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Torah Sparks

June 28, 2008 – 25 Sivan 5768

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: I Samuel 11:14 – 12:22 (Etz Hayim, p. 877; Hertz p. 649)

Prepared by Rabbi Joyce Newmark
Teaneck, New Jersey

Torah Portion Summary

Korah and his followers challenge the authority of Moses and Aaron – and indeed of God Himself. Moses responds by asking isn’t it enough that God has given you and the other Levites special status? Do you want to be a priest as well? Datan and Aviram, members of Korah’s faction but from the tribe of Reuben, challenge Moses from another direction, claiming that he has brought the Israelites from a land of milk and honey to die in the wilderness.

Moses tells the rebels they are to be tested by God. They and Aaron are each to bring a fire pan with incense to the entrance of the Tent of Meeting. God tells Moses to instruct the rest of the community to stand back from the tents of Korah, Datan, and Aviram. The earth opens and swallows them and their households, and a heavenly fire consumes the 250 Levites’ offering of incense.

God has made His position clear, but the Israelites continue to blame Moses and Aaron for their problems, claiming they are responsible for the deaths of Korah and his followers. Once again, God angrily threatens to wipe out the Israelites. At Moses’ direction, Aaron runs into the community and offers incense, putting an end to the plague that had broken out, killing more than 14,000.

God instructs Moses to offer one more demonstration. Each of the tribal chieftains is to bring a staff inscribed with his name. These, along with Aaron’s staff, representing the tribe of Levi, are to be placed in the Tent of Meeting. On the following day, it is discovered that Aaron’s staff has produced flowers and almonds, confirming that he is God’s chosen priest.

God speaks to Aaron, confirming the role of the priests and the Levites. The gifts and tithes to be given to the priests and Levites are described.

It All Depends on the Woman

Now Korah, son of Izhar son of Kohat son of Levi, betook himself, along with Datan and Aviram sons of Eliav, and On son of Pelet, descendents of Reuben. (Bamidbar 16:1)

  1. Rav said: On son of Pelet [who is not mentioned again after this verse] was saved by his wife. She said to him, “What does it matter to you? Whether the one [Moses] remains master or the other [Korah] becomes master, you are still no more than a follower.” He replied, “But what can I do? I have taken part in their counsel, and I have sworn to be with them.” She said, “Sit here, and I will save you.” She gave him wine to drink until he became intoxicated and put him to bed within the tent. Then she sat down at its entrance and loosened her hair. Whoever came [to summon him] saw her and retreated.

    Meanwhile, Korah’s wife joined them [the rebels] and said to him [Korah], “See what Moses has done. He himself has become king; his brother he appointed High Priest; his brother’s sons he has made deputy High Priests. If terumah is brought, he says, ‘That belongs to the priest.’ If the tithe is brought, which belongs to you [a Levite], he orders, ‘Give a tenth part thereof to the priest.’ Moreover, he has had your hair cut off, and makes sport of you as though you were dirt, for he was jealous of your hair.” [The name Korah means “bald,” so this must have been a particularly touchy point.] He said to her, “But he has done the same to himself!” She replied, “Since all the greatness was his, he said also, ‘Let me die with the Philistines.’”... Thus it is written, The wisest of women builds her house – this refers to the wife of On son of Pelet – but the foolish tears it down with her own hands (Mishlei 14:1) – this refers to Korah’s wife. (Sanhedrin 109b-110a)
  2. The story of a pious man who was wed to a pious woman, and they did not beget children. Both said, “We are of no use whatever to the Holy One.” So he went ahead and divorced her. The husband then married a wicked woman, and she made him wicked, while the divorced wife went and married a wicked man, whom she made righteous. This proves that it all depends on the woman. (Bereisheit Rabbah 17:7)
  3. The Holy One said to Moses, “Go speak to the daughters of Israel [and ask them] whether they wish to receive the Torah.” Why were the women asked first? Because the way of men is to follow the opinion of women. (Pirkei d’Rabbi Eliezer, chapter 41)

Sparks for Discussion

These texts suggest that even though women (at that time) had no public role in the community or its religious life, nevertheless they had great moral authority and influence over their husbands. How do you feel about this? Do you believe this was true in previous generations? Do you believe it is true today? What determines the moral and religious character of a family?

Mrs. On’s argument to her husband appears to be, “Do not get involved in politics unless you will benefit personally.” Do you think she said this only because her husband was involved in a rebellion or was it meant as a general rule? Do you agree with her? Do you think most people involved in politics have ulterior motives?

Cardiac Judaism

They combined against Moses and Aaron and said to them, “You have gone too far! For all the community are holy, all of them, and the Lord is in their midst. Why then do you raise yourselves above the Lord’s congregation?” (Bamidbar 16:3)

  1. [Korah meant] All of them heard the commandments at Sinai from the mouth of the Mighty One. If you yourself have taken the kingship, you should not have selected for your brother the priesthood; not you alone have heard at Sinai, “I am the Lord your God;” the entire congregation heard it. (Rashi [Rabbi Shlomo Yitzhaki, 1040-1105, France])
  2. Note that they do not say: “all the congregation is holy” – as a unit, but: “all the congregation are holy,” “all of them” – each one taken individually... God demanded of them: “You shall be holy,” that is to say: Show yourselves holy by your deeds!... Instead we are faced by the brazen assertion, all the community are holy, all of them so unsupported by realities, as we know it only too well from the previous sidrot. (Nehama Leibowitz, Studies in Bamidbar, p. 183)
  3. Rabbi Shlomo Riskin suggests that “the conflict between Moses and Korah reflects a tug of war within the human spirit. . . . Korah denies the importance of the laws. He says, ‘Who needs this system of do’s and don’ts, you shalls and you shall nots? We’re holy already!’ Certainly this perspective was attractive to every Israelite who wanted to be left alone. Who wants to be told what to do and what not to do? If I want to commit adultery, who are you to tell me I shouldn’t?” (Jerusalem Post, July 1, 1989) (Cited in A Torah Commentary for Our Times, Harvey Fields, vol. 3, p. 50)
  4. Often, when someone criticizes a Jew for not observing the commandments, he retorts: “I have a Jewish heart, and deep inside I am a good Jew.” That was what Korah claimed: “Even though the behavior of my people is not exactlyin accordance with the law, nevertheless ‘the Lord is among them,’ and deep within them my people are good Jews.” (Divrei Eliezer)

Sparks for Discussion

A “cardiac Jew” says, “I may not keep kosher or come to shul on Shabbat or get involved in Jewish causes, but in my heart I am a Jew.” But just as a person needs to exercise and follow a proper diet to keep his or her physical heart healthy, a Jew needs to work to have a healthy Jewish heart.

Some people explain their lack of observance by saying, “I am not religious, but I am spiritual.” What do these words mean to you? What are the benefits of spirituality without religion? What are the dangers? Can there be a Jewish future without Jewish religion?

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