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Torah Sparks

June 23, 2012 – 3 Tammuz 5772

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. 641)
Haftarah: I Samuel 11:14 – 12:22 (Etz Hayim p. 877; Hertz p. 649)

Prepared by Rabbi Joseph Prouser

The Torah’s prototypical dissenter, Korach, leading a force of 250 men and supported by Dathan and Aviram, incites a rebellion against Moses, assailing his claim to unique leadership. Moses challenges his detractors to a cultic confrontation. Both the rebels and Aaron are to bring offerings of incense on fire pans; Moses explains that “the man whom the Lord chooses, he shall be the holy one.” After Korach gathers the community to witness the decisive event, a frustrated God threatens to destroy the entire nation. Moses intervenes, praying: “God, Source of the breath of all flesh, when one man sins, will You be wrathful with the whole community?” God relents, ordering Moses to instruct the Israelites to distance themselves from Korach’s band. In accordance with Moses’ explicit warning, the earth opens up and swallows Korach, his ringleaders, and their households; fire consumes the rebels offering the incense, and the horrified and panicked community of Israel flees in fear.

Eleazar collects the fire pans that the rebels had used – unauthorized but now deemed sacred – “from among the charred remains.” The pans are to be used to cover the altar, as a reminder of the terrible consequences of this – or similar – uprisings. Despite the vindication of Moses and the dire fate of his detractors, the Israelites begin to “murmur” – to complain about Moses and Aaron. This illadvised sedition is met with more divine wrath: 14,700 Israelites perish in a punitive plague, which is curtailed by Aaron’s expiatory intercession.

Further divine proof is offered to substantiate the leadership of Moses and Aaron. Twelve staffs are provided, each inscribed with the name of a tribal chieftain; one staff is inscribed with Aaron’s name. Aaron’s staff miraculously sprouts, and it is placed beside the Ark as a reminder to other would-be rebels.

The Levites and priests are charged specifically with all that pertains to the sacred precincts and with the responsibility of keeping unauthorized parties from compromising its sanctity. The sacerdotal mission of the tribe of Levi is met with a number of perquisites: sacrificial emoluments – “the best of the new oil, wine, and grain, the choice parts that Israelites present to the Lord” – as well as tithes, are assigned to the priests and the Levites.

Theme #1: “Almond Joy”

“Moses spoke thus to the Israelites. Their chieftains gave him a staff for each chieftain of an ancestral house, 12 staffs in all; among these staffs was that of Aaron. Moses deposited the staffs before the Lord, in the Tent of the Pact. 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 17:21-23)

Study: Derash

“Some say that it was the staff that had been in the hand of Judah; others say that it was the staff that had been in the hand of Moses. Others again say that Moses took a beam and, cutting it into 12 planks, said to the princes: ‘Take your sticks every one of you from the same beam.’ He did it in order that they should not say that Aaron’s rod was fresh and that this was the reason why it flowered.” (Midrash Bemidbar Rabbah)

“God establishes another test to demonstrate the election of the House of Aaron to the priesthood. This time the miracle requires no human intercession and thus the people should perceive it as wholly divine in nature – in order, God says, to ‘rid Myself of the incessant mutterings… against Moses and Aaron.’” (Tamara Cohn Eskenazi, Andrea L. Weiss, The Torah: A Women’s Commentary)

“God sent an earthquake, and Korach and his followers were swallowed up in it. But even then, the people refused to accept Aaron’s appointment. Then there was a plague, but the Children of Israel continued to murmur against Aaron. Finally, God told each tribe to bring a rod and place it in the Tent of Assembly, and Aaron was to place his rod there also. The people were to watch and see which rod would bud and blossom. And when Aaron’s rod blossomed, they finally accepted him as high priest. Now why did the people accept Aaron when his rod blossomed and bore almonds? Because it showed the vitality of life.” (Rabbi S. Z. Kahana, Heaven On Your Head)

“God devises a test to discern the face of mature power. Each of the 12 tribes places its own staff, a symbol of its power, into the holy center of the community. The next day it is revealed that Aaron's staff has sprouted, blossomed, and produced almonds. This is how we know when our own power has matured. We look for the sprout, the blossom, and the fruit. What have we grown by our power? What beauty have we brought into the world? And how, with our power, have we nurtured ourselves and others?” (Rabbi Shefa Gold)

Questions for Discussion

The Midrash Rabbah offers various explanations for the origin of Aaron’s staff. Which is the most appealing? Which would be the most miraculous explanation of the miracle?

Is it accurate to say that “no human intercession” was involved in the miraculous blossoming of Aaron’s staff? Wasn’t it Moses who collected the rods and placed them in the shrine? Wasn’t it Aaron’s merit – his legitimate claim to cultic leadership – that facilitated the miracle? How is this miracle different from all other miracles (the earthquake, the plague, etc.)? Are the earlier wonders less wholly divine?

Why almonds? Why the staffs? What is the significance of placing the staffs overnight in the Tent of the Pact?

In the absence of miraculously blossoming staffs (!), how are religious leaders today to establish their fitness, their authenticity, their spiritual bona fides to communities who – like our Israelite forbears – are suspicious of authority?

Theme #2: “The Cookie Crumbles”

“But the Israelites said to Moses, ‘Lo, we doomed! We will perish, all of us perish! Everyone who so much as ventures near the Lord’s Tabernacle must die. Alas, we are done for; we are doomed!” (Numbers 17:27-28)

Study: Derash

‘Lo, we perish!’ said the Israelites after the plague has stopped. ‘We are lost, all of us lost . . . Alas we are doomed to perish.’ That is true, of course. They will die, and not in the manner or at the time they would have wished. Human beings of every generation are familiar with this problem. It cannot be minimized. The Torah does not often express the terror human beings feel in the face of death as directly as it does in this parashah. Nor does it often advise its readers, as explicitly as it does here, how best to cope with the fact of death, which often comes as an interruption in our journeys toward personal promised lands. What is that recommendation? Live your life surrounded by the demands and rewards of God's eternal sacred order. Be part of a community that shares life's joys and sorrows with you. Be grateful for the gifts you have. Seek forgiveness for the wrongs you commit. Know the difference between holy and profane, and the distinction—to which it points—between good and evil. Seek to know God, as best a human being can, and imitate God via acts of justice and compassion. Trust in God's enduring mercies.” (Arnold Eisen, Chancellor, Jewish Theological Seminary)

“It was in response to this agonizing cry that Aaron and the Levites were bidden in xviii to guard the Sanctuary against the approach of any ‘stranger.’” (Rabbi Joseph H. Hertz)

“And if I perish, I perish.” (Esther 4:16)

“If they do kill me, I shall never die another death.” (Abraham Lincoln)

“No vision and you perish; No Ideal, and you’re lost; Your heart must ever cherish Some faith at any cost. Some hope, some dream to cling to, Some rainbow in the sky, Some melody to sing to, Some service that is high.” (Harriet du Autermont)

Questions for Discussion

Was Esther’s statement before approaching Achashverosh, in violation of the law, a reference to the panicked lament of the Israelites (the same Hebrew verb – abd – is used in both texts)? (As a corollary: Was Lincoln’s prescient remark a paraphrase of the verse from Esther?!) How does the subsequent literary history of our verse alter our reading of Parshat Korach, and how does the origin in Korach of these later statements help us to understand what the speakers were trying to tell us?

The Israelites in our verse feared their physical demise. How does Harriet du Autermont’s insight also apply to the biblical context?

Notwithstanding Professor Eisen’s analysis of the Torah’s advice to Israel about how to cope with “the terror human beings feel in the face of death,” what response is forthcoming to the terrified Israelites in Parshat Korach? What might Moses or Aaron or God have said to make sense of the plague that had just devastated the community? How should contemporary Jewish religious leaders respond to natural or unnatural disasters when they strike?

Was it the interruption of their journey toward the Promised Land (personal or national) that so unsettled the Israelites, or was it the lack of any such ultimate goal or transcendent meaning? Which is the more tragic demise?

Historic Note

Parshat Korach, read on June 23, 2012, describes the fate of Korach and his followers, who are swallowed up by the earth in the wake of their disastrously misguided rebellion against Moses. Today is the first anniversary of the 6.7 magnitude earthquake that devastated Japan’s Iwate Prefecture on June 23, 2011.

Halachah L’Maaseh

The recitation of blessings (for food, for natural phenomena, etc.) sensitize us to the miracles that surround us every day. Rabbi Max Kadushin referred to this process as “normal mysticism.” There are blessings to be recited, as well, in response to extraordinary miracles , whether national or personal. “A person who sees a place where miracles have been performed on behalf of the Jewish people, should say: ‘Blessed is God Who did miracles for our ancestors in this place’ …From where is this principle derived? Said R. Yochanan: The verse states, (Exodus 18:10 – Jethro’s statement of praise) ‘Blessed is the Lord, who saved you’” (Talmud Berachot 54A). Jethro’s blessing also serves as the precedent for the “she-asah nisim” berachot familiar from holiday liturgy: “And when a day comes corresponding to a time when a miracle was done on behalf of the Jews, like Chanukah and Purim, one is obligated to recite the blessing: ‘Blessed…Who performed miracles for our forefathers at this time.’ On Chanukah this blessing is recited in association with lighting a wick (i.e., the chanukiyah); on Purim in association with the reading of the Megillah” (Sheiltot Parshat Vayishlach). Parallel blessings are also to be recited when we see a place where we experienced a miracle personally: Baruch atah… she’asah li nes ba-makom ha-zeh – “Blessed are You… who performed a miracle for me (alternatively: for my father, for my mother, for my ancestors, for my teacher) in this place” (See also Rambam Mishneh Torah Hilchot Berachot 10:9).

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