Tag Archives: Korach

Commentary for Korach

7 Jul

In this week’s parshah Moses and Aaron face a rebellion. A man named Korach gathers up a large group of followers from across all of the tribes and they level a very interesting charge at Moses and Aaron: “You have too much; for the entire community- all of them- are holy and the Lord is among them; why do you raise yourselves above the congregation of the Lord (Num. 16:3)?”

It is an intriguing question. All throughout Jewish history we have seen God speak through individuals of all types. Eli was the High Priest. Samuel was born a commoner, but with the promise that he would serve God all of his life. Deborah was a commoner, but one noted for her wisdom. Amos was just a regular guy off the street. Yiftach was the son of a harlot, born out of wedlock and rejected by his family. And God spoke through all of them.

Looking at it through this lens, Korach and his followers seem to have a point. Didn’t God tell them at Mount Sinai that “you shall be for Me a kingdom of priests and a holy people (Ex.19:6)?” So what makes Moses and Aaron so special that God only speaks through them? The text even goes out of its way to tell us that Korach’s initial 250 followers were all “chieftains of the assembly, those summoned for meeting, men of repute (Num. 16:2).” Surely there must have been at least one among them who were worthy of this honor?   Or, to put it another way, “why Moses and Aaron but not me?”

Despite the seeming jealousy behind such a sentiment, some commentators actually praise it (the Lubavitcher Rebbe) or at least do not paint it as a negative thing to have (Rashi, Tanchuma), seeing such a sentiment as driven by a desire to have a closer relationship with God. People only get jealous of others for having something that they themselves desire. And yet it seems strange that they express their desire to have a closer relationship with their omniscient Creator by criticizing that Creator’s decisions. Surely, if God is omniscient then God must have a good reason for only speaking through Moses and Aaron?

Moses’ reaction to their accusation is recorded as “he fell on his face (Num. 16:4),” a phrase used to indicate prayer. Strangely, no record of Moses’ petition or a response from God is recorded. Moses then replies to Korach and his followers with the following challenge: The next morning each of them will take some of the incense used for the incense offering, put it in his own fire pan, and offer it up to God in front of the Tent of Meeting. From this God will indicate who will be chosen to lead the community.

The next morning, Korach and his followers all do as Moses had instructed, and Moses and Aaron submit a fire pan of incense as well. Strangely, it is only at this point that God seems to take notice of this rebellion. God’s reaction is rather harsh, telling Moses and Aaron to “separate yourselves from this community that I may annihilate them this instant (Num. 16:21)!” Moses and Aaron respond to this by falling on their faces and petitioning God not to punish the entire community for the sins a minority of the individuals. God relents, instead having Moses and Aaron order the rest of the Israelites to separate themselves from Korach’s followers. Then God makes the ground open up and swallow Korach, his followers, and all of their possessions. It is the actions of Moses and Aaron in this section that show us exactly why God chose to speak to the community through them instead of Korach or any of those who joined with him.

This incident comes shortly after God finally gets fed up with the Israelites constant rebellion and decrees that this entire generation shall die out in the desert and only their children shall set foot in the Promised Land. And now here are the Israelites rebelling yet again. Moses has devised a plan to hopefully quell the rebellion before God needs to intercede, but worries that he has already pleaded for the Israelites so many times that God will not listen anymore. God’s response is not recorded because God’s lack of response is approval for Moses to go ahead with his plan.

The challenge of offering up an incense offering to God is one that is rife with symbolism. The incense offering was only offered by the priests or used to inaugurate the Tabernacle or a new High Priest. If anyone else used it- or even created a facsimile of it- that person would be spiritually removed from the Jewish People. By instructing them to offer the incense, Moses was asking them to do something that Korach and his compatriots, being chieftains and learned men, would know was strictly forbidden.

The incense offering was made from a mixture of many different fragrances to represent the many different types of individuals who comprise the Jewish People. Only when all are mixed together can the desired aroma be achieved. This aroma was offered to God on behalf of all of the Jewish People, and was used to inaugurate the High Priest, who would represent them before God on Yom Kippur. Two of the ingredients in the incense were fragrant cinnamon and fragrant cane, at exactly 250 weights of each: The same as the number of followers Korach had. Moses hoped that sending them home with instructions to offer the incense tomorrow, giving them a day to think about, would make them think of these connections and would remind them that they each already have their own special connection with God; that there is no need for them to desire the specific role played by Moses and Aaron as God’s voice to the Israelites, and thus they would hopefully not show up in the morning to offer the forbidden incense offering in an attempt to claim it.

Moses’ plan fails, and when Korach and his followers show up and offer the forbidden offering, God becomes angry and plans to destroy them. At this point Moses and Aaron both beseech God not to destroy the entire community because of a few sinners. In their petition, they refer to God as the “God of the spirits of all flesh (Num. 16:22),” a phrase only used one other time in the entire Torah. That other time is Num. 28:16, when Moses asks God to ensure that whoever his successor is will be the leader who is best for the people. That mindset is the difference between Moses and Aaron and Korach and his followers. Even in the face of having the legitimacy of their leadership challenged, Moses and Aaron acted with the best interests of the entire community in mind, every step of the way, while Korach and his followers, no matter how worthy their intensions were, acted only in their own interests. It is this that makes Moses and Aaron worthy of their positions as leaders of the community and representatives of God.


Commentary for Korach

19 Jun

In last week’s parshah, the Israelites once again rebelled against God, and this time God finally punishes them, dooming the generation that left Egypt to die in the desert, never seeing the promised land. This week, some of the Israelites are rebelling once again, but rather than rebelling against God, they are rebelling against Moses and Aaron. The ringleaders of the rebellion, Korach Datan, Aviram, and On, along with two-hundred and fifty followers, who are all men of great repute within the community, have a fairly simple question: If all of us are part of God’s holy nation, then why are Moses and Aaron in charge of everyone else?


The answer, of course, is because God said so, but when the rebels persist in their revolt, Moses offers them a contest to determine whom God wants to lead the community. Tomorrow morning, everyone who wants to should bring a fire-pan filled with incense to the front of the Tent of Meeting, and Moses and Aaron will do the same, and God will do something to make known who should lead the community.


When the morning comes, God makes clear who the rightful leaders of the community are in grand fashion: by appearing in front of the community and threatening to destroy all those who stand against Moses and Aaron. God instructs Moses to tell the Israelites that anyone who no longer wishes to rebel should move away from Korach, Datan, and Aviram. They do, and those three and all those who still stand with them are swallowed up by the ground.


When Moses gives the Israelites instructions about the contest, he tells them to “take for yourselves” fire-pans full of incense. Moses’ choice of words is meant to remind the rebels that while there is a large group rebelling, that group is ultimately made up of individuals who must each make his own choices for himself. While Korach, Datan, and Aviram are listed as standing against God’s decision and are punished for it, On is not mentioned along with them. Just like Joshua and Caleb did last week, On does not give in to the mob mentality and instead he evaluates the facts and makes decisions for himself. This is an example we can all learn from.

Commentary For Acharei Mot-Kedoshim

4 May

In the first half of this week’s double parshah, we learn about the service of the High Priest on Yom Kippur. As part of this service, the High Priest was commanded to take two handfuls of incense with him into the Holy of Holies and put them on a fire so that they created a cloud of smoke that would obscure the area immediately above the lid of the Ark of the Covenant (Lev. 16:12-13). This is one of just two places in the Torah where someone is specifically commanded to take “handfuls” of something. The other place is in chapter nine of Exodus, where Moses and Aaron are commanded to each take handfuls of soot and for Moses to throw them into the air, where upon the soot starts to spread out all over the land of Egypt, initiating the plague of boils.

Fortunately, in the case of the Yom Kippur service, the handfuls are meant to help atone for our sins rather than to punish us for them. We learn this from the story of Korach (Numbers 16) who fomented a rebellion against Moses and Aaron. After God punishes the rebels by having the ground open up and swallow them and all of their belongings, the rest of the Israelites blame Moses and Aaron for the deaths, saying, “you two have brought death upon The Lord’s people (Num. 17:6).” This angers God because it shows an inability to understand not just the sin of Korach and his followers, but to understand that the power to cause supernatural events- as well as the right to judge sinners- lies not with Moses or Aaron, but with God. This same mistake is what caused Pharaoh’s downfall, and just like with Pharaoh and the Egyptians, God now sends a plague upon the Israelites.

To make expiation on the Israelites’ behalf, Aaron takes some of the incense used in the Tabernacle, puts it on himself, and stands among the people. Those who realized the error of their ways and repented survived the plague, while those who did not do so died, still believing that an external force- Moses and Aaron- was the cause of deaths, and failing to realize that they had brought their suffering upon themselves. They suffered the same fate as the Egyptians who even after five plagues still failed to realize their own culpability in their suffering. If the plagues would stop once the Israelites were freed and Pharaoh was not willing to free the Israelites, then the Egyptians should have taken steps to release the Israelites from servitude on their own.

All too often when things go wrong in our lives, we immediately thrust all of the blame onto external factors and refuse to consider that any part of the fault might lie with us ourselves. This assumption is almost always wrong. It is interesting to note that the first half of this week’s double parshah, Acharei Mot, which contains not only service of the High Priest for Yom Kippur, but also the Torah readings for both Yom Kippur morning and afternoon, is read not around the time of Yom Kippur, but rather when Yom Kippur is half a year away. While Yom Kippur only comes once a year, the message of the day- that we must examine our deeds and determine how we can better ourselves- is something we should keep in mind all year round.

Commentary for Korach

23 Jun

This week’s parshah tells the story of the rebellion of Korach. Many commentators have characterized Korach’s rebellion as one based on jealousy and dissatisfaction with the hierarchy God commanded Moses to put in place. Korach, a cousin of Moses and Aaron, had no problem not being the top banana. Moses and Aaron’s father was his father’s older brother, so he felt it was natural that the top two positions should go to them. What he was unhappy about was that Moses had appointed their cousin Elitzaphan, son of their father’s youngest brother, as the leader of the Levites instead of Korach, who was the oldest son of the second oldest brother, and thus should be third in line after Moses and Aaron. This is supported by the Torah’s identification of Korach in the beginning of this story as “Korach, son of Itzhar son of Kehat son of Levi,” with Jacob’s name being left off the list, as compared to I Chronicles 6:18-23, where the genealogy of Heman the Singer is traced all the way back through Korach to Jacob. For this story, we are given all of the relevant genealogical information about Korach, and nothing more, even though the omitted information is well known.

Unlike the many other internal troubles the Israelites faced in the desert, Korach’s rebellion is not a challenge to God, but to Moses and Aaron. He gathered a group of followers, all of whom were distinguished members of the community, and challenged the leadership of Moses and Aaron, saying “the entire community is holy, for God dwells in our midst. Why do you raise yourselves above the community of God? (Num. 16:3).” Moses’ response in 16:5 (“Come morning, the God will make known who is God’s and who is holy, and whom He will bring close to Himself, and the one who he chooses, He will bring close to Himself”) makes clear what Korach’s true challenge is: ‘If we are all God’s people and we all heard God at Mount Sinai, why, all of sudden, did God start giving laws only through you?’

Midrash Rabbah expands on this idea, saying that Korach tried to prove that the laws Moses had given them could not have possibly come from God because they were illogical. Korach and his followers ask Moses if a four-cornered garment is made entirely of blue material, does it need to have tzitzit with a blue fringe? Moses told them that it does. Korach and his followers laughed at Moses, asking how it makes any sense that a four-corned garment made entirely of blue thread still needs tzitzit with a blue thread to fulfill the mitzvah, but a four-cornered garment of any other combination of colors fulfills the mitzvah of tzitzit by just having one thread of blue in its fringes.

They then asked Moses another question: If a house is full of Torahs, does it need to have a mezuzah on the doorpost? Moses replied that it does, and once again Korach and his followers laughed, asking how it is that any random house fulfills a mitzvah by having just the few paragraphs of Torah contained in the mezuzah, but a house full of scrolls of the entire Torah would still need a mezuzah on its doorpost.

For all of his purported logic, Korach and his followers fail to grasp that the mitzvot are not just actions, but also thoughts behind those actions. While an entire building full of Torah scrolls might help increase your feeling of closeness to God while you are in that building, once you leave that building, you cannot take those Torah scrolls with you, and as time and distance pass, the urge to stray becomes greater. A mezuzah, though, placed on the doorpost to kiss as you both enter and exit the house, serves as a reminder to walk in God’s ways both within that house and as “as you travel on your path (Deut 6:7).” Similarly, tzitzit are worn so that wherever we are, if we are tempted to stray, we can “look upon it, and remember all of The Lord’s commandments and observe them, so that you do not follow the desires of your hearts and your eyes that you lust over (Num 15:39).” We are the lone fringe of blue of in a world of other colors. What those around us are doing is not important. We are required to act according to God’s standards. In the world of Korach’s entirely blue garment, we are just one fringe of blue among a myriad of identical fringes, encouraged to act in accordance with the group of those around us, no matter what they are doing.

It is this same wisdom that Korach did not grasp that many of his followers could have used. The other ringleaders of Korach’s rebellion, On son of Pelet and Datan and Aviram, sons of Eliav, had no real reason to support Korach’s claim, and they had no any claim of their own. They were just neighbors of Korach’s from the tribe of Reuven who got swept up in Korach’s rabblerousing and convinced many of their neighbors to do the same, just for the sake of stirring up trouble. Had they been able to remind themselves that they needed to live up to God’s standards of behavior (as On son of Pelet did), they would not have joined in Korach’s rebellion and met the gruesome end that they did.

Commentary on Korach

12 Jun

Just got saddled with temporarily doing the parshah commentary in my shul’s weekly bulletin, so I figured I’d repost it here.  Not off to a good start, though, as I just realized I forgot to post last week’s:


Throughout the Biblical narrative the Israelites seem very prone to losing their faith in God.  Just five days after Pharaoh tells them to leave Egypt, the vast majority of them lose their faith in God.  God responds by splitting the Red Sea, allowing the Israelites to cross on dry land and drowning the might Egyptian army when it tries to follow.  A mere three days after that, and they have already lost their faith again.   Less than three months later, less than forty days after the Revelation at Sinai, they build the Golden Calf.  In last week’s parshah, they doubt God’s ability to help them conquer the Promised Land. Throughout all of these instances, one thing has remained constant: Moses’ faith in God.


In this week’s parshah, however, Moses seems to lose his faith in God’s divine will.   Korach foments a rebellion, challenging the leadership of God’s appointed spokesmen, Moses and Aaron.  A contest is set up between them.  Korach and his followers will all offer incense to G-d, and Moses and Aaron will do the same.  God will then send them a sign to show whose offering God accepts, and that person will be the leader of the community.


That night, Moses prays to God, saying, “Pay no regard to their oblation.  I have not taken the donkey of any one of them, nor have I wronged any one of them (Num 16:15).”  Surely if Moses were the man of perfect faith he seems to be throughout the rest of the Torah, from the time that he accepts his mission until the day of his death, he would have faith that whoever God would choose the next day, whether it was him, Aaron, Korach, or someone else entirely, would be God’s appointed leader.  If God decides that it is time for a change in leadership, shouldn’t someone with such great faith in God accept that?


The truth is that even Moses, whom the Torah describes upon his death as having as close of a relationship to God as any human ever can, is still human.  We are all flawed.  The important thing is to work on our flaws; to not let them get in the way of achieving the most we can achieve, just as Moses did.  Never again did Moses’ faith in God waver, even until the day of his death.