Nepotism Rears Its Ugly Head
ויקח קרח… ודתן ואבירם… חמישים ומאתיים נשיאי עדה קריאי מועד אנשי שם ויקהלו על משה ועל אהרן ויאמרו אליהם רב לכם כי כל העדה כולם קדושים
“Korach… and Dathan and Abiram, took 250 men, princes of the congregation… men of renown. And they gathered against Moses and Aaron and said, ‘You take too much upon yourselves, for the entire assembly – all of them – are holy.’ ” (Bamidbar, 16:1-3)
The Jewish nation was in its infancy. Positions of responsibility were being assigned to various tribes, families, and individuals, but one man was unhappy. Korach, who hailed from the Kehothites, a prominent family of Levites, felt that he deserved better. Sure, the Kehothites were awarded the choicest assignment of all three Levite families. They, alone, were granted the right to carry the holiest items from the Tabernacle on their shoulders, but this was not enough for Korach. He felt that he, by virtue of his age, should have been given overall managerial duties.
A young man from a wealthy family was preparing to graduate college. Knowing there was nothing his dad couldn’t afford, the young man informed his father that an appropriate gift to mark the occasion would be a beautiful sports car that he had long admired. Graduation day approached, and with unconcealed enthusiasm the young man awaited signs that his father had purchased the car. Finally the day came. After a grand ceremony, his father told him how much he loved him and handed him a beautifully wrapped gift box. The young man tore off the wrapping, opened the box, and found a leather-bound photo album containing pictures of him at every stage of his life. Hardly taking the time to look through the album, the young man yelled, “With all your money, this is the best you could do?” He stormed out of the house. He rarely called his father after that and never visited him. He refused to make peace with his disappointment over what had happened on graduation day.
The young man grew to become a parent. One day, before his own daughter’s eighth grade graduation, she asked to visit her grandfather, whom she had never seen before. He began to make arrangements but in the interim received a telegram informing him that his father had passed away and had willed all his possessions to him. When he searched through his father’s important papers, he discovered the still-new photo album. As he turned the pages, his childhood passed before his eyes. When he came to the final page, which was blank, he realized it was supposed to have been filled with pictures of his graduation. Instead, there was an unopened envelope. He opened it up, and a car key dropped out. There was a tag with the date of his graduation and the words “paid in full.”
Korach may not have had it all, but he certainly had been granted an incredible opportunity to serve in the capacity of a Levite. Had he accepted his role, he would have ranked among the leading families in Israel and enjoyed immense respect and adulation. Instead, his legacy is that of a miscreant and rabble-rouser who chose to focus on the packaging, never taking the time to examine his gifts.
We do not have to repeat Korach’s mistake. G-d truly loves us and wants us to be happy. We can feel confident that just because something is not packaged the way we expect it does not mean that it is not a gift.
Blinded by Disappointment
… ויקהלו על משה ועל אהרן ויאמרו אלהם רב לכם כי כל העדה כלם קדשים ובתוכם ה’
“They gathered together against Moses and against Aaron and said to them, ‘It is too much for you! For the entire assembly—all of them—are holy and G-d is among them. Why do you exalt yourselves over the congregation of G-d?’” (Bamidbar 16:3)
Korach’s rebellion was no ordinary uprising of the masses. Korach was a prominent figure in the tribe of Levi, and the other challengers included 250 outstanding leaders of the Jewish people.
Despite Korach’s brilliance, he was blinded by disappointment and anger over having been passed over for a position of even greater prominence. Korach’s downfall illustrates the power that emotions have to lead a person astray. When utilized properly, emotions also have the power to lead a person back to a path of spiritual enlightenment.
Diego Francisca was a Jewish teenager who had emigrated from Argentina to Israel with his mother. Diego’s father, who was not Jewish, had abandoned the family years ago. His mother was Jewish but had very little connection with Judaism. She abhorred the fact that Diego stole; but when the rent was due and she had no other money, she turned a blind eye to Diego’s “career.” By the time he was 10 years old, he was an accomplished burglar.
Diego climbed into the villa. It was gorgeous from the outside, yet inside there was no booty—no jewelry, no silver, no money. How could such a mansion yield no valuables? Before giving up, he took one last sweep of the premises, and spotted a briefcase on top of the refrigerator. “Bingo!” He made his getaway. But the briefcase was stuffed with old newspapers and a single envelope containing two, 100-dollar bills, along with a letter dated 15 years earlier:
I’m glad you found the $200 I left you. It’s compensation for the disappointment you must feel after all the time you spent rummaging through my home and finding nothing. Now you won’t walk away empty-handed.
Bizarre as this letter was, something about the warm, personal tone tugged at Diego’s heart.
Allow me to enlighten you, my friend. It is a cornerstone of Judaism that G-d runs the world and provides for all. On Rosh Hashanah, the income of each Jew is decreed down to the last penny. When a person steals, he actually steals from himself—because the $200 could have been yours without stealing it.
I am eager to get to know you, my friend. I have no doubt that we’ll have a lot to talk about. I have no hard feelings. I simply want to make my small contribution towards getting you out of the vicious cycle of theft. You can call me any time. My phone number is…
Deigo was stunned.
The next night, Dr. Shraga Avigad, a senior surgeon in Beilinson Hospital, received a phone call.
“Uh, I’m the thief…”
“I’m so happy you called…”
And thus began a beautiful friendship. With Dr. Avigad’s patient, loving guidance, Diego embraced a new life committed to Jewish observance.
Emotions influence our actions. Korach, once a great and powerful individual, gave in to negativity and visited pain and destruction on the Jewish people. Diego, a poor boy raised in a negative environment, grabbed on to kindness and inspiration. We would do well to follow his lead.
-Ed. Diego’s story was documented in Ha’Itonai, and verified by Binah Magazine.
An Answer to Our Prayers
ויחר למשה מאד ויאמר אל ה’ אל תפן אל מנחתם
“And Moses was greatly distressed, and he said to G-d, ‘Do not turn to their (Korach and his followers) offering.’” (Bamidbar 16:15)
Our parsha begins with the tragic revolt led by Korach against Moses and Aaron in an attempt to question their claims of being Divinely chosen and ultimately, to overthrow their leadership. Moses suggested that the dispute be resolved by challenging Korach and his 250 followers to prepare incense offerings, which they would offer to G-d. Aaron would do so as well, and the person whose offering was accepted by G-d would survive, while all of the others would perish.
After Korach refused to back down and accepted the challenge even at the risk of his life and those of his followers, Moses grew angry and petitioned G-d not to accept the incense offerings of Korach and his followers. As doing so would be tantamount to substantiating Korach’s blasphemous and heretical arguments, why was it necessary for Moses to pray that they not be accepted? Wasn’t it obvious that G-d wouldn’t do something which would cause such catastrophic consequences?
The following story will help us to appreciate the answer given to our question. Rabbi Shalom Schwadron was once praying at the Kotel (Western Wall) in Jerusalem when he was startled by a loud noise. Turning around, he saw two men wearing leather and chains who had just pulled up behind him on a motorcycle.
One man took out a pen and paper and scribbled a note, which he showed to his friend. After his friend nodded his approval, he folded up the paper and placed it in one of the cracks in the Kotel. The men returned to their motorcycle and sped off with a bang. Rabbi Schwadron was curious as to what these two ostensibly non-spiritual men had written, when a gust of wind suddenly blew their poorly-placed paper straight to his feet. Smiling and expressing his gratitude to G-d for the wind, he picked up the paper and read, “Please G-d, Maccabi Tel Aviv (a sports team) for the league championship,” a prayer which was apparently subsequently answered.
In light of this story, we can now understand the answer given by the Alter of Kelm (1824-1898). He teaches that our question is based on a fundamental lack of appreciation of the power of heartfelt prayer. We live in a society which believes that a person must be at the highest levels of piety for his prayers to be answered, and even so, we should “bother” G-d only to pray about matters of great import.
Judaism, on the other hand, believes what King David wrote (Psalms 145:18) קרוב יהוה לכל קראיו לכל אשר יקראהו באמת – G-d is close to all those who call out to Him genuinely. King David is pointing out that G-d doesn’t differentiate between the righteous and the wicked; just the opposite, G-d is close to everybody who prays to Him sincerely. Moses knew that with their lives on the line, Korach and his followers, heretics that they were, would pray for the acceptance of their incense offerings with tremendous fervor and intent, and had no choice but to counter their powerful prayers with an even more potent one of his own. Moses understood that it doesn’t matter what the subject of the prayer is. Heartfelt prayer about whatever is important to a person, whether sports or even the deposition of G-d’s hand-picked prophet and leader, brings him close to G-d, who is likely to answer such prayers in the affirmative, a lesson we should remember the next time we open a siddur (prayer book).
Power of Speech
‘וילנו כל עדת בני ישראל ממחרת על משה ועל אהרן לאמר אתם המתם את־עם ה
“The entire assembly of the Children of Israel complained the next day against Moses and Aaron, saying, ‘You have killed the people of G-d.’” (Bamidbar 17:6)
Parshat Korach revolves around an uprising led by Korach against Moses and Aaron. Korach and his followers challenged Moses’ claim that G-d had chosen him to lead the Jewish nation. After his unsuccessful attempts to quell the rebellion peacefully, Moses proposed a test to resolve the dispute. Korach and his followers would offer incense offerings to G-d, as would Aaron. G-d’s selected High Priest would survive, but everybody else would die.
After Korach accepted the challenge, even at the risk of his own life, Moses beseeched G-d not to accept their offerings. Just as Moses foretold, Aaron’s incense offering was accepted, while Korach and his followers all perished.
The Jewish people reacted by accusing Moses and Aaron of causing their deaths. This is difficult to understand. Moses conducted himself with the utmost humility in attempting to dissuade them from their uprising. When this was unsuccessful and with his Divine authority on the line, he was left with no choice but to propose this test, and warned them of the disastrous results which awaited them. If they ignored his warnings and G-d punished them, how could they blame Moses and Aaron for their deaths?
A student of Rabbi Yisrael Salanter (1810-1883), the founder of the Mussar (Jewish ethics) movement, once approached his saintly teacher. He told Rabbi Salanter about the extent of a certain Rabbi’s righteousness that if the Rabbi ever became upset with someone and cursed him, the curse was always fulfilled. Rabbi Salanter was far from impressed. He explained that just as we are responsible for causing damage with our hands or actions, so too are we accountable for causing damage with our speech.
The student asked Rabbi Salanter if there was a source in the Torah for the concept that a person is responsible for his speech, and where it might be found. Rabbi Salanter cited our verse, in which the Jewish people held Moses and Aaron responsible for the deaths of Korach and his followers. He explained that they maintained that it was the prayers of Moses and Aaron which resulted in this outcome, and that they must therefore be held accountable. Although they were mistaken, as Moses and Aaron had no alternative in this situation, we still derive from here that a person is responsible not only for the consequences of his actions, but also for his speech.
In a society where people are often admired for their sharp tongues, we would do well to consider the Torah’s perspective that speech may be more damaging than it seems. One of the 613 commandments is a prohibition against saying something which hurts another person’s feelings (Vayikra 19:33). The Talmud (Bava Metzia 58b) teaches that publicly embarrassing another person is comparable to killing him. The next time we are tempted to roll a sharp line off our tongues as we convince ourselves that it’s only words, we should remember the lesson taught by Rabbi Salanter.
For Discussion Around the Shabbat Table
Korach, along with a group of 250 leaders, challenged Moses’ authority. They charged, “It is too much for you! For the entire assembly—all of them—are holy and G-d is among them. Why do you exalt yourselves over the congregation of G-d?” (Bamidbar 16:3)
- A simple reading of Korach’s arguments makes them seem logical and reasonable. What did our Sages see in Korach’s words which indicates that his true intentions were for his personal honor and glory?
- After unsuccessfully appealing to Korach and his followers to call off their rebellion, Moses became extremely angry. During his 40-year leadership of the Jewish people, Moses endured a tremendous number of tests and personal affronts with tremendous humility. Why did he specifically get angry at this time?
In the beginning of this week’s portion, Korach accuses Moses and Aaron of taking too much power and prestige for themselves, using the phrase, “It is too much for you!” (Bamidbar 16:3). Moses counters, using the same phrase, implying that Korach, too, had been given high honor and should not be asking for more.
Nearly forty years later, G-d refuses Moses’ pleas to enter the Land of Israel by declaring, “It is too much for you!” (Devarim3:26). The Talmud (Sotah 13) comments that G-d was rebuking Moses for the harsh language he had used against Korach.
1) Assuming there was an element of error in Moses’ approach, what would have been a more correct way of responding to Korach’s challenge?
In order to prove that he was acting solely on the word of G-d, Moses pleaded for the earth to open up and swallow Korach and his entire household, a phenomenon that had never been seen before. Moses had no guarantee that G-d would agree to this request.
2) Why might Moses have considered a supernatural occurrence necessary in order to expose Korach’s evil intent? Could he not have accomplished the same thing by simply praying that G-d kill the rebels in any way He saw fit?
3) Korach’s contention was that the entire Jewish people were holy and that there was no need for a High Priest (Bamidbar16:3). Yet he agreed to a public demonstration to prove which individual had been chosen by G-d to serve as High Priest (Bamidbar 16:6-7).
It appears that no matter what the outcome, Korach would be proven wrong. How was it in his strategic interest to agree to such a demonstration?
After Korach challenges Moses’ and Aaron’s authority and incites a rebellion against them, Moses suggested a plan (see Bamidbar 16:5-7) for confirming that they were Divinely chosen as the leader of the Jewish people: Korach and his 250 followers, as well as Aaron, would each bring an incense offering to G-d. The offering of the one chosen by G-d would be accepted. Those whose offering would not be accepted, and hence, clearly not chosen by G-d, would perish. Undaunted, Korach agrees to the plan, and (as described in Bamidbar 16:31-35) perishes along with his 250 followers.
On the following day, “the entire assembly of the children of Israel” (Bamidbar 17:6) spoke harshly regarding Moses and Aaron, claiming that they were responsible for this massive loss of life.
1) As Moses clearly discouraged Korach and his followers from pursuing their revolt and as Korach was duly forewarned, how could their death be attributed to Moses and Aaron?
2) In advance of the actual incense offerings, Moses pleaded with G-d not to accept Korach’s and his follower’s offerings (Bamidbar 16:15). As Moses plainly knew that he and Aaron were chosen by G-d, what need or benefit could there be in this request?
As a punishment for his rebellion, Korach and his followers were swallowed alive by the ground.
- Judaism teaches that people are punished for their sins “measure-for-measure”. In what way was Korach’s punishment specifically appropriate for his crime of rebelling against Moses and Aaron?
- Until now, whenever the Jewish people sinned, such as with the golden calf and the spies, Moses always prayed to G-d that they be forgiven. Why didn’t Moses pray that Korach and his followers should repent and be forgiven as he had done previously?
Q: Judaism teaches that people are punished for their sins measure-for-measure. In what way was Korach’s punishment of being swallowed alive by the ground (Bamidbar 16:32-33) for rebelling against Moses and Aaron specifically appropriate for his crime?
A: Rabbeinu Bechaye explains that Korach erred in seeking out a lofty position for which he was unfit. Therefore, he was punished by being swallowed up by the ground, sending him down to the lowest abyss possible. Rabbi Wolf Strickover answers that Korach challenged Moses and Aaron (Bamidbar 16:3), “Why do you exalt yourselves over the congregation of G-d,” accusing them of arrogance. In reality, the Torah testifies (Bamidbar 12:3) that Moses was the most humble man on earth and viewed himself as no greater than the ground itself. In order to punish him, Korach had to be placed even lower than Moses, who considered himself equal to the ground. Therefore, the only choice was for the earth to swallow him up. Alternatively, the Mishnah in Ethics of our Fathers (3:2) teaches that without a leader to make and enforce laws, people would swallow up and devour one another. Since Korach argued that the entire nation was holy and didn’t need a leader, he was punished by being swallowed up by the ground to hint to the natural consequence of his proposal. (Rabbi Ozer Alport)
Q: The Talmud (Sotah 13b) teaches that Moses was punished for telling Korach and his followers (Bamidbar 16:7) רב לכם בני לוי – “it is too much for you, children of Levi.” When Moses petitioned G-d to annul the decree preventing him from entering the land of Israel, G-d answered him (Devarim 3:26) using a similar expression: רב לך (“it is too much for you”), to hint that Moses sinned in using this expression when addressing Korach. What was Moses’s sin in speaking to Korach in this manner, and in what way was his punishment measure-for-measure and not just a linguistic play on words?
A: Rabbi Yehuda Zev Segal, known as the Manchester Rosh Yeshiva, explains that although Korach and his followers committed a grave sin and error in their rebellion against the leadership of Moses and Aaron, it was still inappropriate for Moses to speak to them in this manner. Moses told them that the spiritual elevation they sought was too much for them. Although they were indeed mistaken and misguided, it was still incorrect to speak to them in a way which implies that the pursuit of spiritual growth is capped and limited.
Several commentators explain that G-d instilled within us the attribute of the lack of satisfaction with our lot so that we will constantly seek to grow and change in spiritual endeavors. As a result, Moses’ desire to enter the land of Israel to grow through doing the mitzvot which may uniquely be performed in Israel was met with a response (“it is too much for you”). This was comparable to the inappropriate message Moses had used, alluding to the impropriety of his message to Korach. (Rabbi Ozer Alport)
Q: The Torah teaches (Bamidbar 17:5) that there will never again be an episode like Korach and his assembly. How is this to be understood?
A: Although in a literal sense many commentators understand this verse as a Biblical prohibition against engaging in machloket (fighting and strife), Rabbi Chaim Soloveitchik offered a homiletic interpretation with a lesson we would do well to internalize. In the rebellion led by Korach and his followers, their position was 100% wrong and without any legitimacy whatsoever. The position of Moses and Aaron, against whom they were fighting, was revealed by G-d to be 100% correct. Rav Chaim suggested that our verse may be understood as a Divine guarantee that there will never again be such a dispute in which one side is completely right and the other is absolutely in error. When we disagree with our spouses, co-workers, families, and friends, each side all-too-often falls into the trap of assuming that his or her position is completely justified and engages in a campaign of “proving” to the other side the absolute absurdity of the other opinion. If we remember the promise of the Torah that there will never again be such a one-sided disagreement as that of Moses and Korach, it will be much easier for us to see and understand the logic of those around us, which will naturally result in much happier and more peaceful resolutions for everybody. (Rabbi Ozer Alport)
Q: The word with the highest gematria (numerical value) in the entire Torah appears in Parshat Korach. What is it, and what is the significance of this fact?
A: The word תשתרר (Bamidbar 16:13) is only five letters long but possesses a whopping numerical value of 1500. As there are no coincidences in the Torah, the Paneiach Raza explains why specifically this word has such a large value. After failing to sway Korach, Moses approached Dathan and Abiram, Korach’s cohorts in leading the rebellion, in a final attempt to quell the dispute. They brazenly rebuffed his peaceful overtures and accused him of תשתרר– seeking to make himself great and dominate the Jewish people. As such, it is only fitting that the very word which connotes their (false) claim that Moses had arrogantly elevated his stature and assumed a lofty role of greatness should be the word with the largest gematria in the entire Torah! (Rabbi Ozer Alport)
Jumping Points for Discussion and Further Study
THE VALUE OF A PROTEST
“And Korach, the son of Yitzhar the son of Kehat the son of Levi, separated himself, and Dathan and Abiram the sons of Eliav, and On the son of Peles, the sons of Reuven.” Bamidbar 16:1
The son of Yitzhar, the son of Kehat, the son of Levi – But Scripture does not mention, “the son of Jacob,” since Jacob implored G-d for compassion that his name be omitted from their dispute, as it is said, ‘let my name not be identified with their assembly.’”– Rashi
It is no secret that Jacob was the father of Levi. What then was accomplished by omitting mention of his name? Indeed, what Jacob sought to avoid with his plea to be omitted was not posthumous shame. Rather, he hoped to impress upon Levi that his actions were inconsistent with Jacob’s philosophy. Although his words may not have their intended effect on Levi’s descendant, Korach, he was no longer considered culpable, because early on, he had lodged his protest. By omitting his name from the list of Korach’s ancestors, the Torah is teaching us that even an unheeded protest is not wasted. Korach would go down in history as a villain, but Jacob, by virtue of his protest, would bear no guilt in the matter.
THE POWER TO LEAD
“And they congregated around Moses and Aaron and they said to them, ‘It is enough for you. The entire congregation, they are all holy and the L-rd is in their midst. Why do you raise yourselves above the congregation of the L-rd.’” Bamidbar 16:3
The Entire Congregation, they are all holy – All of them heard words of instruction at Sinai from the Almighty. – Rashi
While Korach and his cohorts were ostensibly arguing over specific positions, there was another underlying sentiment that they insinuated with these words. They resented the fact that some people would hold sway over others. In their minds, Judaism should be a democracy, in which all are equal, and all opinions equally valid and acceptable by virtue of the fact that we all stood at Sinai and heard the Almighty speak. The reality, however, is that this is patently not the case. Each individual is precious, important, and possesses a sacred soul, but the authority rests with those who were empowered by G-d to lead the nation. Moses and Aaron were selected by the Almighty, and that fact had yet to be assimilated by the masses. By challenging Moses’s authority to appoint leaders, they were, in effect, rejecting a basic tenet of Judaism.
WHAT WERE THEY REALLY AFTER?
“This is what you shall do: Take for yourselves fire pans, Korach and his entire congregation, and place fire in them and put incense upon them before G-d, tomorrow; and it will be that the man whom G-d will choose, he is the holy one; (you have taken) too much upon yourselves, sons of Levi.’” Bamidbar 16:6-7
This is what you shall do – Why did he see fit to tell them this? He said to them, “The non-Jewish way is to have a variety of rituals, with many priests, [not all] gathered in one Temple. We have only one G-d, one Ark, one Torah, one Altar, and one High Priest. Yet you – two hundred and fifty men – seek the High Priesthood! I, too, desire this… – Rashi
What did Moses mean with the words, “I, too, desire this?” Rabbi Reuven Margolis, zt”l, explained Moses’ words as follows: “There are 613 commandments in the Torah. Some apply only to Kohanim, some to Levites, and some to Israelites. How can one single individual possibly fulfill all of the commandments? Rather, all that’s asked of us is to desire to fulfill the commandments that we cannot fulfill, and we will be credited as if we had. If it is the mitzvot of the High Priesthood that you so desperately desire to fulfill and that’s what’s motivating this rebellion, know that I too desire those, and through my desire I am fulfilling them since I cannot be the High Priest. You, too, need not seek that which isn’t yours. Allow your desire for the mitzvah to suffice instead.” Sadly, Korach’s followers were not on a quest for a spiritual uplift. Rather, theirs was an unholy pursuit motivated by petty politics. Their inability to accept Moses’ reasoned words demonstrated that conclusively.
WHAT WAS HE REALLY SAYING?
“Moses said to Korach, “Please listen, sons of Levi. Is it not sufficient for you that the G-d of Israel has elevated you over the rest of the congregation of Israel to bring you closer to Him to perform the services of the Mishkan (Tabernacle) of G-d, and to stand before the congregation to minister to them? And He brought you near with all of your brethren the sons of Levi with you – and yet you demand to be kohanim (priests) as well?’” Bamidbar 16:8-10
It is important to recognize that Korach’s rebellion attacked more than just Moses’ choice of Aaron, his brother, as high priest. Accusing Moses of nepotism was an attack on Moses’ personal integrity, and would undermine everything Moses had done as a leader, most importantly the giving over of the Torah. The charge was totally baseless: Korach ignored the fact that for all Moses’ sacrifices on behalf of the people, he himself would merit neither the priesthood nor the monarchy. None of his children would ascend to positions of prominence. As a leader, his service of the Jewish people was a model of perfect altruism. Yet, members of his own tribe ignored this completely, and accused him of nepotism! This baseless charge, if left uncontested, would poison the national attitude toward Moses, and eventually destabilize the entire infrastructure that he had built. This left G-d with no option other than to remove Korach and his followers from the nation, lest they pollute the national attitude even further.
“Moses was greatly distressed, and he said to G-d: ‘Do not turn to their gift-offering! Not a single donkey did I sequester from any one of them, nor have I done ill to any one of them.’” Bamidbar 16:15
Not a single donkey did I sequester – I did not take a donkey from any one of them. Even when I went from Midian to Egypt and set my wife and sons upon a donkey, when I could have justifiably taken that donkey from them, – Ramban
Not a single donkey did I sequester from them – Most leaders enrich themselves at the expense of the people. I took nothing from them – not even my expenses. Why, then, do they accuse me of lording over them? Similarly, we find regarding the Prophet Samuel [Samuel 1:12:3] that he too, never derived benefit from the personal belongings of any of the people he helped. – Rashbam, Rabbeinu Bachya
The mention of a donkey here as an example of an expense which he could have justifiably taken from the people, is not random. Rather, as Rashi points out, it refers to the donkey with which he returned to Egypt after his sojourn in Midian. The whole reason he landed in Midian in the first place, was because he killed an Egyptian slave-driver to save the life of a Jew. This act was witnessed by Dathan and Abiram who promptly informed on him, causing him to flee for his life. This very same Dathan and Abiram were now leading the charge against him accusing him of acting selfishly! To this, Moses responded that he hadn’t even requested compensation for his donkey, let alone taken revenge on them for the harm they caused him. How then, could they allege that he acted in self-interest?
“And they [Moses and Aaron] fell on their faces and said, ‘G-d, Master of the Spirits of all flesh, shall one man sin and you cast your wrath upon the entire congregation? Bamidbar 16:22
Fell on their faces – Rabbeinu Bachya explains that this verse serves as the basis for our custom to “fall on our faces” during the daily prayer service in the prayer known as Tachanun. There are three reasons for doing so:
- To demonstrate our awe of the Divine Presence before whom we pray. For when praying, one must envision himself as standing before the Almighty. This aids in maintaining proper concentration and focus.
- To demonstrate our discomfort, humility, and insignificance. These attitudes are a form of repentance and greatly enhance the efficacy of our prayers.
- To demonstrate the shuttering of our sensory organs and a disavowal of our personal desires. In doing so, we send an explicit message that even though we pray for our welfare, we don’t really know what we need or want, and we trust the Almighty to arrange our lives as best suits our needs.
Master of the Spirits of All Flesh – When a country rebels against a human king, he is hardly expected to know exactly who is guilty, and who innocent. Therefore, he is justified in administering collective punishment. You, G-d, are the master of all spirits and You know what transpires in the heart of all men. Therefore, it is inconceivable that You would administer collective retribution, when you could just as easily single out the evildoers! – Rabbi Yosef Bechor Shor
Although a shallow interpretation of human history would appear to indicate that G-d is nothing more than a vengeful deity seeking to obliterate and annihilate all and sundry, a deeper examination of the facts reveals that exactly the opposite is the case. His mercy extends far beyond that of the most merciful human being. His tolerance for our indiscretions, His ability to parse judgment with laser-like precision, and willingness to delay His punishment until the offender can withstand it, is unlike any form of justice found in the human race. The fact that the Jewish people eventually made it into the Land of Israel in spite of their numerous lapses is ample testimony to that effect.
IT IS YOUR PROBLEM
“Separate yourselves from this congregation and I’ll destroy them in an instant. And they [Moses and Aaron] fell on their faces and said, ‘G-d…shall one man sin and you cast your wrath upon the entire congregation? 16:21-22
One man sin…the entire congregation – This is hard to fathom. If they all sinned, then why did Moses and Aaron claim that only one man sinned? If they didn’t all sin, why indeed, should G-d’s wrath affect them? – Ramban
“You shall not despise your brother in your heart; [rather] you must admonish your brother and you shall not bear sin on his account.” – Vayikra 19:17
If indeed, only a small number of the people sinned, why did G-d see fit to have them all destroyed? The Torah tells us that one who fails to protest evil is himself guilty of perpetrating that evil. By not standing up to Korach and his cohorts, the people were guilty of allowing his evil plot to fester and wreak havoc upon the nation. For this, they were judged complicit in aiding and abetting his criminal behavior and sentenced to death. Only the prayers of Moses and Aaron spared them from this terrible fate.
WHOSE IDEA WAS IT
“Moses said: ‘Through this shall you know that G-d sent me to perform all of these deeds, that they did not originate in my heart.”- Bamidbar 16:28
To perform all of these deeds – That which I have done by the word of G-d; conferring the High Priesthood on Aaron, appointing his sons as assistants, and appointing Elitzafan as leader of the Kehothites. – Rashi
They did not originate in my heart – Do not assume that I conceived these ideas and then “convinced” G-d to agree to them, for they all emanated from the Almighty Himself. Everything that Moses taught was by instruction from the Almighty without any deviation, addition, or original insight from him. – Medrash Hagadol
They did not originate in my heart – Although it is common and expected to experience when a close relative is appointed to a prominent position, even that I did not permit myself. Instead, I acted solely as an agent of Heaven, seeking only to do as I was instructed. – Ktav V’Kabbalah
Targum Onkelus translates the words, “They did not originate in my heart,” differently, rather as, “for it was not of my desire.” Moses was trying to explain to them that had he had a choice, he would have desperately desired to obtain this position for himself or his own offspring, of which he had many, none of whom merited positions of prominence. Obviously this was not of his own doing, but rather, an act of obedience following what he was instructed to do by G-d. This incident of Korach is shared with us for a number of reasons. Prominent among them is to help us understand the integrity of Moses’ teachings. Never did he impose his own will upon the messages that he was asked to convey to the people. What emanated from his mouth was purely the word of the Divine, with nary a faint interposition of his own.
“And the earth opened its mouth and swallowed them and their households, along with all the men who were with Korach, and their property.” Bamidbar 16:32
The earth opened its mouth – Rabbah bar Chuneh was traveling in the desert, and he encountered an Arab merchant. The merchant told him, “Come and I will show you the followers of Korach who were swallowed.” He went with him and soon saw a crack in the ground from which smoke emerged. The Arab took a spear and covered its top with wool, which he first soaked in water. He placed it into the crevice, withdrew it, and it was scorched. “Listen,” instructed the Arab, and when he did, he heard them saying, “Moses and his Torah are correct, and they are frauds!” He told him that every thirty days, Gehinom returns them to this place like meat in a pan [which is constantly rotated to ensure that it is well-cooked], and they proclaim these words. – Talmud, Tractate Bava Basra 74a
While the statement, “Moses and his Torah are correct and they are frauds!” seems to imply that they acknowledge their guilt and the correctness of Moses’ stance, this may not actually be the case. Rabbi Yisroel of Rhuzin zt”l explained that the words, “And they are frauds,” are not those of Korach’s followers, but rather, the attitude of the Talmud on their confession. “Don’t be fooled,” advised the Talmud, “by their staunch declarations of guilt, for they are frauds!” A wicked man, even when he stands at the threshold of Gehinom, still maintains his innocence and the correctness of his position.
NO GOOD EXCUSES
“Elazar the Kohen took the copper fire pans that the victims of the fire had presented, and he hammered them flat as a covering for the Altar, as a reminder for the Children of Israel that no one other than a descendant of Aaron shall bring unauthorized fire and burn incense before G-d, that he not be like Korach and his party…” Bamidbar 17:4,5
They shall not be like Korach and his party – From here we derive that one who engages in conflict transgresses a negative prohibition of the Torah. – Talmud, Tractate Sanhedrin 110a
There are two types of people who engage in conflict: 1 – Those whose intent is selfish and seek only their own interests. 2 – Those who are sincere, but misguided. Korach who was only interested in his own welfare, and Dathan and Abiram, who were mere rabble-rousers, were examples of the first type. Many of their followers, however, were actually men of stature whose intent was more pure. Nevertheless, even that type of quarrel is unacceptable, and it is this point that the verse seeks to emphasize: 1 – “They should not be like Korach,” i.e. no selfish squabbles, 2 – “and his party,” i.e. even when it’s sincerely motivated and well-intended.
NO FREE GIFTS
“Every first issue of a womb which they offer before G-d – man or beast – shall be yours; but you shall surely redeem the firstborn of man, and redeem the firstborn of unclean beasts. Its redemption – from a month old you should redeem them – the valuation is five silver sela’im of holy silver shekalim which is twenty geira. However, a firstborn ox, a firstborn sheep, or firstborn goat, you shall not redeem because they are holy… – Bamidbar 18:15-17
In these verses the Torah lists the three kinds of firstborn that are sources of gifts to the Kohanim:
- Firstborn males of kosher animals are sacred from birth and must be presented to the Kohen to be brought as an offering.
- Firstborn sons of Israelites. They are redeemed from the Kohanim for five shekels in a ceremony known as Pidyon HaBen.
- Firstborn male donkeys. They are redeemed from the Kohanim for a sheep which then becomes the property of the Kohanim.
Earlier in verse 7, regarding the Priestly gifts, the Torah instructed, “You and your sons with you shall guard your duties regarding the Altar and all that is within the Curtain – you shall serve – the service; as a gift, I give the kehunah (priestly service) to you…” The commentaries labor to explain the correlation between the priestly service and the priestly gifts. Malbim explains that communal servants often display little enthusiasm for their duties but never fail to show up to collect their wages. By linking the service to their gift, the Torah seeks to rouse the Kohanim to perform their priestly duties with the same vigor and zeal that they expend to collect the priestly gifts.
ABOUT MORE THAN THE INDIVIDUAL
“You will not bear a sin because of it, when you separate its best part; and the sanctities of the Children of Israel you should not desecrate…” Bamidbar 18:32
You Shall Not Desecrate – This prohibition refers to a Kohen (priest) who offers to assist a farmer in his chores, in return for his Terumah [tithes]. (Every individual Jew could decide to which Kohen to give his Terumah.) By doing so, the Kohen disrespects the sanctity of the Terumah and deserves to be punished. – Talmud, Bechoros 26b
Although the Torah instituted priestly tithes in order to provide basic material support for the Kohanim, who devoted their lives to the service of G-d, it wasn’t meant to be treated as a business. The tithes were sacred, and they needed to be treated with esteem. A Kohen who attempts to manipulate the system by improperly positioning himself to receive the tithes, demonstrates a petty self interest which in turn, engenders a loss of respect for him as a spiritual leader in the eyes of the people. This verse teaches us that the Kohen, as a representative of Torah, must always conduct himself with integrity and altruism, for his personal honor is not the only thing at stake. His sacred duty to communicate the will of the Almighty will be compromised as well. This lesson applies not only to Kohanim, but to each and every Jew as the ambassador of a higher form of morality.
Hey, I Never Knew That
After Korach’s rebellion, G-d commanded the Jews to cover the Altar with the incense pans of the rebels, so that “it shall not occur again like Korach” (Bamidbar 17:5). Rashi understands this as a consequence — “so that this will not occur again.” The Talmud translates the verse as “do not be like Korach” — a Biblical prohibition against inciting a dispute (Sanhedrin 110a). Some believe that the prohibition against being like Korach is rabbinic in nature, and that the simple meaning of the verse is in accordance with Rashi (Nachmanides, Meiri). However, Rabbi Moshe of Coucy (Semag, Negatives 157) and Rabbeinu Yonah (Shaarei Teshuvah 3:58) maintain that there is a biblical commandment against inciting discord and creating disputes. The Chofetz Chaim rules that if, through one’s gossip, one creates or encourages an argument, one has transgressed this commandment. The gossiper transgresses regardless of whether the information is true or false, and even one who listens also transgresses (Chofetz Chaim, Introduction, Negatives, Be’er Mayim Chaim 12).
The Levites were “given” to the kohanim as those who were to help them in their service in the Temple (Bamidbar 18:6). The Levites would open and close the doors of the Temple, play music during the services, sing in the choir, and guard the Temple. According to some commentaries the purpose of the guard duty was to ensure that no non-kohen could enter to perform the services, and similarly to prevent anyone who was impure from entering the Temple (Sefer Hachinuch). According to others, the purpose of the guard duty was to bestow honor on the Temple (Maimonides, Mishneh Torah, Laws of the Temple 8:1). The Levites were also dedicated to studying Torah and to teaching the Torah to the Jewish people (ibid, Laws of Shmita and Yovel, 13:12) as well as being on the Sanhedrin, the Jewish supreme court (ibid, Laws of Sanhedrin 2:2)
Word of the Week
“And they shall take their pans and place upon them קטרת — ketoret — incense” (Bamidbar 16:17). Rabbi David Kimchi (Sefer Shorashim) relates קטרת to קיטור — smoke. Similarly the verb מקטר — mekater (Shemot 30:1) means to make smoke (Rashi) or to burn (Targum Yonatan). The Zohar (1:230a), possibly based on the phonetic similarity, connects קטרת to קשר — tie or connect. The Zohar sees the incense of the Temple as something tying heaven and earth together, and as something that serves to join the attributes of justice and mercy (Raya Meheimnah 3:224a).
“And it [Aaron’s staff] brought forth פרח—perach…” (Bamidbar 17:23). Targum Onkelos translates this as luvlevin, meaning sprouts or blossoms, and Rashi also understands the term as either a flower or a blossom. Rabbi David Kimchi (Sefer Hashorashim) renders it as leaves, whereas Josephus (Antiquities 4:4:2) describes the term as buds and branches. Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch connects perach phonetically to paratz—“break forth” and “emerge from constraints”; parah—to produce, and barah—to create (Etymological Dictionary of Biblical Hebrew, Clark).
Is one obligated to leave an area where an infectious disease is rampant? Rabeinu Bachya (commentary on Bamidbar, 16:21) cites the verse in our the Torah portion this week in which G-d tells the Jews to “separate from the midst of this evil congregation [of Korach].” He says that even though G-d has the power to save an innocent person in the midst of a disaster, nevertheless He either wanted to the Jews to stay away from the “poisonous air” that would surround Korach, or He was informing them that once the attribute of just punishment is unleashed, it does not distinguish between the righteous and the evil. This idea is mentioned in the Code of Jewish Law (Yoreh Deah116:5) which rules that one must leave a city if there is a plague there, and one should do so at the beginning of the outbreak and not wait until it progresses.
“You too shall take tithes…” (Bamidbar 18:28). The Talmud derives from here that “the agent of a person is like the person himself” (Kiddushin 41b). This means that one can appoint an agent to give charity, tithe produce, betroth, or divorce, etc. Why may the above commandments be performed through an agent, but not commandments such as tefillin, matzah, and sukkah? One answer is that when the agent performs an action for someone, it is as though the sender has performed the action himself, and therefore only commandments that require an action may be performed by the agent. However, the agent never becomes the person himself and is not considered as his body. Thus, when the agent puts on tefillin, it is indeed as though the sender performed the action, but, in the end, the tefillin are on the wrong body and so, he does not fulfill the commandment (Ketzot Hachoshen 182:1).
Parsha at a Glance
This week’s portion begins with an open challenge to Moses’ leadership by a group of 250 prominent members of the Jewish people. They were led by Korach, a leading figure from the tribe of Levi, who was jealous that Aaron had been chosen over him to be Kohen Gadol (High Priest).
Initially, Moses attempted to achieve reconciliation with Korach’s faction. However, he soon understood that they were seeking to destroy the very legitimacy of his authority as a prophet of G-d. As such, it was an assault on one of the central principles of Jewish belief and had to be defeated.
Moses called for a public demonstration to prove that the choice of Aaron as Kohen Gadol came through the direct command of G-d, and not through any favoritism on his part. He instructed Korach and his 250 supporters, as well as Aaron, to bring identical offerings. The individual whose offering was accepted over the others in front of the entire Jewish people would clearly be G-d’s choice for Kohen Gadol.
As this public demonstration began, however, G-d directly intervened. He commanded Moses and Aaron, and the rest of the Jewish people, to separate themselves from Korach and his chief allies, Dathan and Abiram. Their open rebellion against G-d had incurred the death penalty.
Moses pleaded that their punishment be inflicted by way of a miracle so extraordinary that it would be clear to all that this was a decree from G-d, rather than his own doing. In a unique phenomenon, the earth immediately opened up beneath them and swallowed Korach, Dathan and Abiram, and all of their possessions. At the same time, Korach’s 250 followers perished in a consuming fire.
Despite this undeniable proof of Moses’ prophetic leadership, the people complained that Moses and Aaron had actually caused the deaths of their fellow Jews. This erroneous accusation also awakened G-d’s wrath, and an ensuring plague killed 14,700 people.
G-d then commanded Moses to prepare a further public demonstration of Aaron’s designation as Kohen Gadol. The leader of each tribe was instructed to bring a staff bearing his name to the Tent of Meeting, with the staff from the tribe of Levi bearing Aaron’s name. G-d declared that His choice would evident by whichever staff sprouted blossoms. Aaron’s staff blossomed with almonds, serving as final, conclusive proof to anyone who still harbored rebellious thoughts regarding this matter.
The portion goes on to list the gifts the Jewish people are required to give the Kohanim and the Levites. These include the pidyan b’chorim, redemption of the firstborn (given to the Kohanim); and ma’aser rishon, a 10% tithe of the produce grown from the Land of Israel (given to the Levites). The Levites must give terumat ma’aser, a 10% tithe of the ma’aser rishon they receive, to the Kohanim.