July 1, 2006 – 5 Tammuz 5766
Annual: Numbers 16:1 – 18:32 (Etz Hayim, p. 860; Hertz p. 639)
Triennial: Numbers 16:20 – 17:24 (Etz Hayim, p. 863; Hertz p. 640)
Haftarah: 1 Samuel 11:14 – 12:22 (Etz Hayim, p. 877; Hertz p. 649)
Prepared by Rabbi Michael Gold
Congregation Beth Torah, Tamarac, FL
Department of Congregational Services
Rabbi Paul Drazen, Director
This portion tells the story of the great rebellion against Moses. Korach, who is from the tribe of Levi and a relative of Moses, leads the revolt, together with Dathan and Abiram of the tribe of Reuben. It is likely that Korach’s complaints dealt more with religious leadership while those of the tribe of Reuben dealt with political leadership. The rebels confront Moses and Aaron saying, “You have gone too far. All of the community is holy.” Moses tells the rebels to appear the next morning with fire pans. Then, he says, God will show them whom He has chosen.
The rebels appear before Moses the next morning. Moses says that if the men die a normal death, then he, Moses, will prove not to be representing God. When he finishes speaking, the earth opens up and swallows Korach, his followers, and all their households. A fire comes from heaven and consumes the 250 men who followed the rebels by offering incense. The deaths lead to a major rebellion against Moses by the people Israel. God becomes angry and starts a plague, until Aaron, standing between the living and the dead, puts a stop to it.
Moses decides to bring a test to prove who is to be the religious leader. Twelve chieftains from 12 tribes each brings a staff and deposits it in the Tent of Meeting. In the morning Aaron’s staff has blossomed and sprouted almonds. The rebellion finally ends as Aaron’s religious leadership is publicly confirmed.
The portion ends with a series of laws about the portions given to the priests and the tribe of Levi.
Issue #1 - Disasters
“The earth opened its mouth and swallowed them up with their households, all Korach's people and all their possessions” (Numbers 16:32)
- As someone who grew up in Los Angeles, which is always threatened by earthquakes, I find myself particularly sensitive to this portion. Now I live in Florida, with its hurricane season, and I find that I have traded one kind of natural disaster for another. We look at a world of earthquakes, hurricanes, floods, tornadoes, tsunamis, plagues, and other disasters, and we wonder how we cope religiously. Are these acts of God?
- In the beginning there was chaos. Out of that chaos God created order. God made the laws just so that life would emerge, consciousness would emerge, humans would emerge. We human beings live in a world of natural laws. If God is the foundation of nature and natural law, why does the world not work in a way that rewards the good and punishes the wicked? Long ago, a wise rabbi asked that same question. He asked, if a farmer steals wheat from another farmer and plants it, should it not grow? Should not the farmer be punished for stealing the wheat? The rabbi answered “Olam keminhago nahag.” The world behaves according to its nature (Avodah Zara 54b). The laws of nature happen, caring nothing for our moral qualms. Is this helpful as a theological stance? Would we find it more useful, religiously, to say that nature’s fury is justified? Would we prefer seeing miraculous changes in the way the world works in response to what we perceive of as improper behavior? What about behavior that is destructive to the environment? Should God punish that kind of behavior?
- Where is God during natural disasters? According to kabbala, God contracted Him/Herself though tzimtzum so that a world could emerge. God fine-tuned the laws to allow human beings to emerge. God has a role, a mission for us human beings. We are to be God’s partners in creation. Perhaps some day we will predict earthquakes or even prevent them. Meanwhile, we can make our buildings as earthquake-proof as possible. How else can we do God’s work in this world?
Issue #2 – Finding Hope
“The next day Moses entered the Tent of the Pact, and there the staff of Aaron of the house of Levi had sprouted; it had brought forth sprouts, produced blossoms, and borne almonds” (Numbers 17:23)
- How do we find hope after a disaster? After two tragedies – first of the earthquake, then the plague – Aaron’s staff sprouts almonds and produces blossoms. What is the symbolism of the sprouting staff?
- I have many childhood memories of visiting areas devastated by the terrible brush fires of Southern California. Everything was burnt; there seemed little hope that life would ever reappear. However, within a very short time wildflowers covered the ground. Within a year there was a new growth of trees. In a few years you would not know the area had been burned to the ground. There is a life force at work in the universe that seems to overpower death. Today, many scientists are suggesting that by preventing so many forest fires, we actually have caused damage to forests in order to protect the human property that has been built within and around them. What should take precedence in such situations?
- The rabbis speak of a force of life at work in the universe. According to a midrash, “Rabbi Simon said, There is not a single blade of grass below that does not have a constellation in the heaven that hits it and says, Grow” (Genesis Rabbah 10:7). How can we harness that force of life to help people who are trying to cope with disaster and tragedy?
- The universe seems fine-tuned so that life will emerge. We could even say that if it were not for hurricanes, volcanoes, and other natural disasters, life would not have emerged as it did. The prophet Ezekiel had a vision of dry bones coming to life again.Can this vision be a symbol for us in our own lives? In what ways might people who are trying to rebuild their lives after a natural disaster find that a hopeful message? Might it be possible that such a message might not be a hopeful one?