Wednesday, June 13, 2007

Parshas Korach

ויקח קרח בן יצהר בן קהת בן לוי (16:1)

בן יצהר בן קהת בן לוי - ולא הזכיר בן יעקב שבקש רחמים על עצמו שלא יזכר שמו על מחלוקתם

שנא' ובקהלם אל תחד כבודי (רש"י)

The Torah refers to Korach as the son of Yitzhar, who was the son of Kehas, who was the son of Levi. Rashi explains that the Torah doesn’t continue the family tree by stating that Levi was the son of Yaakov because Yaakov prayed that his name not be mentioned in association with Korach’s rebellion. As Korach was four generations removed from Yaakov, who wasn’t even alive at the time of this episode, what difference did it make to Yaakov whether his name was used in conjunction with Korach’s ancestry?

The Shemen HaTov explains that Yaakov’s life was full of difficulties and struggles. Even in the womb, he fought with his wicked twin Eisav to emerge first and claim the birthright. When he subsequently purchased the birthright from Eisav and used it to receive their father Yitzchok’s blessings, Eisav wanted to kill him, and Yaakov had to flee for his life. He spent the next 20 years with his wicked uncle Lavan, with whom he also struggled as Lavan repeatedly tricked and deceived him. He returned to Canaan and again had to pacify Eisav, only to be confronted with the attack on his daughter Dina by his non-Jewish neighbors and the jealousy of his sons toward his beloved Yosef.

In short, Yaakov’s was a life fraught with strife and struggle. He accepted this as his Divinely-ordained lot and engaged in these disputes solely for the sake of Heaven. Yet when Yaakov prophetically saw that his great-great-grandson would engage in a dispute purely for the sake of his personal honor, he feared that people would assume that Korach was merely continuing in the aggressive, confrontational path which he had inherited from Yaakov. As nothing could be further from the truth, Yaakov prayed that his name not be used in association with Korach’s genealogy in order to emphasize that Korach’s selfish fight had no origins in the struggles engaged in by his ancestor Yaakov for the sake of Heaven.


המעט כי העליתנו מארץ זבת חלב ודבש להמיתנו במדבר כי תשתרר עלינו גם השתרר (16:13)

The word with the highest gematria (numerical value) in the entire Torah appears in Parshas Korach. What is it, and what is the significance of this fact? The word תשתרר is only five letters long but possesses a whopping numerical value of 1500. As there are no coincidences in the Torah, the Paneiach Raza explains why specifically this word has such a large value.

After failing to sway Korach to withdraw from the dispute, Moshe approached Dasan and Aviram, Korach’s cohorts in leading the rebellion, in a final attempt to quell the revolt. They brazenly rebuffed his peaceful overtures and accused him of תשתרר – seeking to make himself great and dominate the Jewish people. As such, it is only fitting that the very word which connotes greatness and domination should be the word with the largest gematria in the entire Torah!


ויחר למשה מאד ויאמר אל ד' אל תפן אל מנחתם (16:15)

Our parsha 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. Moshe suggests that the dispute be resolved by challenging Korach and his 250 followers to prepare incense offerings, which they will offer to Hashem. Aharon will do so as well, and the person whom Hashem truly desires and selects to serve Him will survive, while all of the others will perish.

After Korach refuses to back down and accepts the challenge even at the risk of his life and those of his followers, Moshe grows angry and petitions Hashem not to accept the incense offerings of Korach and his followers. As doing so would be tantamount to substantiating Korach’s blasphemous and heretical arguments, why was it necessary for Moshe to pray that they not be accepted? Wasn’t it obvious that Hashem wouldn’t do something which would cause such catastrophic consequences?

The following story will help us to appreciate the answer given to our question. Rav Shalom Schwadron was once praying at the Kosel when he was startled by a loud noise. Turning around, he saw two men wearing leather and chains who had just pulled up behind him on a motorcycle.

One man took out a pen and paper and scribbled a note, which he showed to his friend. After his friend nodded his approval, he folded up the paper and placed it in one of the cracks in the Kosel. The men returned to their motorcycle and sped off with a bang. Rav Schwadron was curious as to what these two ostensibly non-spiritual men had written, when a gust of wind suddenly blew their poorly-placed paper straight to his feet. He picked up the paper and read, “Please Hashem, Maccabi Tel Aviv (a sports team) for the league championship,” a prayer which was apparently subsequently answered.

In light of this story, we can now understand the answer given by the Alter of Kelm. He teaches that our question is based on a fundamental lack of appreciation of the power of heartfelt prayer. We live in a society which believes that a person must be at the highest levels of piety for his prayers to be answered, and that we should “bother” Hashem only to pray about matters of great import.

Judaism, on the other hand, believes what Dovid HaMelech wrote (Tehillim 145:18) קרוב ד' לכל קראיו לכל אשר יקראהו באמת – Hashem is close to all those who call out to Him genuinely. Dovid doesn’t differentiate between the righteous and the wicked; just the opposite, he stresses that Hashem is close to everybody who prays to Him sincerely.

Moshe knew that with their lives on the line, Korach and his followers, heretics that they were, would pray for the acceptance of their incense offerings with tremendous fervor and intent, and had no choice but to counter their powerful prayers with an even more potent one of his own. Moshe understood that it doesn’t matter what the subject of the petition is. Heartfelt prayer about whatever is important to a person, whether sports or even the deposition of Hashem’s hand-picked prophet and leader, brings him close to Hashem, who is likely to answer such prayers in the affirmative, a lesson we should remember the next time that we open a siddur.


ולא יהיה כקרח וכעדתו (17:5)

After Korach’s rebellion is quashed and the doubts he raised about the legitimacy of the leadership of Moshe and Aharon are erased, the Torah teaches that there will never again be an episode like Korach and his assembly. How is this to be understood?

Although in a literal sense many commentators understand this verse as a Biblical prohibition against engaging in machlokes (disputes), Rav Chaim Soloveitchik offered a homiletic interpretation with a lesson that we would do well to internalize.

In the rebellion led by Korach and his followers, their position was 100% wrong, without any legitimacy whatsoever. The position of Moshe and Aharon, against whom they were fighting, was revealed by Hashem to be 100% correct. Rav Chaim suggested that our verse may be understood as a Divine guarantee that there will never again be a dispute in which one side is completely correct and the other is absolutely in error.

When we disagree with our spouses, coworkers, families, and friends, each side all too often falls into the trap of assuming that his position is completely justified and engages in a campaign of “proving” to the other side the absolute absurdity of their opinion. If we remember the promise of the Torah that there will never again be such a one-sided disagreement as that of Moshe and Korach, it will be much easier for us to see and understand the logic of those around us, which will naturally result in much happier and more peaceful resolutions for everybody.


ולבני לוי הנה נתתי כל מעשר בישראל לנחלה חלף עבדתם אשר הם עבדים את עבדת אהל מועד (18:21)

The Torah stresses that the Levites should have no portion or inheritance in the land of Israel. In lieu of a share in the land, Hashem rewarded them with the agricultural tithes which the other Jews are obligated to give to them in exchange for the Divine service that they performed in the Beis HaMikdash. However, the Gemora teaches that they were divided into 24 groups known as “mishmaros.” Each week, one of these groups would serve on behalf of all of the others, with a new group working each week, such that they had a 24-week rotation.

Further, each of the mishmaros was subdivided such that its members only worked on one day of the week in which that mishmar’s turn fell. If each individual Levite worked only one day every 24 weeks, or two days annually, why couldn’t they receive a portion in the land of Israel which they could work to support themselves like other tribes, and ascend to work in the Temple at their designated times?

Rav Meir Simcha answers that this question is predicated on our inability to appreciate the tremendous sanctity and holiness which was required to work in the Beis HaMikdash, the place where Hashem’s Presence continuously rested and was palpable. Serving Him in such a Holy place couldn’t be done in the haphazard manner in which many people perform their jobs. The kedusha (holiness) of the Temple left no room for errors or distractions (and certainly not the ringing of cell phones!). As such, it required six months of preparation and working on oneself for a Levite to reach the level of piety and sanctity necessary for him to serve properly in Hashem’s Presence for 24 hours!


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 eye-opening, as it seems to be simply telling him things that were self-evident and that he knew already? (Birkas Peretz, Yirah V’Daas, Noam HaMussar, Derech Sicha)

2) Until now, whenever the Jewish people sinned, such as with the golden calf and the spies, Moshe always prayed for their forgiveness. Why didn’t Moshe pray that Korach and his followers should be forgiven as he had done previously, and just the opposite, the Medrash teaches that he prayed that they shouldn’t be given an opportunity to repent? (Rabbeinu Bechaye, Darkei HaShleimus)

3) The Rambam writes (Hilchos Yesodei HaTorah 8:1) that one shouldn’t believe in the prophecy of Moshe because of signs which he performed, which were only performed due to the needs of the moment and not to prove his prophecy. As examples, he cites the splitting of the Reed Sea, bringing forth water from the rock, and causing the ground to open up and swallow Korach. In his commentary on the Mishnah (Perek Cheilek), the Rambam writes that the 8th principle of Jewish belief is that Moshe received the Torah from Hashem. He adds that Moshe established this concept by stating (16:28) that the ground would open up to swallow Korach and his followers to prove the Divine origins of his prophecy. How can this be reconciled with the Rambam’s opinion that none of the miracles performed by Moshe, including opening the ground to swallow Korach, were for the purpose of establishing our belief in his prophecy? (Chavatzeles HaSharon)

4) 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 ground (16:32-33) for rebelling against Moshe and Aharon specifically appropriate for his crime? (Rabbeinu Bechaye, Imrei Daas)

5) After the leader of each tribe gave a staff with his name written on it to Moshe, Moshe placed them in the Mishkan. The next day, only Aharon’s staff had blossomed, sprouting ripe almonds, thereby proving his legitimacy as Kohen Gadol (17:21-24). Why didn’t Hashem initially instruct Moshe to do so to prove that Korach was wrong, which would have quelled the rebellion and saved much destruction? (Paneiach Raza)

6) After Aharon’s right to serve as Kohen Gadol was finally established and proven, the Torah details (18:8-19) many of the gifts which are given to the Kohanim, of which there are a total of 24 (Avos 6:6). How many of them can you name?


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