a reminder to the Israelites, so that no outsider – one not of Aaron’s offspring – should presume to offer incense before the Lord and suffer the fate of Korah and his band. [Alternative translation: that he should not be as Korah and his band] (Numbers 17:4-5)

  1. Resh Lakish said: This teaches that one must not cling to a quarrel, for Rav said, whoever holds on to a quarrel violates a negative commandment, as it is stated: “that he should not be as Korah and his band.” (Talmud Sanhedrin 110a)
  2. Any controversy that is carried on for Heaven’s sake will in the end be of lasting worth, but any that is not carried on for Heaven’s sake will in the end not be of lasting worth. What controversy was for Heaven’s sake? The controversy between Hillel and Shammai. What was not for Heaven’s sake? The controversy caused by Korah and his entire company. (Pirkei Avot 5:17)
  3. In their [Hillel and Shammai’s] debates, one of them would render a decision and the other would argue against it, out of a desire to discover the truth, not out of cantankerousness or out of the wish to prevail over his fellow. That is why when he was right, the words of the person who disagreed endured. A controversy not for the sake of heaven was the controversy of Korah and his company, for they came to undermine Moses, our master, may he rest in peace, and his position, out of envy and contentiousness and ambition for victory. (Rabbi Menahem HaMeiri, 1249-1306, Provence)
  4. Rabbi Chayim Shmuelevitz commented that this verse tells us an important principle about quarrels. The verse is definitely a prohibition against being involved in quarrels. But the verse can also be read: There will not be other quarrels like that of Korach and his followers. In this instance Moshe was one hundred percent right, and Korach was one hundred percent wrong. But in most arguments and feuds even if one side is more correct than the other both sides are usually making some mistakes... Moreover, in many family quarrels neither side is really right or wrong. The personalities of the parties involved are different. Each person can be one hundred percent right from his point of view and according to his personality. But together there is a strong clash. When you stop blaming and condemning the other party, you will be calm enough to work out peaceful solutions.

    When involved in a personal quarrel, do not focus on who is right and who is wrong, but focus on peace. Ask yourself, “What can be said or done so that all the people involved can be satisfied?” (Rabbi Zelig Pliskin, “Growth Through Torah,” pp 339-340)

Sparks for Discussion

It is impossible to imagine any human institution – a nation, a community, a business, a congregation, a family – in which no arguments take place. Do you think this is a good thing or a bad thing? Why? How would you explain Rav’s admonition not to be like Korah and his band? Are there members of your family who still hold grudges over a long-forgotten argument? How might you go about the process of reconciliation? How can we learn to argue “for Heaven’s sake?”

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