Weekly Reading Insights: Korach

Overview of the Torah Reading

To be read on Shabbat Korach - 2 Tammuz 5781 /June 12

Torah: Numbers 16:1-18:32
Haftorah: Shmuel I 11:14-15; 12:1-22
Pirkei Avot:  Chapter 4

Korach is the 5th Reading out of 10 in Numbers and it contains 5325 letters, in 1409 words, in 95 verses

Overview: Korach (Numbers 16:1-18:32) opens with the dramatic account of the rebellion of Korach, Datan, and Aviram and their 250 followers against the leadership of Moses and priesthood of Aaron. Moses challenges them to make an offering of incense. Aaron, too, would do so, and whosever offering was accepted would clearly be G-d's choice for the priesthood. The earth swallows Korach, Datan, and Aviram, their families and possessions, and a fire descends from heaven consuming the other men who burned incense, all except Aaron. The following day the Jews complain about the deaths of so many men, whereupon G-d sends a plague, resulting in 14,700 more deaths. Moses tells Aaron to stop the plague by offering incense and then running into the middle of the assembled masses. Then, to again strengthen Aaron's position as High-Priest, each tribal leader was told to write his name on a staff. These staffs were placed in the Sanctuary. The next day, Aaron's staff was found with almond blossoms and nuts growing on it. It was left as a memorial next to the Holy Ark. Then comes a description of the priestly and Levite duties in the Sanctuary, including preventing Israelites from approaching places forbidden to them within the Sanctuary area. G-d then tells which produce and animals are included in the priests' and Levites' portions which Israelites must bring them. Also the Levites are commanded regarding the portions that they must bring to the priests.

An Essay from
Rabbi Shaul Yosef Leiter, Director of Ascent

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This week's Torah portion, Korach, is about one of the Levite leaders, Korach. Levites were involved in carrying the Tabernacle from place to place and in maintaining it, but not at all in the main activity of the Tabernacle which was the responsibility of the Kohanim, the priests, who brought the sacrificial offerings for G-d. In the second year of the sojourn in the desert, after the sin of the spies, Korach gathered 250 other leaders and challenged the authority of Moshe and Aharon. At the very beginning of the portion, he says "You have gone too far! All the people in the community are holy, and G-d is with them. Why are you setting yourselves above G-d's congregation?" (Bamidbar/Numbers 16:3). Korach was misled by his own jealousy. Moshe tells them to all bring their own incense offering together with Aharon to see who G-d chooses. G-d chooses Aharon. As punishment for rebelling, Korach and all his co-conspirators were swallowed up by the earth.

At the end of the Torah's discussion of this tragic event, the verses says (Bamidbar/Numbers 17:4-5) that Elazar, Aharon's son, at G-d's command, gathered up all of Korach's group's fire pans to be made into a covering for the altar. This was meant as a reminder to everyone that no one except Aharon and his sons can bring an incense offering. And then the Torah says, "And there will never again be like Korach and his group…"

What does this verse add to our understanding of this episode? Is there some thought that this is the last time anyone will challenge Torah authority? The opposite, we see it happening around us time and time again. Rabbi S. Brot (taken from Iturei Torah) suggests that the verse is telling us that what will never be repeated is an argument just like Korach and his group had against Moshe, where it was patently obvious that the truth was with Moshe and the distortion and falsehood was with Korach. This is what the verse means, "There will never again be like Korach…" Rather from then on, we must expect that in every disagreement there will be some truth in each argument. The challenge in a world of greys will always be to decide who is more correct while accepting that even the disqualified argument has some validity.

The Rebbe suggests another teaching. Ostensibly, what was Korach's complaint? Lack of unity! Some people had special status and others not. Korach was demanding that the entire nation be equal in status. As he contends, "All the people… are holy".

What is peculiar is that even though equality is a positive value, Korach has gone down in history as the symbol of dispute and separation. At the very outset, Onkelus [1], one of the earliest translators of the Torah into Aramaic (the vernacular 2,000 years ago), translates the first words of the portion, "And Korach took,…" as, and Korach separated himself. There is an opinion (Talmud, Sanhedrin 110a) that behaving like Korach, pressing a pointless argument, is a transgression of one of the Torah's 365 negative commandments.

On a macro level, what was the sin here? Korach wanted to break down the divisions that the Torah had set between different groups in the Jewish people.

When is there true unity according to Torah? Not when everyone is equal and the same. The opposite! We are all different! We are part of a nation divided into three - Kohanim, Levites and Israelites. The priests are holier than the others. The Levites are holier than the Israelites. We are by definition diverse. When you eliminate these divisions, you do not make unity, you cause anxiety and discontent which creates division and separation.

Our unity and peace come when each of us, doing what we are meant to do, can figure out how we can work in synergy with everyone else. When each person, based on an objective evaluation of their strengths and abilities, fulfills their own personal mission and function. Just like the human body has many different organs. Each one unique in importance, like the difference between the head and the foot. Nevertheless, all the organs come together in unity, each fulfilling its intended purpose. If one is (G-d forbid) missing, the whole body suffers.

In G-d's eyes, everyone is equal. Everyone has their own special mission and path to Divine closeness and intimacy. Trying to be someone else or doing someone else's job does not accomplish this goal. Figuring out your own unique mission will complete the purpose of creation. This is specifically why G-d created the world this way. The challenge is to find our place in G-d's plan.

Here is one meaning of the teaching in Pirkei Avot [2] (4:1), "Who is rich? Someone who is happy with their portion." G-d forbid we should think it means that a person must accept their situation and not try to change or improve it! This is teaching us that happiness comes from knowing that our strengths and talents have been given us to further our personal mission of bettering and making peace in the world - making it a fitting home for G-d.

(Rabbi Menachem M. Schneerson. Likkutei Sichot ("Collected Talks"): An Anthology of Talks. Kehot Publication Society. Volume 18. Page 204. As brought in Likras Shabbos).

During the latter part of his life, the Lubavitcher Rebbe would give out dollar bills to thousands of people who waited patiently on line each Sunday, rain or shine, winter or summer. Part of the reason was to encourage everyone to increase in giving charity, that everyone should give the dollar he or she was given and add to it, to give to appropriate positive causes. Another reason was to give many thousands of people a chance to connect with him, to receive his blessings.

Once a person was standing in line for a long time for his dollar and blessing. When his turn came, he could not hold back and said to the Rebbe, I" am standing on my feet for two hours and feel as though I am about to collapse! How can the Rebbe manage to stand on his feet so many more hours!?!?"

And the Rebbe answered, "When you are counting precious stones, you don't feel tired!"
(Aron Dov Halpern. Parshiot Al HaRebbe)

Shabbat Shalom

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For last year's essay by Rabbi Leiter on this week's Reading, see the archive.


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Holy Zohar, Holy Ari, Mystic Classics, Chasidic Masters, Contemporary Kabbalists, and more,
click to Korach

one sample:

Ascent Lights

Presuming Positions

By Shaul Yosef Leiter

Everyone agrees that Korach had great talents. Nevertheless, leadership is determined by Heaven. Rebbe Bunim of Peshischa writes that Korach's terrible mistake was in trying to forcefully seize the leadership and its glory, which only lead to his downfall.

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