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Parashat Korah
June 20, 2015 – 3 Tammuz 5775 

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 Adam Rosenbaum
Charleston, SC


Moses and Aaron's authority is challenged twice: first, by Korah, a Levite who gathers 250 Israelite nobles, and then by Dathan and Abiram, who claim that Egypt, not Canaan, is the true land of milk and honey. Moses suggests that fire-pans of incense be brought to test Korah's claims, but God threatens the rebels’ immediate destruction. Moses and Aaron beg for clemency, but as predicted by Moses, the earth swallows the rebels and their possessions (Korah's sons are spared).

God orders that the rebels’ fire pans be attached to the Tabernacle altar to remind the people of the attempted insurrection. But the Israelites criticize God's punishment, leading to a plague that kills 14,700 others. Next, God demands that the tribal leaders deposit a staff into the Tent of Meeting. Aaron’s staff sprouts almonds, serving as another reminder of recent events.

The Israelites now fear approaching the Tabernacle. God assures that only Levites can be punished for trespasses. To ease the Levites' burden, God outlines the sacred gifts that they and the priests will receive.

Theme #1: Petered Pan

Order Eleazar son of Aaron the priest to remove the fire pans -- for they have become sacred -- from among the charred remains; and scatter the coals abroad. [Remove] the fire pans of those who have sinned at the cost of their lives, and let them be made into hammered sheets as plating for that altar -- for once they have been used for offering to the Lord, they have become sacred -- and let them serve as a warning to the people of Israel. (Numbers 17:2-3)

The remains of the incident of Korah and his followers cannot simply be swept under the rug.

The pans shall remain a sign of teaching and warning. With these pans the offerers became sinners against their own selves! They sinned against themselves and brought about their own ruin! Scripture here connects the sin against themselves with the designation of the pans to be an overlay for the altar … The meaning of this connection is as follows: In the pursuit of honor, they sought to undermine the service of the altar ordained by God. In this attempt they forfeited their lives, and their ruin only served to strengthen the altar founded by God. -- Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch

The men who offered the firepans were not sinners but saintly persons, for whom the deprivation of priestly office spelt the forfeiting of a coveted opportunity for closer communion with the Creator. They harbored no illusory worldly ambitions, nor hankered after the sweets of office but longed to sanctify themselves and achieve greater spiritual heights through the sacred service. They were well aware of the authenticity of the Divine message through Moses and that none dare gainsay it. In spite of that, they longed to do the will of God and gave their lives for the love of God; for love is stronger than death. -- Ha’amek Davar

The fire-pans [have become holy], and they are forbidden regarding enjoyment. For, see now, they had implements of [the Temple] service of them. -- Rashi on 17:2

Questions for Discussion:

Rabbi Hirsch understands the firepans as a reminder of a groundless attempt at seizing power. While many people carry mementos of past successes to motivate them to future achievement, there are some who keep items to remember their past failures so that they might never again have the bitter taste of defeat in their mouths. What are the pros and cons of motivation through failure?

Ha'amek Davar tries to take a positive spin on those who are punished in the Korah incident, saying that their punishment is actually a blessing, for they have the chance to be closer to God than ever before. Words of consolation like these rarely resonate today; it is heartbreaking to think of someone who suffers from an untimely death being in a "better place." Why would Ha'amek Davar think of its reasoning as comforting?

Rashi contends that the fire-pans have become off-limits because of the way they had been used in the pursuit of holiness, even though one can argue that they had been misused. Likewise, in our sacred worship today, can we utilize this example to be kind to someone who reads Torah or sermonizes ineffectively, as they are at least seeking a closer connection to God?

Theme #2: Almond Joy

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 17:22-23)

Not to be outdone by Moses, whose walking staff turns into a snake, Aaron's staff unexpectedly grows almonds.

Why almonds and not pomegranates, or nuts? Because Israel was compared to the two latter. [In Song of Songs 4:13 and 6:11, rabbinic interpretation identifies the young woman of the poem as Israel.] That same staff was held in the hand of every king until the Temple was destroyed, and then it was [divinely] hidden away. That same staff also is destined to be held in the hand of the King Messiah; as it says, “The Lord will stretch forth from Zion your mighty staff, hold sway over your enemies!” (Psalms 110:2). -- Numbers Rabbah

When the Ark was hidden, there was hidden with it the bottle containing the Manna, and that containing the sprinkling water, the staff of Aaron, with its almonds and blossoms, and the chest which the Philistines had sent as a gift to the God of Israel, as it is said: “And put the jewels of gold which you return to Him for a guilt-offering in a coffer by the side thereof and send it away that it may go” (I Samuel 6:8). -- Yoma 52b

In Numbers 17:23 we find a proverbial cliche, something unusual in priestly narrative: “It gave forth sprouts, produced blossoms, bore almonds.” … The textual distribution of the components of the cliché reveals the links existing between priestly writings and the proverbial repertoire of biblical prophecy and wisdom. -- Baruch A. Levine, Numbers 1-20

Questions for Discussion:

Numbers Rabbah tells us that every Israelite king would one day use Aaron's staff, and that the staff also is reserved for the Messiah one day. In a way, the staff can be seen as a "family heirloom" of sorts. What are some of the most important family heirlooms in our homes? How are family heirlooms best utilized? How do we decide what qualifies as a family heirloom and what does not?

Yoma picks up where Numbers Rabbah leaves off, telling us of other items that are stowed away for future use by the Israelites. Where are the best places to leave items of value? How beneficial is it to have valuable items in our safekeeping? At what point does the collection of sentimental items border on hoarding?

Levine sees the account of the almond-bearing staff as a cliché, not as something to be taken literally. Does seeing the text in this fashion diminish the impact it has on the reader? Or is the symbolism of the almonds enough to find value in this turn in the narrative?


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