Parshat Korah

Parshat Korah is the 5th in the Book of Numbers covering Chapters 16-18. It begins with Korah and 250 communal leaders rebelling against Moshe and Aharon’s leadership. In reponse, Moshe challenged them to appear before G-d with incense pans the following day, allowing the Almighty to decide the chosen leader.

In anger G-d threatened to destroy the entire nation, but Moshe intervened to channel Divine punishment only against those who sinned. Taking the Elders with him, Moshe warned Datan & Aviram the earth would open underneath them unless they turned back. When that indeed happened, the people grew frightened. Then a fire emanated from G-d and consumed the 250 rebels.

G-d told Moshe to have Elazar collect the rebels’ fire pans to make into a cover for the altar. The following day a crowd accused Moshe of wrong-doing; blaming him for the death of the nation’s leaders. Plague broke out and was stayed when Aharon with his incense pan cordoned off the area; literally separating between the living and dead.

To reinforce Aharon’s Divine authority, G-d commanded Moshe to ask each tribe to provide a staff placed overnight in the Mishkan where the staff of the chosen tribe would blossom. In the morning, Aharon’s staff flowered with almond blossoms and almonds, and was shown to Bnei Yisrael. G-d commanded that staff be kept in the Mishkan as testimony.

G-d commanded Aharon that his family, as Kohanim, would bear the sin-burden of the people, and protect the Sanctuary and Altar; and that the Levi’im would share these service duties. Outsiders weren’t permitted to enter or perform any ritual worship upon penalty of death.

As remuneration for their life of dedication, Kohanim were entitled to a host of agricultural and animal gifts – similarly, Levi’im were entitled to an annual tithe – both in lieu of a land inheritance. Leviim were obliged to take a tithe from their tithe and give it to the Kohanim.

Comment: The human mind has a remarkable ability to create the most fantastic illusions. For Bnei Yisrael while wandering in the desert, one of those fantasies was that life as they knew it in Egypt had been so much better than the experience they were living now (call it Brexodus?).

Another human delusion from the beginning of time, is inventing ways to think we’re in control of our environment and circumstances. An example is telling ourselves that harsh climate-related issues – earthquakes, draughts or epidemics are predictable and that there’s an explanation to most things. This was in part the motive of the Tower of Babel generation. But the ultimate in youthful self-deception has been the myth that we’ll all live forever.

After the decree in last week’s Parasha, Bnei Yisrael were starkly confronted by their mortality. No longer were they able to maintain the illusion of living forever with G-d. With the Canaan Mission failure of the 12 Spies, their fate was sealed; to perish in the desert rather than enter the Promised Land. To a great extent, Korah’s rebellion was a rational attempt to regain control of their surroundings, to try to subvert and re-engineer G-d’s decree. If we throw out the current leadership, perhaps an answer more to our liking will be forthcoming.

Sadly, this seems to be their last hurrah. From next week, the story of Bamidbar leaps forward to the end of the 40 years sojourn. Little is known how the generation that doubly left Egypt and witnessed the Divine Revelation at Sinai perished.

A Midrash tells us that each year on Tisha B’av the men were told to dig graves for themselves and lie down in them. Some would expire overnight and others would wake and continue for another year. There are no records of brilliant discoveries, technological breakthroughs, the building of great facades, composing wonderful music, creating magnificent art or holding of lavish parties during the Wilderness 40 years. Mostly, they faded into obscurity.

But, having promised the Biblical Patriarchs custody of the Land of Canaan, G-d made sure that pledge was carried out through their offspring.

Each time we stand on the edge of the unknown, we would be wise to remind ourselves that much of what happens in life is beyond our sense of control. At best, we can do our share of acting on the public stage, then stand back and guess what lies ahead. Perhaps it might be a source of comfort to remind ourselves that whatever happens and no matter how much it seems out of our control, G-d’s benevolent promise is eternal.

A More Detailed Look at the Parasha

Korah son of Kehat, Datan & Aviram and On ben Pelet rose up with 250 leaders against Moshe and Aharon asking ‘if the entire congregation is sanctified, why did you appoint yourselves as leaders over us?’ Moshe replied that on the morrow G-d would choose who would be brought close. ‘All would bring incense on fire pans and let G-d choose which offering was desirable.’

Moshe then addressed Korah asking, wasn’t it enough he was designated among the Tribe of Levi, did he have to seek out the Priesthood? ‘Why do you complain about Aharon?’

Moshe also called out Datan & Aviram who refused to meet him. They accused Moshe of promising them a land of milk and honey only to leave them to die in the desert. An angry Moshe asked G-d to show them no favour, for he never took anything from nor mistreated them. Korah and the 250 followers were to meet the following day with incense pans in front of the Mishkan.

The Almighty told Moshe & Aharon to separate themselves so that G-d could consume the entire people in an instant. But they begged G-d not to punish the innocent with the wicked.

G-d told Moshe to warn the people near Korah and Datan & Aviram to leave the area. Moshe accompanied by the Elders told the people to flee and touch nothing from the rebel’s tents. While Datan & Aviram, their wives and children stood outside their tents, Moshe prophesied that if they were to die a natural death like others, it would mean G-d hadn’t selected him. But, if the earth were to swallow them up it would be a sign Moshe was G-d’s messenger, not self-appointed.

No sooner did he finish speaking, the earth opened and Korah, Datan & Aviram and their families were swallowed alive, lost from the community. Those who watched fled in fear of meeting the same fate. A fire then broke forth from G-d and consumed the 250 men offering their incense.

G-d told Moshe to ask Elazar the Kohen to collect the burnt fire pans and dispose of the fire for they’d become sanctified. He would make them into a copper covering for the Altar fire, to remain a symbol to the nation that outsiders or strangers mustn’t bring incense in worship of G-d.

The following day people accused Moshe and Aharon of killing the nation of G-d. Just as they were gathering against Moshe & Aharon, G-d appeared in a cloud above the Mishkan. G-d again told Moshe to remove himself from the congregation before they were destroyed. A plague broke out and Moshe sent Aharon with his fire pan filled with incense to stave-off an epidemic that killed 14,700 people above those who died with Korah.

G-d commanded Moshe to collect staffs with the names of each tribe engraved upon them and to add a staff with Aharon’s name to represent the Tribe of Levi. Left overnight in the Mishkan, the staff that blossomed would be proof against further complaining.

The following day, Aharon’s staff was found to have blossomed and contained ripe almonds. The staffs were set in front of the tribes for each to take the one belonging to him. G-d asked Moshe to leave Aharon’s staff in perpetuity to prevent further murmuring. Bnei Yisrael uttered their final anguished cry, ‘behold we are undone, we all will perish.’

G-d told Aharon he and his sons would be charged with the work of the Mishkan and the Altar. The Tribe of Levi were tasked to support them in their service but not to have contact with the sacred vessels. In fulfilling their duty, the Kohanim would prevent plagues from breaking out among Bnei Yisrael. It was a privilege from G-d for the Kohanim and Leviim; the stranger who approached to serve would die.

G-d told Aharon of the gifts he would receive as remuneration for serving in the Mishkan. They included; from the Sacred of Sacred, the meal, sin and guilt offerings – to be eaten in a place of holiness; the heave and wave offering – anyone in their household in a state of cleanliness could eat them; the best of the oil, wine and corn produce, the first fruits – anyone in their household in a state of cleanliness could eat them, and anything dedicated to G-d.

The first-born of men and animals belonged to the Kohen; of men to be redeemed for 5 shekels and of animals to be sacrificed and for the Kohen to keep the breast and thigh. Heave offerings were given to the Kohen, who in return received no land, for G-d was their inheritance.

Leviim were to receive Ma’aser (tithes) from Bnei Yisrael as remuneration for their service. Other tribes could no longer serve in the Mishkan. The Leviim too would receive no land inheritance.

G-d told Moshe to tell the Leviim that from all their tithes they had to gift a tithe to the Kohanim. As the corn from the threshing floor and wine from the winepress, they needed to give their gifts; their tithes could be eaten anywhere by anyone in their household. They mustn’t profane the gifts given by Bnei Yisrael.