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Torah Sparks

Parashat Korah (Shabbat Rosh Hodesh)
June 8, 2013 – 30 Sivan 5773

Annual: Numbers 16:1-18:32 (Etz Hayim p. 860; Hertz p. 639)
Triennial: Numbers 17:25-18:32 (Etz Hayim p. 868; Hertz p. 645)
Maftir: Numbers 28:9-15 (Etz Hayim p. 930; Hertz p. 695)
Haftarah: Isaiah 66:1-24 (Etz Hayim p. 1220; Hertz p. 944)

Prepared by Rabbi Joseph Prouser
(Temple Emanuel of North Jersey; Franklin Lakes, NJ)

The Torah's prototypical dissenter, Korach, supported by Dathan and Aviram, and leading a force of 250 men, incites a rebellion against Moses, assailing his claim to unique leadership. A dismayed Moses challenges his detractors to a cultic confrontation. Both the impudent 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 – 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 Israelite community begins to "murmur," to complain against Moses and Aaron. This ill-advised sedition is met with further 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.

Following a fearful lament by the Israelites about the lethal power of God's sanctuary, 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: "To Air is Human"

"But they fell on their faces and said, ‘O God, Source of the breath of all flesh! When one man sins, will You be wrathful with the whole community?'" (Numbers 16:22)

Derash: Study

"You know the thoughts of every individual. You are unlike a mortal king. A mortal king, should part of a province offend him, does not know who among them has sinned. Therefore, when he grows angry, he punishes them all. But You: all thoughts are revealed to You and You know who is the sinner." (Rashi)

"You are God, Who has particular knowledge of each and every human being and extends His Providence to every individual, based on his intellect, and in accordance with that individual's righteousness and wickedness. In light of this, how can You decree punishment upon the entire congregation when only a few of them sinned?" (Gersonides)

"God, Source of the Breath of all Flesh. What a powerful metaphor to see God through! God is the source of breath, that reliable, cyclical in and out of air on which our lives depend. Nothing makes us feel quite so fresh as a deep clear breath of air, and nothing can make us miserable quite so quickly as troubled breathing. Beyond the air itself is the way our bodies feel while breathing: The filling up as our lungs expand conveys a sense of health and well-being… God is not only the Source of Breath, but also breath itself. Our breath—like our God—is something we cannot see or touch, but is our very essence. Our connection to life is through this intangible but constant presence. With breath, we can run, learn, love and live. Without it we become mere corpses… God is never farther away than the next breath. And never less reliable than the air that we breathe." (Rabbi Bradley Shavit Artson)

"Moses and Aaron's prayer reminds God that a mass execution would be demeaning to any divinity that truly knew the spirits of all living beings, unworthy of a true God. Today, mass executions are almost commonplace. In Syria and Sudan dictators use overwhelming force against whole populations. People are used as human shields in various world conflicts without being given the option Moses and Aaron were offered: to get out of harm's way. Modern prophets struggle to convince such tyrants to use restraint, discerning the true intentions of the people in the crosshairs and respecting the sanctity of the civilian. Truly, we would do well to re-learn the art of such spontaneous prayer. Moses' prayer was not just audacious for its own time. It has not aged a day." (Rabbi Justin Kerber)

"All things share the same breath - the beast, the tree, the man... the air shares its spirit with all the life it supports." (Chief Seattle)

Questions for Discussion

Aaron and Moses were neither the first nor the last leaders of the People Israel to take a bold and principled stand in challenging God's punitive intentions. Who were their role models? Who were their spiritual disciples in this regard? What do we learn from the recurrence of this theme in Jewish life?

"Source of the breath (or, perhaps, ‘spirit') of all flesh" is a very universalistic divine appellation. Why did Moses and Aaron invoke this of all names for God? The same term is used in Numbers 27 in reference to the selection of Joshua as Moses' successor; how might this help explain the phrase?

In Rabbi Artson's formulation, comparing God to the air we breathe, he states that "we become mere corpses without it." What are the dangers of living without a sense of God's Presence? Without a willing and articulate recognition of God's role in our lives? When someone stops breathing, we know that immediate emergency action is required… What obligations do we have to those around us (Jews and others) who are "without" God?

What is the relationship between God's individual providence (see Rashi, Gersonides) and the sanctity of all human life (see Rabbi Kerber, Chief Seattle, and Rabbi Gold in Theme #2, below)?

Theme #2: "Check, Please!"

"He stood between the dead and the living until the plague was checked." (Numbers 17:13)

Derash: Study

"Aaron seized the angel and detained him against his will. The angel said: ‘Let me go to complete my divine mission.' Aaron said: ‘Moses commanded me to stop you from doing so.' The angel replied: ‘I am the agent of God and you are but the agent of Moses.' Aaron said to him: ‘Moses does not say anything of his own device, but relays the instructions of the Almighty. If you do not believe me, the Holy One and Moses are there at the entrance to the Tent of Meeting. Come with me and ask!'" (Rashi, citing Mechilta)

"Although Aaron, as High Priest, is forbidden to come into contact with the dead, he does so in this case in order to save the living… Aaron is herewith praised because he risked his life by confronting the destroyer." (Jacob Milgrom, JPS Commentary)

"Aaron hastens and takes up a position in front of Wrath. All behind have died; those in front have not been touched; they are living. Thus it is that Aaron stands between the living and the dead, and stays the plague." (Rabbi Joseph H. Hertz)

"In the aftermath of Korach's rebellion, Aaron, as High Priest, takes his stand between the dead and the living, and thus ends the plague. The plague of our own time is the unchecked immature power that threatens to consume the world. To stand as High Priest between the dead and the living is to know clearly the destructive aspect of our power and to take a stand in fierce loving protection of the sacredness of all life." (Rabbi Shefa Gold)

"Life is for the living. Death is for the dead. Let life be like music. And death a note unsaid." (Langston Hughes)

Questions for Discussion

Rabbi Hertz's description of "Wrath" – personified – evinces a reluctance to attribute destructive tendencies to God. How does this compare to the Mechilta's "angel" and Milgrom's "destroyer"? Where else in Jewish thought or sacred literature do we strive to distance God from the more disquieting aspects of His Will and Creation?

Rashi's comment provides a "mission statement" for medical ethics! Are healers not agents of God's Will… restraining, as it were, the Angel of Death – himself on a "divine mission"? How are we to determine when we are doing – or undoing – God's work?

What significance is there in the fact that it is Aaron and not Moses who takes the decisive action described in our verse? Was he truly risking his life, as Milgrom insists? What were the potential consequences of Aaron's actions?

What contemporary threats to the "sacredness of all life" are particularly pernicious… and, therefore, especially demanding of our intervention and advocacy… our "fierce loving protection"?

Is Langston Hughes' verse a valid Jewish theological stance? How does it relate to Aaron's actions?

Historic Note

In Parashat Korach, read on June 8, 2013, the Earth opens up and swallows Korach and his band of rebels, striking fear in the Israelite populace. On June 8, 1994, an earthquake with a magnitude of 8.2 struck northern Bolivia, shaking the ground (and, in varying degrees, those living thereon) from Argentina to Canada.

Halachah L'Maaseh

The metal fire pans used by the rebels allied with Korach were deemed sacred (Numbers 17:1) and collected for use as a covering for the altar. A variety of innocuous items used in a ritual context take on an enduring level of sanctity. Chovat Ha-Dor 1:43 urges only the dignified disposal of nails previously used to affix a mezuzah! Similarly, a bookcase used only for sacred volumes itself acquires a measure of sanctity. The proper treatment and required "redemption" of such furniture is debated in Mishnah Berurah 154:9, 153:62, Responsa Tzitz Eliezer 7:7, and Chelkat Yaakov 3:162.

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