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Torah Sparks

July 2, 2005 - 25 Sivan 5765

Annual: Numbers 16:1 - 18:32 (Etz Hayim, p. 860; Hertz p. 639)
Triennial: Numbers: 16:1 - 17:15 (Etz Hayim, p. 860; Hertz p. 639)
Haftarah: 1 Samuel 11:14 - 12:22 (Etz Hayim, p. 877; Hertz p. 649)

Prepared by David M. Eligberg
Congregation B'nai Tikvah, North Brunswick, NJ

Department of Congregational Services
Rabbi Paul Drazen, Director


The parasha interweaves a series of rebellions challenging the authority of Moshe as leader, the status of Aaron and his sons as Kohanim, and the special standing of the tribe of Levi. Korach, a Levite, is jealous and resentful of the positions held by Moshe and Aharon and accuses them of aggrandizing themselves above the community. The Reubenites and the unnamed two hundred and fifty tribal leaders fall in step easily with the assertions made by Datan and Aviram, that Moshe and Aharon have not brought them to a land flowing with milk and honey but to a wilderness.

Moshe responds, first, to the Levites by reminding them of their special status granted by God. He responds to the challenge of Aharon's role as Kohen Gadol by having Korach and his followers bring an offering to see God's response. Korach gathers the whole community to witness the event. Fulfilling Moshe's prophecy, God causes an earthquake which swallows up Datan, Aviram and their followers as a sign that they have rebelled against God. At the same moment, a fire from God consumes all those offering incense. Moshe orders Elazar to gather up the rebels' fire pans, which had become sacred, and fashion them into a cover for the altar as a perpetual reminder of these events.

God is angered by the continued rebelliousness and strikes the community with a plague. Moshe instructs Aharon to make an atonement offering of incense and to stand in the midst of the community to stem the plague.

God commands each tribe to place its tribal staff before the Ark. The staff representing Aharon and the tribe of Levi flowers overnight, affirming their chosenness. The staff is left next to the Ark as a mnemonic device. Aharon, his sons and the Levites are charged with the responsibility for the Tabernacle and the cultic rituals. The parasha concludes with the various rewards and gifts they will receive for their service.

Discussion Topic 1: Hold Your Head High

"... Now Datan and Aviram had come out and they stood at the entrance of their tents..." (Numbers 16:27)

Derash: Study

  • Standing -- with their backs straight (Rashi). All negative attributes can be harnessed and directed to [do] good, one needs only to know how and when to utilize them. Even the attribute of pridefulness has usefulness in the performance of a positive act or a mitzvah. The dicta "Be prideful as the tiger to do the will of your Heavenly Father" teaches that one should not be embarrassed in the presence of mockers but should perform the mitzvah with one's head held high and back straight. It saddens the heart that many people do exactly the opposite -- doing perverse things with heads held high and without any feelings of embarrassment or shame, but when it comes to the performance of good deeds and heavenly matters they become shy and reticent. (Rabbi Baruch of Mezibozh)

Questions for Discussion:

  1. Are we, at times, embarrassed to be seen doing something Jewish for fear that we may be seen as "too Jewish"?
  2. My grandmother (z"l) would describe certain types of behavior as either a "shanda" to be seen doing so by the non-Jewish world or simply that it was inappropriate for a Jew to act that way. Do those ideas still resonate with us?
  3. How can we instill that sense of pridefulness in our youth especially those living in a community where their actions may be very different from their friends and neighbors?

Discussion Theme 2: Follow the Leader?

"...and not be like Korach and his followers." (Numbers 17:5)

Derash: Study

  • A controversy for Heaven's sake will have lasting value, but a controversy not for heaven's sake will not endure. What is an example of a controversy for Heaven's sake? The debates of Hillel and Shammai. What is an example of a controversy not for Heaven's sake? The rebellion of Korach and his associates. (Pirkei Avot 5:17)
  • There are two different types of participants in a conflict: (1) those whose intent is to injure and whose motivation is to benefit themselves and (2) those whose intentions are positive and are acting for the sake of heaven. In the controversy involving Korach and his followers, there were some of both types. Korach intended to benefit himself while Datan and Aviram were men who sought conflict and turmoil. However, included in their followers were those who were pure hearted, whose intentions were positive, about whom the text attests that they were "princes of the community, leaders of the people, men of renown." The Torah warns all about any controversy that is prohibited that "one should not be like Korach" who sought only to benefit himself, nor "like his followers," which included pure souls who were led to believe that this was a controversy for the sake of heaven. (HaNatsiv)
  • Our eyes bear witness that the chapter of controversy did not end; every generation has its controversies, factions and conflicts. The explanation [for this] is: A conflict such as this one which was between Moses and Korach will not happen again for in it all the truth was on the side of Moshe; all the deceptions and lies were on Korach's side. Controversies such as that are ended and finished, (taking literally the phrase) "and not be like Korach and his followers." For in all other conflicts each side has something to hold onto, there is some truth and justification to each side, the issue is who is more in the right. (HaRav Shmuel Brot)
  • Once, my father, Rabbi Shlomo Zalman HaKohen Kook, traveled abroad from Israel as a messenger of the Yishuv. In one community (he) found a huge controversy going on between the worshippers and the leaders of a synagogue. When the aforementioned rabbi, who was a great scholar and an emissary from the Holy Land arrived, they received him with dignity and honor and asked that he become an angel messenger of peace. Rabbi Shlomo Zalman accepted the challenge and went up onto the bima.

    In his drasha to the congregation he referenced the controversy of Korach and his followers and asked, "Why did Aaron's rod flower with almond blossoms rather than some other flower?" From here he hinted to them what the outcome of a controversy can be. There are two types of almonds according to chapter one of the tractate of Ma'as'rot -- bitter and sweet. The first type is sweet at first but with a bad aftertaste. The second type is bitter at first but sweet in the end. So too matters of controversy and peace. The first type hints at controversy which seems sweet in the [moment of] conflict, in the clash of [opinions] and the success that comes with the small arguments, but its end is extremely bitter.

    The reverse is true of peace, in the beginning it is bitter. How difficult it is to end strife and conflict and one's passion burns and does not allow for resolution but in the end, when a person gives in to his inclination to good and is willing to give up a little to achieve peace, how good and how sweet it is for all sides. The words that the rabbi spoke entered their hearts and he was able by his work to bring peace to the camp. (Rav Avraham Yitzhak HaKohen Kook)
  • How should man, a being created in the likeness of God, live? What way of living is compatible with the grandeur and mystery of life?.... It is in deeds that man becomes aware of what his life really is, of his power to harm and to hurt, to wreck and to ruin, of his ability to derive joy and to bestow it on others. It is in the employment of his will, not intention, that he meets his own self as it is; not as he should like it to be. (Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel)

Questions for Discussion:

  1. How do we handle conflicts in our own lives?
  2. How can we learn to confront each other directly with respect?
  3. How do we achieve a situation where all parties are willing to forgo short term victories in favor of long term resolutions?

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