Erev Shabbat 5 July 2024

Torah portion: Numbers 16:1-18:32   Haftarah: 1 Samuel 11:14-12:22

Theme: “Move away from the tents of these wicked men.” (Num. 16:26)

In this commentary, as in others, I am relying heavily on the writing of Nehama Leibowitz (1905-1997).  The name “Nehama” is translated as ‘solace’ or ‘comfort’ and her books of ‘Studies’ on the Torah have certainly been a source of both to her readers.   I once overheard someone who had been reading one of her books refer to her using masculine pronouns.  I could understand this – her name is not a common one – and the majority of scholarly books written about the Bible have been written by men.  In many Christian denominations it has long been the practice for women to teach children about the Bible in Sunday school while it is only men who climb into the pulpit and preach to the grownups.

Here is Nehama on “All the congregation are holy”, “every one of them” (16:3): “The assertion of individual, selfish ambitions outweighs their group feeling as a “kingdom of priests and holy nation”:  “They interpreted the mission of holiness, the role of ‘chosen people’ with which they had been charged by God, in the sense of conferring on them superiority and privilege, rather than as constituting a call to shoulder extra duties and responsibilities.”[p.183]  On Korah’s ‘ranting’ which “contains the familiar rabble-rousing ingredients of demagogy”, she takes apart the practices with which we are  only  too familiar, e.g.: “Korah stresses the obligations rather than the privileges. Just as the taxpayer only sees the burden imposed on him and not the benefits in the way of health, education, public security and other public services that he enjoys in return, so Korah depicts the Torah to the malcontents as demanding, extorting and giving nothing in return.” [pp.190-191]

 In another part of her commentary, Leibowitz draws a parallel to behaviour with which we are all too familiar. To the question “Why should the Israelites merit instant destruction even if they happened to be standing among Korah’s band?” [p.198 ], Leibowitz answers  that “the Israelites were in the dangerous situation characteristic of many people to this day. They neither agreed with Korah nor actively opposed him but stood aside to see how things would work out.” [p.199] We tell ourselves that if we stand aside and wait for the outcome we cannot be blamed if things do not turn out well.  The flaw in this approach is that if things turn out well we can take no responsibility for the situation. What matters even more is that If things do turn out badly we may ask ourselves, when it is too late, what we might have done to make a difference. Or, rather than admitting our own guilt, we might look around for a scapegoat on whom to lay the blame.

For Reflection and Discussion:  Call to mind any situation in which you have found yourself in the modern equivalent either of “standing among Korah’s band” or of “standing aside” to wait and see what happens.  How did you behave and how did you reflect on your behaviour when you looked back on it?” How will you act in the future?

Bibliography: Leibowitz, Nehama, Studies in Bemidbar (Numbers),trans. Aryeh Newman; Article on Leibowitz on Wikipedia Leibowitz

This week’s Parasha Commentary was prepared by
Anne Morton, Canada, Bat Kol Alumna: 2010

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