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Torah Sparks

June 16, 2007 – 30 Sivan 5767

Annual: Numbers 16:1 – 18:32 (Etz Hayim, p. 860; Hertz p. 639)
Triennial: Numbers 17:25 – 18:32 (Etz Hayim, p. 869; Hertz p. 648)
Maftir: Numbers 28:9 – 15 (Etz Hayim, p. 869; Hertz p. 695)
Haftarah: Isaiah 66:1 – 24, 66:23 (Etz Hayim, p. 1219; Hertz p. 944)

Prepared by Rabbi Avram Kogen

Summary of the Parashah

Korah, a cousin of Moses, challenged Moses’ and Aaron’s authority to lead the Israelites. Gathering around himself a growing group of followers, he sounds a populist theme aimed at placing himself and his followers in top leadership positions.

Moses proposes a test in which Korah and his followers would offer incense to God in their own firepans, while Moses and Aaron would do the same. In the midst of this challenge, the earth swallows up Korah, his followers, and all their households. A fire then consumes 250 Levites who had supported Korah.

Korah’s fire pan, along with those of his followers, were still in the sanctuary. Although their incense had not been accepted by God, these pans still had been sanctified, so they could not simply be discarded. A creative solution was found to this problem.

Further murmurings against Moses and Aaron triggered a plague among the people.

In a second test, involving Aaron and the leaders of the other tribes, Aaron’s wooden staff sprouts and the others do not. This confirms the divine selection of the tribe of Levi.

The final chapter of our parashah deals with the manner in which the Levites and the Kohanim were to be compensated for their ritual services. Tithes and other gifts were to serve as the source of sustenance for these religious functionaries.

Topic #1: Were Aaron and Miriam Prophets?

In our Torah reading two weeks ago, Miriam and Aaron grumbled about Moses:

Has the Lord spoken only through Moses? Has He not spoken through us as well? (Numbers 12:2)

While this controversy was likely fueled by jealousy and sibling rivalry, neither Miriam nor Aaron could have credibly put forth such a claim without there being at least a grain of truth. While we do not wish to venture into the philosophical quicksand of debating what exactly constitutes prophecy, we remain on firm ground if we accept the Torah’s nomenclature at face value.

We can state with confidence that Miriam was gifted with prophecy, because, according to the Torah, after the Israelites safely crossed the Sea of Reeds,

Then Miriam the prophetess, Aaron’s sister, took a timbrel in her hand, and all the women went out after her in dance with timbrels. (Exodus 15:20)

Although Aaron is not specifically labeled a prophet, he is the recipient of divine communication on several occasions.

  1. After the death of Aaron’s two eldest sons, Nadav and Avihu, God addresses Aaron directly, warning about priests’ use of wine and other intoxicants (Leviticus 10: 8-11).
  2. In this week’s parashah, God speaks directly to Aaron three times in the aftermath of the rebellion of Korah, in verses 1, 8, and 20. It appears that God is vindicating Aaron as a spiritual leader by addressing him directly.

Although these interactions with Aaron are characterized by the downloading of instructions, rather than spiritual or theological visions, it is clear from the Torah text that Aaron too experienced a personal taste of God’s word. This is a far cry from Korah, the cousin of Miriam, Aaron, and Moses, who never was reported to have received any divine communication, but who wished to replace Moses and Aaron as the spiritual and political leader of the Israelites.

What effect would direct contact with God have on a person’s ability to be a leader of the Israelites?

Today we do not give credence to a person who claims to be a prophet. The Talmud, however, does speak about prophets and prophecy:

Rab Judah said in Rab's name: Whoever is boastful, if he is a Sage, his wisdom departs from him; if he is a prophet, his prophecy departs from him. [Pesachim 66b]

Since the day when the Temple was destroyed, prophecy has been taken from the prophets and given to the wise. [Bava Batra 12a]

What do these observations tell us about how the rabbis felt about prophets and prophecy? What leadership qualities do we find are necessary in a prophet?

Topic #2: How (and Why) are Religious Functionaries Paid?

In our parashah and elsewhere, the Torah outlines that compensation and perquisites that routinely were due to the Levites in general, and especially to the Kohanim, Aaron’s descendants, in particular. While the members of all other tribes were to be given extensive areas to farm within the Promised Land, the tribe of Levi was to be scattered among the other tribes and given minimal land to live on. And, as we have noted earlier in the book of Numbers, their work in the sanctuary involved some serious hazards. In the post-desert years, after the Promised Land had been settled, it appears that the Levites served a pedagogic function among the tribes, as well as assisting the Kohanim in the Temple service. This dual role is celebrated in Moses’ parting words about the tribe of Levi:

They shall teach Your norms to Jacob
And Your instructions to Israel,
They shall offer You incense to savor
And whole-offerings upon Your altar. (Deuteronomy 33:10)

In the centuries following the destruction of the second Temple, Torah scholars assumed the spiritual leadership of the Jewish people. They were reluctant to accept payment for teaching Jews about Judaism. In fact, many of the rabbis in the Talmud supported themselves through “regular” jobs, such as shoemaker, woodcutter, or farmer. The advantage of such a system was that these rabbis experienced many of the same fiscal ups and downs that anyone else might experience, and thus might have been well-suited to understanding the concerns of the people. The disadvantage was that their time as teachers and as scholars was used inefficiently, which was advantageous neither to them nor to the community.

Eventually, the idea that a rabbi should be compensated for the time that he would have spent on secular, revenue-producing activity, but instead spent contributing to the spiritual growth of the Jewish community was born. In this way, the community began to fund its own spiritual human resources.

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