Summary: The Book of Numbers, fourth of the Five Books of Moses, spans the 40 year period in which Bnei Yisrael wandered in the wilderness. Korah is the 5th parasha covering chapters 16:1–18:32.
The central story in Parshat Korah is his attempted rebellion. It began when Korah, Datan & Aviram, On ben Pelet and 250 princes gathered against Moshe & Aharon, demanding they cede their leadership role, and bitterly complaining that Moshe failed to bring them to a promised land of milk & honey.
Much of the remainder of the parasha shows G-d’s miraculous support for Moshe’s leadership; the earth opens to swallow Korah and his followers, and the 250 princes who were tasked to bring an incense offering were consumed by Heavenly fire. Their brass firepans were made into an altar cover, serving as a perpetual reminder against offerings by anyone other than those connected to Aharon’s lineage.
No sooner was the revolt suppressed than the people again complained – that Moshe had killed ‘G-d’s people’. The Almighty threatened their destruction but Moshe intervened, hurriedly sending Aharon with his incense censor to stop a plague in the camp which claimed the lives of 14,700 people.
Moshe gathered 12 named-staffs from the heads of tribes and placed them along with a staff with Aharon’s name in the Tent of Testimony (Ohel HaEidut). The next morning Aharon’s staff blossomed like an almond tree with flowers and nuts. It too was kept in perpetuity to prove Aharon’s Divine investiture.
In a last gasp of despair, the generation that left Egypt acknowledged they would perish in the wilderness.
The final paragraphs of Parshat Korah repeat the role of Kohanim and Leviim. The Leviim transported the Mishkan; the Kohanim who were not given any land instead were allotted Terumah gifts from offerings brought by Bnei Yisrael. These included the waved meats, first fruits, first-born animals and more. Similarly, the Leviim who also didn’t inherit any land, were given the people’s Maaser (tithes). From this, the Leviim were to give one tenth to Aharon.
Please look here for an Aliyah-by-Aliyah summary.
Comment: No doubt the parashot of these last 3 weeks show a downward-spiralling trend. First, was Miriam’s slander of Moshe at the end of BeHa’alotekha. That was followed in Shelah-Lekha by the incident of the spies slandering the land of Canaan. And, here we have Korah’s attempted rebellion and the disastrous plague that claimed early 15,000 lives.
We’re reminded of the famous Mishna in Ethics of the Fathers (4:2) that one mitsvah leads to another, just as one transgression leads to another. This means that by doing something inspirational, we’re then energised and empowered to go further. Or it could mean that establishing good habits at an early age is self-perpetuating – as parents we need to be assertive with our children and make sure they develop good ethical values along with their mandatory education.
Perhaps we also need to remind ourselves that, as human beings, having freewill to choose our behaviour, means it’s up to us to pursue a path of righteousness, just as it’s also possible to choose the opposite. Too often, we surrender our ability to choose through habituation, laziness or obsession.
It is not enough to be ritually fastidious and to go through the motions. One needs consciousness in our actions as well. Why do Jewish adult men put on Tefillin each morning (except for Shabbat & Yom Tob)? Why do we keep Kosher? What kind of relationship do we have with G-d? Are we giving of our time and effort to improving the world (Tsedaka)? Are we doing enough for others or just for ourselves?
Our protagonist, Korah, was a grandson of Kehat who was one of Levi’s 3 children. It is fascinating to learn that while his disingenuous ambitions caused a terrible result, seven generations later the Prophet Samuel came from his line. For those unfamiliar, the story of Samuel’s birth and early years is well worth reading, especially his mother’s role.
We live in challenging times. Social norms and habits are changing so quickly, our access to information is so immediate and comprehensive, sacrosanct values that make up the core of our identity such as the sanctity of human life are flaunted with contempt by small but highly visible groups, terror is becoming commonplace, and many of us are unable or unprepared to cope.
The Korah’s of the world will always exist. It is up to us to consciously and conscientiously find our way in righteousness, to embrace and teach ethical values to our children and to ensure anarchy doesn’t become the new reality.