June 23, 2012 – 3 Tammuz 5772
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 Joseph Prouser
The Torah’s prototypical dissenter, Korach, leading a force of 250 men and
supported by Dathan and Aviram, incites a rebellion against Moses, assailing his
claim to unique leadership. Moses challenges his detractors to a cultic
confrontation. Both the rebels and Aaron are to bring offerings of incense on fire
pans; Moses explains that “the man whom the Lord chooses, he shall be the holy
one.” After Korach gathers the community to witness the decisive event, a
frustrated God threatens to destroy the entire nation. Moses intervenes, praying:
“God, Source of the breath of all flesh, when one man sins, will You be wrathful
with the whole community?” God relents, ordering Moses to instruct the
Israelites to distance themselves from Korach’s band. In accordance with Moses’
explicit warning, the earth opens up and swallows Korach, his ringleaders, and
their households; fire consumes the rebels offering the incense, and the horrified
and panicked community of Israel flees in fear.
Eleazar collects the fire pans that the rebels had used – unauthorized but now
deemed sacred – “from among the charred remains.” The pans are to be used to
cover the altar, as a reminder of the terrible consequences of this – or similar –
uprisings. Despite the vindication of Moses and the dire fate of his detractors, the
Israelites begin to “murmur” – to complain about Moses and Aaron. This illadvised
sedition is met with more divine wrath: 14,700 Israelites perish in a
punitive plague, which is curtailed by Aaron’s expiatory intercession.
Further divine proof is offered to substantiate the leadership of Moses and Aaron.
Twelve staffs are provided, each inscribed with the name of a tribal chieftain; one
staff is inscribed with Aaron’s name. Aaron’s staff miraculously sprouts, and it is
placed beside the Ark as a reminder to other would-be rebels.
The Levites and priests are charged specifically with all that pertains to the
sacred precincts and with the responsibility of keeping unauthorized parties from
compromising its sanctity. The sacerdotal mission of the tribe of Levi is met with a number of perquisites: sacrificial emoluments – “the best of the new oil, wine,
and grain, the choice parts that Israelites present to the Lord” – as well as tithes,
are assigned to the priests and the Levites.
Theme #1: “Almond Joy”
“Moses spoke thus to the Israelites. Their chieftains gave him a staff for each
chieftain of an ancestral house, 12 staffs in all; among these staffs was that of
Aaron. Moses deposited the staffs before the Lord, in the Tent of the Pact. The
next day Moses entered the tent of the Pact, and there the staff of Aaron of the
house of Levi had sprouted; it had brought forth sprouts, produced blossoms, and
borne almonds.” (Numbers 17:21-23)
“Some say that it was the staff that had been in the hand of Judah; others say that
it was the staff that had been in the hand of Moses. Others again say that Moses
took a beam and, cutting it into 12 planks, said to the princes: ‘Take your sticks
every one of you from the same beam.’ He did it in order that they should not say
that Aaron’s rod was fresh and that this was the reason why it flowered.”
(Midrash Bemidbar Rabbah)
“God establishes another test to demonstrate the election of the House of Aaron
to the priesthood. This time the miracle requires no human intercession and thus
the people should perceive it as wholly divine in nature – in order, God says, to
‘rid Myself of the incessant mutterings… against Moses and Aaron.’” (Tamara
Cohn Eskenazi, Andrea L. Weiss, The Torah: A Women’s Commentary)
“God sent an earthquake, and Korach and his followers were swallowed up in it.
But even then, the people refused to accept Aaron’s appointment. Then there was
a plague, but the Children of Israel continued to murmur against Aaron. Finally,
God told each tribe to bring a rod and place it in the Tent of Assembly, and
Aaron was to place his rod there also. The people were to watch and see which
rod would bud and blossom. And when Aaron’s rod blossomed, they finally
accepted him as high priest. Now why did the people accept Aaron when his rod
blossomed and bore almonds? Because it showed the vitality of life.” (Rabbi S. Z.
Kahana, Heaven On Your Head)
“God devises a test to discern the face of mature power. Each of the 12 tribes
places its own staff, a symbol of its power, into the holy center of the community.
The next day it is revealed that Aaron's staff has sprouted, blossomed, and
produced almonds. This is how we know when our own power has matured. We
look for the sprout, the blossom, and the fruit. What have we grown by our
power? What beauty have we brought into the world? And how, with our power,
have we nurtured ourselves and others?” (Rabbi Shefa Gold)
Questions for Discussion
The Midrash Rabbah offers various explanations for the origin of Aaron’s staff.
Which is the most appealing? Which would be the most miraculous explanation
of the miracle?
Is it accurate to say that “no human intercession” was involved in the miraculous
blossoming of Aaron’s staff? Wasn’t it Moses who collected the rods and placed
them in the shrine? Wasn’t it Aaron’s merit – his legitimate claim to cultic
leadership – that facilitated the miracle? How is this miracle different from all
other miracles (the earthquake, the plague, etc.)? Are the earlier wonders less
Why almonds? Why the staffs? What is the significance of placing the staffs
overnight in the Tent of the Pact?
In the absence of miraculously blossoming staffs (!), how are religious leaders
today to establish their fitness, their authenticity, their spiritual bona fides to
communities who – like our Israelite forbears – are suspicious of authority?
Theme #2: “The Cookie Crumbles”
“But the Israelites said to Moses, ‘Lo, we doomed! We will perish, all of us
perish! Everyone who so much as ventures near the Lord’s Tabernacle must die.
Alas, we are done for; we are doomed!” (Numbers 17:27-28)
‘Lo, we perish!’ said the Israelites after the plague has stopped. ‘We are lost, all
of us lost . . . Alas we are doomed to perish.’ That is true, of course. They will
die, and not in the manner or at the time they would have wished. Human beings
of every generation are familiar with this problem. It cannot be minimized. The
Torah does not often express the terror human beings feel in the face of death as
directly as it does in this parashah. Nor does it often advise its readers, as
explicitly as it does here, how best to cope with the fact of death, which often
comes as an interruption in our journeys toward personal promised lands. What is
that recommendation? Live your life surrounded by the demands and rewards of
God's eternal sacred order. Be part of a community that shares life's joys and
sorrows with you. Be grateful for the gifts you have. Seek forgiveness for the
wrongs you commit. Know the difference between holy and profane, and the
distinction—to which it points—between good and evil. Seek to know God, as
best a human being can, and imitate God via acts of justice and compassion.
Trust in God's enduring mercies.” (Arnold Eisen, Chancellor, Jewish Theological
“It was in response to this agonizing cry that Aaron and the Levites were bidden
in xviii to guard the Sanctuary against the approach of any ‘stranger.’” (Rabbi
Joseph H. Hertz)
“And if I perish, I perish.” (Esther 4:16)
“If they do kill me, I shall never die another death.” (Abraham Lincoln)
“No vision and you perish; No Ideal, and you’re lost; Your heart must ever
cherish Some faith at any cost. Some hope, some dream to cling to, Some
rainbow in the sky, Some melody to sing to, Some service that is high.” (Harriet
Questions for Discussion
Was Esther’s statement before approaching Achashverosh, in violation of the
law, a reference to the panicked lament of the Israelites (the same Hebrew verb –
abd – is used in both texts)? (As a corollary: Was Lincoln’s prescient remark a
paraphrase of the verse from Esther?!) How does the subsequent literary history
of our verse alter our reading of Parshat Korach, and how does the origin in
Korach of these later statements help us to understand what the speakers were
trying to tell us?
The Israelites in our verse feared their physical demise. How does Harriet du
Autermont’s insight also apply to the biblical context?
Notwithstanding Professor Eisen’s analysis of the Torah’s advice to Israel about
how to cope with “the terror human beings feel in the face of death,” what
response is forthcoming to the terrified Israelites in Parshat Korach? What might
Moses or Aaron or God have said to make sense of the plague that had just
devastated the community? How should contemporary Jewish religious leaders
respond to natural or unnatural disasters when they strike?
Was it the interruption of their journey toward the Promised Land (personal or
national) that so unsettled the Israelites, or was it the lack of any such ultimate
goal or transcendent meaning? Which is the more tragic demise?
Parshat Korach, read on June 23, 2012, describes the fate of Korach and his followers, who are
swallowed up by the earth in the wake of their disastrously misguided rebellion against Moses.
Today is the first anniversary of the 6.7 magnitude earthquake that devastated Japan’s Iwate
Prefecture on June 23, 2011.
The recitation of blessings (for food, for natural phenomena, etc.) sensitize us to the miracles that
surround us every day. Rabbi Max Kadushin referred to this process as “normal mysticism.” There
are blessings to be recited, as well, in response to extraordinary miracles , whether national or
personal. “A person who sees a place where miracles have been performed on behalf of the Jewish
people, should say: ‘Blessed is God Who did miracles for our ancestors in this place’ …From
where is this principle derived? Said R. Yochanan: The verse states, (Exodus 18:10 – Jethro’s
statement of praise) ‘Blessed is the Lord, who saved you’” (Talmud Berachot 54A). Jethro’s
blessing also serves as the precedent for the “she-asah nisim” berachot familiar from holiday
liturgy: “And when a day comes corresponding to a time when a miracle was done on behalf of the
Jews, like Chanukah and Purim, one is obligated to recite the blessing: ‘Blessed…Who performed
miracles for our forefathers at this time.’ On Chanukah this blessing is recited in association with
lighting a wick (i.e., the chanukiyah); on Purim in association with the reading of the Megillah”
(Sheiltot Parshat Vayishlach). Parallel blessings are also to be recited when we see a place where
we experienced a miracle personally: Baruch atah… she’asah li nes ba-makom ha-zeh – “Blessed
are You… who performed a miracle for me (alternatively: for my father, for my mother, for my
ancestors, for my teacher) in this place” (See also Rambam Mishneh Torah Hilchot Berachot 10:9).