Parsha Potpourri: Parshas Korach


Vayakumu lifnei Moshe v’anashim mi’Bnei Yisroel chamishim umasayim nesi’ei eida kriei moed anshei shem (16:2)

Parshas Korach begins with the tragic revolt led by Korach against Moshe and Aharon in which he questions their claims of being Divinely-chosen in an attempt to overthrow their leadership. Korach was joined in his rebellion by Dasan, Aviram, and 250 followers. The commentators disagree about the identity of these 250 individuals, but a number of them maintain that they included the leaders of each of the tribes. According to this opinion, how is it possible that such righteous leaders stumbled and fell so far as to take part in Korach’s rebellion against Moshe and Aharon?

In Parshas Nasso, the Torah repeats at excruciating length the offerings brought by each of the 12 tribal leaders even though they were all identical to one another. The Chofetz Chaim explains that the first offerings brought in history resulted in bloodshed when Hevel’s offering was accepted and his brother Cain’s was not. Cain became jealous and killed Hevel. The heads of the tribes were worried that each successive leader would try to “one-up” the leader who brought his offering on the previous day. This would result in tremendous jealousy and ill-will. To prevent this from happening, they collaborated and agreed upon a uniform offering which would be brought by each of them. This desire for peace was so precious to Hashem that He wrote each of their offerings in the Torah at great length to reward them.

However, all philosophies and character traits run across-the-board and can be used for good or for bad. Although their desire for equality earned them tremendous reward and Divine favor in Parshas Nasso, it led to their downfall a short while later in Parshas Korach. Korach challenged the leadership of Moshe and Aharon, arguing that the entire Jewish nation is equally holy and has no need for a leader (16:3). This played right into the reasoning and beliefs of the tribal leaders, who were unfortunately swept up in Korach’s rebellion.

As we strive to improve ourselves and our character traits, it is insufficient to simply work on traits such as kindness, patience, and the pursuit of peace. We must be cognizant of the fact that all of them have a time and place not only when they are appropriate, but also when they can lead to disastrous results.

Vatiftach ha’aretz es pi’ha vativla osam (16:32)

Parshas Korach revolves around Korach’s challenge to the authority and leadership of Moshe and Aharon. Korach ultimately leads a full-fledged rebellion against them, one which ends in disastrous and tragic results as he and his followers and all of their possessions were swallowed up by the ground. Judaism teaches that people are punished for their sins measure-for-measure. In what way was Korach’s punishment of being swallowed alive by the earth for rebelling against Moshe and Aharon specifically appropriate for his crime?

Rabbeinu Bechaye explains that Korach erred in seeking to rise to a lofty position for which he was unfit. Therefore, he was punished by being swallowed up by the ground and sent down to the lowest level of Gehinnom (16:33).

Rav Wolf Strickover answers that Korach challenged Moshe and Aharon (16:3), “Why do you exalt yourselves over the congregation of Hashem,” accusing them of arrogance. In reality, the Torah testifies (12:3) that Moshe was the most humble man on earth and viewed himself as no greater than the ground itself. In order to punish him, Korach had to be lowered below Moshe. Since Moshe considered himself equal to the ground, the only choice was for the earth to swallow him up.

Alternatively, the Mishnah in Avos (3:2) teaches that without a leader to make and enforce laws, people would consume and devour one another. Since Korach argued that the entire nation was holy and didn’t need a leader, he was punished by being swallowed up by the ground to hint to the natural consequence of his proposal.

Vayilonu kol adas B’nei Yisroel mimacharas al Moshe v’al Aharon leimor atem hemisem es am Hashem (17:6)

Parshas Korach begins with the tragic revolt led by Korach against Moshe and Aharon in an attempt to question their claims of being Divinely-chosen and ultimately to overthrow their leadership. Moshe suggested that the dispute be resolved by challenging Korach and his 250 followers to prepare incense offerings, which they would offer to Hashem. Aharon would do so as well, and the person whom Hashem truly selected to serve Him would survive, while all of the others would perish.

After Korach refused to back down and accepted the challenge even at the risk of his life and those of his followers, Moshe grew angry and petitioned Hashem not to accept the incense offerings of Korach and his followers. As Moshe had warned, Korach and all of his followers were killed while the offering of Aharon was accepted. The Jewish people reacted by accusing Moshe and Aharon of causing their deaths. This is difficult to understand. Moshe conducted himself with the utmost humility in attempting to dissuade them from their uprising. When this was unsuccessful and with his Divine authority on the line, Moshe was left with no choice but to propose this test, and he warned them of the disastrous results which awaited them. If they ignored his warnings and Hashem punished them, how could Moshe and Aharon be blamed for their deaths?

A student of Rav Yisroel Salanter once approached his saintly teacher. He reverently told Rav Yisroel about a certain Rav who was so righteous that when he became upset by somebody and cursed him, the curse was always fulfilled. Rav Yisroel was far from impressed. He explained that just as we are responsible for causing damage with our hands or actions, so too are we equally accountable for causing damage with our speech.

The student asked Rav Yisroel for a source in the Torah stating that a person is responsible for his speech. Rav Yisroel cited our verse, in which the Jewish people blamed Moshe and Aharon for the deaths of Korach and his followers. He explained that they maintained that it was the prayers of Moshe and Aharon which resulted in this outcome and felt that they must therefore be held accountable. Although they were mistaken, as Moshe and Aharon had no alternative in this situation, we still derive from here that a person is responsible not only for the consequences of his actions, but also of his speech.

We live in a society in which sharp-tongued people are praised and held in high esteem. Although they may occupy the corner office and receive accolades for their witty rebuts, the Torah has a different perspective. One of the 613 commandments is a prohibition against saying something which hurts another person’s feelings (Vayikra 19:33). Although we likely won’t be accused of killing somebody with our speech as were Moshe and Aharon, the Gemora (Bava Metzia 58b) teaches that publicly embarrassing another person is comparable to killing him. The next time we are tempted to roll a sharp line off our tongues as we convince ourselves that it’s only words, we should remember Rav Yisroel’s teaching that words can also kill, and we are held responsible for their effects.

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Parsha Points to Ponder (and sources which discuss them):

1)     The Gemora in Sanhedrin (109b) teaches that although On ben Peles was originally one of the leaders of Korach’s rebellion, his sagacious wife convinced him to withdraw from the dispute. She pointed out that he had nothing to gain from the fight, as even if Korach won, he would be just as subservient to Korach as he currently was to Moshe and Aharon. In what way was her argument considered wise and eye-opening, as it seems to be simply telling him things that were self-evident and that he knew already? (Peninim MiShulchan Gevoha)

2)     The Gemora in Yoma (75a) teaches that the Manna fell at the doorsteps of the righteous, far away from the tents of the wicked, and somewhere in-between for the average. Why wasn’t Moshe able to answer Korach’s argument that he was as righteous as Moshe and Aharon by publicly pointing out that Korach’s Manna fell far from his tent, revealing his true wicked core? (Shevet Mussar 37:22, Ayeles HaShachar Shemos 16:4)

3)     When the Jewish people sinned with the golden calf and the spies, Moshe prayed for their forgiveness. Why didn’t Moshe pray that Korach and his followers should repent or be forgiven as he had done previously, and just the opposite, the Medrash Tanchuma (7) teaches that Moshe prayed that they shouldn’t be given an opportunity to repent? (Darkei HaShleimus)

4)     A non-Levite whose firstborn is a male is obligated to redeem him by giving 5 silver shekels to a Kohen (18:16), a mitzvah known as Pidyon HaBen. In order to betroth a woman, a man must give her one perutah in the presence of witnesses. However, the law is that he may also betroth her by giving her anything, including a non-tangible benefit such as dancing in front of her, which gives her the equivalent pleasure as receiving one perutah. May a first-born son be redeemed from the Kohen only with money, or does giving the equivalent pleasure to a Kohen also suffice as it does to betroth a woman? (Minchas Chinuch 392:6, Har Tzvi, Mas’as HaMelech)

© 2011 by Oizer Alport.