Torah Readings For Saturday, June 16, 2018
16:1-18:32 Bamidbar (Numbers)
Korach is the fifth sedrah in the Book of Bamidbar or Numbers. The sedrah takes its name from the second word in the first sentence of the portion, “Korach.” Since Korach is actually a person’s name, the Hebrew name for the sedrah and the English translation are the same. Korach is dominated by two of the recurring themes found in Bamidbar - Rebellion and The Super-Natural. The Sedrah may be divided into three parts: Korach’s Rebellion, The Israelites’ Rebellion, and Duties and Gifts for the Kohanim and the Levites.
Korach’s Rebellion (16:1-35)
The rebellions continue and they continue to escalate in their severity. Korach, a Levite, joins with Dathan and Abiram from the tribe of Rueben to challenge the authority of Moshe and Aaron. Since all of the people are holy, says Korach, why should Aaron and his family hold such an exalted position. Korach includes Moshe in his complaint because Moshe is the one who anointed Aaron. According to the commentators, Korach uses the cunning common to demagogues seeking power. First, he attacks those in power claiming all of the people should share equally in the power. But in the end he really sees himself as actually replacing those whom he is challenging. As a Levite, Korach has been assigned a special role in caring for the Tabernacle. But he does not think it is important enough for him and that may be the source of his discontent. Dathan and Abiram join in the rebellion supposedly because they are angry over the displacement of their tribe, Rueben, by Levi and Judah. There are those who contend that there were actually two different rebellions - one by Korach and one by Dathan and Abiram - and that later editors combined the two episodes. Some see Dathan and Abiram’s Rebellion as merely a challenge to Moshe’s political power. They see Korach’s Rebellion as being far more serious since he is seeking to overthrow the House of Aaron and, by inference, the entire religious system laid out in Shemot, Vayikra and Bamidbar. Regardless of your view of the origin of the rebellions, the text states that these three along with a man named On and two hundred fifty followers confront the two brothers. Why now? Possibly because Korach thinks the Israelites are ripe for a rebellion since they have just been sentenced to die in the Wilderness.
For once Moshe does not lose his temper. Instead he summons Dathan and Abiram and seeks to reason with them. Moshe’s restraint in dealing with these two may be a sign that he views this as the less serious of the two-pronged challenge. When the two rebels refuse to meet with Moshe and begin to defame him, Moshe cries out to Heaven protesting his innocence. The response to Korach’s challenge is interesting. There will be no contest between Moshe and Korach. There will be no debate, no public disputation with a decision rendered on the merits of the case. Rather, Moshe calls out for God to settle the matter directly; by divine intervention in a cosmic manner that will leave no doubt that the judgment is God’s and not Moshe’s. So the earth opens its mouth and swallows the rebels. Of course, there is some question as to who got swallowed. We know that the three ringleaders and the two hundred and fifty who followed them perish. But all of Korach’s family could not been consumed as the text would seem to indicate, since the “sons of Korach” are mentioned in Bamidbar 26:11, in several of the Psalms including the one said every Monday morning and in the First Book of Chronicles. (See Themes for more on this.)
The Israelites’ Rebellion (17:1-28)
After the episode with the spies and the punishment of Korach, you would think our ancestors would have learned to avoid rebellions. Wrong! The very next day, “the assembly gathered against Moshe and Aaron” (17:7) and chastised them for the deaths of the rebels whom they describe as "people of the Lord” (17:7). God tells the brothers to step aside so that He can destroy the rebellious Israelites. A plague breaks out, but Aaron rises to the challenge. Without regard to his personal safety, he uses the rituals of the Kohein Gadol (fire from the altar and incense) and moves among the people checking the plague that wiped out fourteen thousand, seven hundred of the Israelites. In an attempt to cement Aaron’s position among the Israelites and put an end to these rebellions, we see a further act of the super-natural or, at least unusual, direct divine intervention. The staffs of each tribal leader and the staff of Aaron are placed overnight in the Tent of the Meeting. In the morning, Aaron’s staff has sprouted almond blossoms. For some reason, this last, peaceful manifestation of God’s power strikes a responsive chord with the Israelites. They are chastened. In fact they go to the other extreme. A moment ago, they were ready to overthrow Aaron. Now they tell Moshe that they are afraid to even go near the Tabernacle lest they perish. It is this latest expression of fear that sets the stage for the last third of the sedrah.
Duties and Gifts for the Kohanim and the Levites (18:1-32)
God now reassures the newly chastened Israelites. The Tabernacle will not be a source of death if the Kohanim and the Levites perform their functions correctly. This time God does not use Moshe as an intermediary in communicating with Aaron. Nor does He speak to the brothers together. Instead, He speaks directly to Aaron, “The Lord said to Aaron…” (18:1). This may have been a further attempt to cement Aaron’s position as Kohein Gadol. It may also have been a way of impressing upon Aaron, who had shown signs of weakness at the Golden Calf and the Rebellion with Miriam that he was responsible for seeing to it that the duties of the Kohanim and Levites enumerated in this chapter were carried out to their fullest extent. The Kohanim had duties, but they were entitled to their “gifts” which are also enumerated in this chapter. The landless Levites were to receive their Tithe from the Israelites. But in turn, the Levites were to give a tenth of their Tithe to the Kohanim. The sedrah, which has been filled with so much tumult, ends in a quiet, benign mode. It is almost as if the text is saying that peace will reign in the community when everybody accepts their own unique role and acknowledges the roles of others.
388. The Levites’ obligation to guard the sanctuary (18:4).
389. The prohibitions against the priests and Levites doing each other’s work (18:4).
390. The prohibition against an outsider serving at the sanctuary (18:4).
391. The commandment that the guarding of the sanctuary should be continuous (18:5).
392. The obligation of a father to redeem his firstborn son (18:15-16).
393. The prohibition against redeeming the firstborn of a kosher animal (18:17).
394. The Levites’ exclusive obligation to perform the sanctuary service (18:23).
395. The commandments to set aside a tithe for the Levites (18:24).
396. The Levites’ obligation to donate a tithe from their tithe to the priests (18:23).
Biblical Literacy by Rabbi Joseph Telushkin
In What Sense Did Korach Survive?
This is not a rhetorical question. Normally, we blot out the names of evildoers. Yet with Korach, we do him the honor of naming a sedrah after him. As Rabbi Telushkin points out, this would be like having an annual Benedict Arnold Day. The Sons of Korach do live on. According to some they made a supernatural act of Teshuvah (Repentance) at the moment they were swallowed up and were returned to life. Others say that the sons did not stand with their father and never died either literally or figuratively. When we read psalm 48 every Monday morning, it begins “A psalm, a song by the sons of Korach” we should remember that we can also overcome the environment in which we live. Just as the sons of Korach could overcome the evil nature of their father, so we can all find hope that we can overcome the Inclination to do Evil.
This ancient vestige of the Temple ritual must have carried a meaning far greater than modern man can imagine. We see it used in this sedrah as weapon of rebellion by Korach and source of redemption by Moshe and Aaron. The recipe for Incense is recited every day of the year and we are reminded that the penalty for error in mixing the incense is death.
Previous Torah Portions have described the historic reasons for the ceremony for the Redemption of the First Born. The command to actually perform the ceremony is found in 18:15.
The custom of giving a tenth of one’s earnings to charity finds its origin in the commandment to give a tenth to the Levites (18:24). The Levites must give a tenth of the Tithe they receive from the people to the Kohanim. In other words, nobody is exempt from giving. Everybody, no matter how poor, is supposed to practice the mitzvah of Tzedakah.
How Far is Too Far?
Korach said “You have gone too far!” (16:3). This is his attack on Moses - accusing him of, among other things, nepotism by naming his brother Kohein Gadol. Moses replied, “You have gone too far, sons of Levi!” (16:7). In his response, Moses literally hurls Korach’s words back at the rebel with the additional reminder that he, Korach is from the tribe of Levi. Moses is not only denying the validity of the attack, he is reminding Korach and his supporters of their lineage and that their rebellion is a betrayal of the tribe chosen by God to serve in the Mishkan and ultimately in the Temple.
Korach and Pirke Avot
In the Chapter Four of Pirke Avot, Rabbi Elazar HaKappar says: “Envy, desire and ambition drive a man out of the world.” (4:28). Some commentators view these particular words of wisdom as descriptions of the causes of Korach’s Rebellion. Envy, desire and ambition (or in other translations, “jealousy, lust and honor”) are “the basic instincts and appetites that prevent a person from enjoying life.” Rabbi Hertz describes them as the “three anti-social qualities…which are a hindrance to harmonious relations with our fellow man.” Continuing with the comments of Rabbi Hertz, envy is not to be confused with emulation, “which increases skills and wisdom.” Desire leads to sin because it is “the unbridled hankering after pleasure.” Ambition or “lust for honor” clouds the mind and leads us to rationalize behavior that we would otherwise know is unacceptable. The phrase “drive a man out of the world” has two different interpretations. Sometimes it can be a reference to shortening one’s life. Sometimes it can be a reference to cutting oneself off from the community. And sometimes it can be both since the one may lead to the other. Now how does all this relate to Korach? Why would a man of Korach’s power and wealth rebel against Moshe (and God)? As Rabbi Weisblum points out, “Korach was already very wealthy and the head of the tribe of Levi but was unable to control his ambition. His jealousy and lust for power led him to instigate a rebellion.…” His inability to enjoy and value the many gifts that had already been bestowed upon him, literally led to his death. Instead of challenging Moshe, Korach might have remembered to pray to want what he had rather than to have what he wanted.
Concepts of Holiness
In “Korach Among Us,” Yeshayaahu Leibowitz compares two concepts of holiness. The first is found at the end of last week’s Torah portion which finishes with the commandments about the Tzizth. The fringes are here so “you may remember and do all my mitzvoth and be holy to your God: I am your God.” The second concept is found in the opening verses of this sedrah when Korach declares, “All the community (of Israel), all of them are holy, and God is among them all; why do you lift yourself above them.” Both of the verses use the term holy, but does the word holy mean the same thing in each of them? Leibowitz contends that in the command concerning the Tzizth “holiness is not a fact but a goal.” Holiness lies in remembering and doing the mitzvoth. Holiness is not a state of being. Rather it is a condition towards which people strive. It is a journey as much as it is destination. Holiness is something that we have to work at. Leibowitz contends that for Korach holiness is a fact, a state of being for the Jew. In effect he is saying that because we are Israelites, because we are the people of the Covenant, because we the chosen people of the Lord, we are holy by definition. This would seem to be a form of the age old question of “who is a Jew?” Is being Jewish a matter of biology or is it something we have to work at for it to have meaning. Our tradition provides us with contradictory responses. On the one hand the prophets remind us that God will never turn His back on us. There is no “bill of divorce” between the Lord and His People But Jeremiah also warns us that holding on to Jerusalem and the Temple (symbols of God connected with holiness) will not save the Jewish people. Instead, the Jews will be judged on the basis of deeds i.e., observance of the mitzvoth. Much to Leibowitz’s dismay, both views may be correct. On the one hand, Holiness or at least a basic level of holiness may be seen as a gift given to us by God. But this level of holiness is a base line; a point of departure. For at the same, the ability to strive for that Holiness is also a gift, because that striving is what actually draws us into a deeper sense of the Divine. In this concept, the merit is in the striving not in the succeeding. In reaching out to God, we are not expected to always hit the mark, but we are expected to keep on trying There is no definitive answer. Rather this is one of those questions that make for long, lingering questions at the Kiddush and study sessions that are part of the Shabbat observance.
Twenty-first Century Korach
Biblical characters and tales from the Bible have provided authors through the ages with themes and characters for their own works. In 2010, we saw the debut of “Korach” a play written by Judith Malina. Malina, the daughter of a Conservative Rabbi, is no stranger to Jewish sources. While the Korach of the commentators may be a villain for challenging Moses, Malina sees him as “history’s first anarchist.” Moses is the authority figure building the new nation who will not tolerate any challenge to his authority. Korach must be silenced because if his voice is heard - “We are all holy!” - then other challenges will surely follow and that will be the end of central authority. Regardless of what you think of Malina’s interpretation, it is important to note that characters of the Bible are often rich, multi-textured beings that provide us with food for thought on questions both great and small.
Korach and Tammuz
It is fitting that we read Korach just after observing Rosh Chodesh Tammuz. Tammuz is the month that marks the start of the death throes of the Temple which will result in destruction and exile. Korach reminds us of the critical role that the Priests and Levites played as interface between God and the Israelites; of the need to provide for them so that they could be totally focused on their holy mission. But the tragic events of Tammuz remind us of how far from that lofty goal the religious officialdom of the Second Temple had fallen. In the last centuries before the destruction of Temple, the position had become a political football and worse. Men stole from the Temple treasury to finance their quest for the position. Men killed other men to gain control of the position. Rulers sought out the help of the Romans to secure the position. Politics became intertwined with religion as those wearing the vestments of house of Aaron and the tribe of Levi joined jockeyed for temporal power. Had the Temple been destroyed as a force for morality long before the building was destroyed thus rendering it useless? As we read Korach during Tammuz, should we be leery of those religious figures who would use their role as rabbis and spiritual leaders to control the reins of temporal power?
11:14-12:22 I Samuel
The Man and the Book: First and Second Samuel were originally just the Book of Samuel. At the start of the 16th century, the Venetian printer, Daniel Bomberg introduced the division into the TaNaCh. Bomberg took the division from Christian text that had made the split so that writings could conform to the size of the scrolls used by the Greeks. The Book of Samuel covers a major period in Jewish History including the last of the Judges (Samuel) and the establishment of the Monarchy under Saul and David. Events in the life of Samuel are covered in the first twenty-five chapters of First Samuel. The rest of First Samuel concerns itself with the fall of the house of Saul and the rise of the house of David. Second Samuel is a continuation of the events in the life of King David. The two volumes cover about 120 years, from around 1085 B.C.E. to 965 B.C.E. So why do these two volumes bear Samuel’s name if he was only alive for about the first seventy-five years covered by the narrative? Samuel was a major figure in our tradition. One of the psalms (99:6) elevates him to the level of Moshe and Aaron. From an historic perspective he was the last and greatest of the Judges. He was the one who began the work of re-uniting the tribes and drawing them out of the spiritual and ethical sloth that had become common place following the death of Joshua. Also, he was the one whom God chose to anoint and guide the first two royal households of the Jewish people. In other words, Saul and David could not have existed had it not been for Samuel. Based on information in Chronicles as well as the Book that bears his name, we know that Samuel was a Levite. We know that he was a Nazir. We know he had two sons. And we know that he was not a “happy person” by the time of his death. Furthermore, in dealing with the issue of the monarchy, Samuel shows himself to be a complex, conflicted person. When the Israelites come to Samuel and ask him to get them a king, he denounces their attentions. Yet Devarim describes the proper behavior for a king, so God could not have been opposed to a king.In fact it takes divine intervention to get Samuel to comply with the peoples wishes. The measure of his greatness might be found in the lines that describe his death. “And Samuel died; and all Israel gathered themselves together, and lamented him, and buried him in his house in Ramah.” (25:1).
The Message: The haftarah begins with the third naming of Saul as King of Israel. He has been chosen twice before in episodes described in chapters 9 and 10. This ceremony is public and marks the final transformation from the leadership of the Judges to the leadership of the Monarchy. The haftarah continues with Samuel’s valedictory. First he proclaims his own honesty as a public official. The he recounts the wonders that God has performed for the Israelites and takes them to task for wanting a temporal monarch when God was the only king they needed. The people admit the error of their ways. Samuel reassures them that all will still go well if they follow the laws of the Lord.
Theme-Link: There are numerous connections between the sedrah and the haftarah. According to tradition, Samuel is a descendant of Korach. Both the sedrah and the haftarah contain stories of changes in leadership. In the sedrah, God crushes the rebels and the leadership stays the same. In the haftarah, God has sanctioned the change in leadership and Saul becomes king. Both the sedrah and the haftarah contain descriptions of miraculous events that are a sign of divine power. Interestingly enough, the two great leaders, Moshe and Samuel, proclaim their own honesty. Both men proudly proclaim that they have done nothing to enrich themselves while in power. Could any of those who seek public office in our own time make the same claim? And are we not the poorer for the fact modern leaders cannot meet the measure of either Moshe or Samuel?
Korach in 2018
In one of those calendar coincidences, the reading of Korach falls on the day we mark the 24th Yahrtzeit of “The Rebbe.” The contrast in the lives of these men offers so many lessons in leadership and real as opposed to false leaders. One stood in the camp demanding the mantle of leadership. The other modestly waited a full year before assuming the leadership. One sought self-agrandizement, the other was selfless. On a personal note, I had the pleasure of sitting in a room full of Lamplighters and their kindred souls as they each told their favorite “rebbe” stories. And if you need more, Father’s Day follows the day we read Korach - a day given to frivolity when those of us fortunate to have fathers who did not lead them astray as Korach did with his offspring should take a moment to enjoy their good fortune.
Copyright; June, 2018 Mitchell A. Levin