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Torah Sparks

June 15, 2002 - 5762

Prepared by Rabbi David L. Blumenfeld, PhD
Department of Services to Affiliated Congregations

Annual Cycle: Num. 16:1-18:32; Hertz, p. 639; Etz Hayim, p. 860
Triennial Cycle I: Num. 16:1-17:1; Hertz, p. 639; Etz Hayim, p. 860
Haftarah: I Samuel 11:14-12:22; Hertz, p. 649; Etz Hayim, p. 876

Torah Portion Summary

(16:1-15) Korah and his faction rebel against Moses and Aaron's authority.

(16:16-35) Moses proposes a test to Korah and his followers: offer incense before God, and see if He accepts it. After the Israelites withdraw from the rebels, the earth splits and swallows up Korah and his followers. Then a fire consumes the 250 rebellious Levites.

(17:1-15) As a warning to future generations, the rebels' copper incense pans are gathered up and beaten into a covering for the altar. After further complaints, a plague breaks out among the Israelites, but Aaron quickly offers incense to expiate their sins.

(17:16-24) Each tribal chieftain is asked to take a wooden staff to the Tent of Meeting. Aaron's alone sprouts, signifying that God favors his leadership.

(17:25-28) Aaron's staff is left before the Ark as "a lesson to rebels."

(18:1-7) The division of tasks among the Priests and Levites, beginning with the assignment of the High Priesthood to Aaron and his descendants.

(18:8-20) Neither Israelites nor the priests will be given any territory in the land. Instead, they will be supported by donations and shares of sacrifices.

(18:21-32) The Levites are to receive the tithe, 10% of the crops harvested by the people. They are then to give 10% of their portion, a tithe of a tithe, also known as terumah, to the priests.

Discussion Theme: Korach the "Kvetch"... And Much More

There are definite prototypes in the Bible based upon the marvelous narratives found in it. Abraham is the paragon of hospitality. Joseph is seen to be a tzaddik. Moses, despite his prominence, was deemed to be a humble person. Aaron was ever the peace seeker. And later on.. David and Jonathan represented the paragon of true friendship....and Haman (hiss), of course, is forever the villain.

On this Shabbat, we read about a person named Korach. One might say that Korach is the perfect prototype of a "kvetch" (played appropriately by Edward G. Robinson in the film "Ten Commandments"). He was very much like the person in the anecdote who was standing on line somewhere on a hot day and kept saying, "Oy, am I thirsty! Oy, am I thirsty! Oy, am I thirsty!" Finally, somebody gave him a glass of water. Whereupon he said, "Oy, was I thirsty! Oy, was I thirsty! Oy, was I thirsty!"

Korach was a complainer. As the chief grumbler of the Exodus generation in the desert, he challenged the authority and leadership of Moses and Aaron. Like many power hungry demagogues, Korach and his cohorts defined themselves in what they were against and not by a positive image of what they professed.

This thought finds expression in the following Mishnah: "Every controversy that is in the name of Heaven shall in the end lead to a permanent result, but every controversy that is not in the name of Heaven shall not lead to a permanent result. Which controversy was in the name of heaven? The controversy of Hillel and Shammai. And which controversy was not in the name of Heaven? The controversy of Korach and all his company" (Avot 15:17)

In Jewish lore, therefore, Korach is a prototype. But he is a prototype of much more than the simple complaining kvetch - he is a person who has a powerful need to be recognized as being great.

Moses on the other hand is viewed in our tradition as the prototype of a humble person, as it is written: "The man Moses was very meek" (Numbers 12:3).

The tendency to deify a person was very much in vogue in ancient times. Kings and mythological figures were often venerated as gods or as being super-human. Our tradition avoided doing that for fear that it would lead to idolatry. This is the reason why, incredibly at first consideration, Moses does not appear at all in the Exodus story as it is related in the Passover Haggadah. But have we indeed escaped from this tendency to venerate ordinary humans?

Rabbi Smuley Boteach (of "Larry King Live" fame) makes an important observation regarding this matter. He writes: "Today's confidence that we have graduated from idolatry is based on the erroneous notion that idolatry entails prostrating oneself before stone, a mountain range, or a golden calf... But the real definition of idolatry is simply living for something other than God, or in the analogy of Maimonides, worshiping the hammer and chisel for the work of the architect. Idolatry means not only worshiping idols but also elevating something human or material to the status of a sacred object.

If we were to make an honest assessment and engage in sincere introspection, we would have to admit that all of us who indulge and partake of the popular culture have become closet idolaters. And in no area is this more true than the ardent obsession and fanatical fixation with the lives of celebrities. Our hero worship of those with face and name recognition has gone from a past-time to a devotion; from a form of recreation to a noxious form of veneration...

Rather than talk about how we can connect with God, we talk about who Julia Roberts is connecting with. And rather than contemplate the mysteries of the Universe, we seek to uncover the enigma of Marlon Brando... Our ditties today are women who can wiggle their xxxxxxx at the MTV Music awards and men who can throw a ball through a hoop..." (S. Boteach, Judaism For Every One, p. 106f)

"Sparks" for Discussion:

One might agree with Rabbi Boteach that in our culture the worship of movie stars, may be equated to the worshiping of the heavenly stars in ancient times. Or do you think he is overstating the case and pressing his point too far?

However, consider this. Returning to our Torah reading... is there any relevance in what he is saying about veneration of people - as it applies to Christian, Muslim, Jewish religious leadership in our time?

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