Parashat Korach – Erev Shabbat 26 June 2020
Week of 21-27 June 2020
Torah portion: Numbers 16:1-18:32 Haftarah: 1 Samuel 11:14-12:22
Theme: Crisis and Clarification
Drama and “miracles” lend weight and urgency to this rather short parashah. It recounts the most serious rebellion that Moses and Aaron faced on their forty-year journey through the desert. The rebellion was a two-pronged attack on institutions that were crucial to the founding generations of this people: leadership and priesthood.
Korach, a Levite like Moses and Aaron, challenges the authority of their leadership as an issue of holiness: “all the community are holy, all of them, and the Lord is in their midst. Why then do you raise yourselves above the Lord’s congregation”(16:3)? Moses’ spontaneous reaction affirms the source of his authority: “he falls on his face,” in humble prostration, an attitude of prayer. He reminds Korach of his own God-given Levitical vocation – set apart from the community, given access to the Lord, assigned duties in the Tabernacle, and called to minister to the community; does Korach seek priesthood too?! By this attack, Korach is challenging not only the authority of Moses and Aaron, but that of the Torah and ultimately of God (cf. Plaut, 860). Moses demands that the whole community gather in the morning for the Lord’s response. Korach, and the 250 chieftains of the community who support him, are to come to the entrance of the Tent of Meeting equipped with fire pans and incense, as will Moses and Aaron.
The second challenge comes from Dathan and Abiram, Reubenites, who may have been influenced by Korach’s behavior. Moses summons them, but they refuse to come. They firmly reject Moses’ leadership, accusing him of deception by leading them out to die in the wilderness, concealing his real purpose. Moses turns to the Lord in exasperation, affirming that he has not wronged any of them.
The community gathers. Moses and Aaron, ever the mediators, fall on their faces, pleading with God not to annihilate the community, since one man is responsible for this situation. God, through Moses, tells the people to move away from the tents of Korach, Dathan, and Abiram. The earth opens and swallows the three and all that belongs to them: fire consumes their 250 followers, and a plague kills 14,700 before it is checked by Aaron’s ritual of expiation. So concludes the first of the “miracles” that has destroyed the rebels and affirmed the primacy of Moses and Aaron (Etz Hayim, 860). The firepans are hammered into plating for the altar as a reminder of the ministry reserved to the priesthood of Aaron.
In the calm that follows those dramatic events, the second “miracle” authenticates “the primacy of the Levites for the divine service” (Etz Hayim, 860). Among the staffs of all of the chieftains, Aaron’s staff alone sprouts with blossoms and almonds, confirming God’s choice of him as priest. The parasha closes (chapter 18) with the reflection on the various aspects of Aaron’s ministry, which establishes and models the role of priesthood for generations to come.
For Reflection and Discussion: 1. The Haftarah reflects on the role of leadership (cf. 12:14); what have Korach, Dathan and Abiram not understood? 2. How are leadership and priesthood complementary?
Bibliography: Plaut, W.G., ed. The Torah: A Modern Commentary (New York: 1981); Lieber, D. L., ed. Etz Hayim (New York: 2001).