Korach (Weekly Torah Portion)

Warning or Embrace? (5777/2017)

What do you see in this painting? A warning or an embrace? View it in the light of Korach’s story.

Korach, Datan, Aviram, On and 250 very important people gang up on chief lawmaker Moshe and high priest Aharon. Publicly, they challenge their leaders, saying “How dare you lord it over us, pretending you’re holier than we are!” they say.

Moshe proposes a test. Aharon, Korach and the 250 VIPS will all gather at the mishkan with offerings of incense. God will choose which offering to accept.

The 250 challengers come ready to participate. But Korach himself arrives with a new and bigger group of challengers.

Suddenly, the Divine Presence appears to the entire community. God tells Moshe, “I’ve had it with these complainers. Tell everyone else to move aside, and I’ll get rid of these awful people in an instant!”

The ground splits open, swallowing up Korach, Datan, Aviram, their families, their houses and their property. A fire flashes out of the mishkan and burns up the 250 VIPs holding copper incense pans.

Only the incense pans remain.

Elazar, son of Aharon, gathers the pans, and reworks them into a decorative copper plating for the incense altar. Elazar’s intent is to post a warning: “If you challenge my family, nothing will be left of you but your dishes.”

Some of our more modern Hasidic commentators brush off Elazar’s intent. The copper plates, they say, re-integrate the challengers into the community. The new altar presents an artist’s vision of a community that works through conflict. A community that is not inflamed or consumed by its problems.

Here our Hasidic teachers echo the Book of Psalms, which includes eleven psalms written by the Children of Korach. Though their name evokes a rebellious youth band, the Children of Korach were popular. They sang about their love for God, their hope for protection, the mixed anxiety and joy at a wedding. Their artistic lyrics gave voice to the inner life of the people. They were no longer outsiders – they were insiders.

You don’t need to be a professional artist to pursue healing through the arts. Many of us pursue it every Shabbat. We cook our most flavorful meal. We set a table with our most beautiful tablecloth. We sing, even if we’re not good at it. Surrounded by beauty, we turn our thoughts away from problems. We may even pray for those who hurt us.

This Shabbat, how will you heal? Can you embrace others, even if they challenge you? Can you speak about common human experiences? Share simple arts of food and song? Can you live into your vision of a healed world?

Watercolor painting by Laura Duhan Kaplan, 2016


Reflecting on Our God-Image (5773/2013)

Parshat Korach weaves together several stories in which people challenge Moshe and God pushes back at them with anger. After the anger subsides, God showers people with compromises. The stories portray an anthropomorphic God, expressing human emotions of anger, regret, and kindness. How shall we understand such frankly anthropomorphic teachings about God?

One bat mitzvah student wrote, “Korach, Datan and Aviram don’t appreciate how hard Moshe’s job is. He represents the people to God. When Moshe gets upset, God does too.” In other words, God receives regular factual and emotional updates from Moshe, and acts on this information. Sometimes, in Torah, when we see God acting out human emotions, God is intervening as Moshe might. On this interpretation, God is like a human being, highly evolved on the empathy scale.

The Zohar, classic work in Jewish mysticism, says that God appears differently in every generation, depending on the cultural and historical needs of humanity. On this view, perhaps the Israelites in Korach’s generation were like adolescents, increasingly free but without a mature sense of responsibility. God adopts the guise of a frustrated parent, acting with genuine emotion. On this interpretation, God is an energy that helps us grow, appearing differently depending on the guidance we need.

Sometimes it is difficult to look at ourselves objectively enough to set an agenda for inner growth. Reflection on theology and spirituality can help us see ourselves. Do we, for example, think of God as energy, witness, conscience, inner parent, or higher mind? Our image of God may hold a sense of what we yearn for in our lives. If we can articulate that to ourselves, we can begin to set an agenda, and pursue it through introspection, problem-solving, and practice.

Image: essex1.com


Rainbow Revolution (5772/2012)

When you want to change a law, how should you proceed? Torah commentators often contrast the tactics of Korach & friends with those of the daughters of Tzeleophechad.

Korach, Datan and Aviram, members of the Levite tribe, want to participate in the priesthood. They frame their request as a personal attack on Moshe and Aharon. “Who do you think you are?” they ask. When Moshe speaks reasonably, inviting Datan and Aviram to negotiate, they refuse to meet. When God appears, the appearance reflects the emotional tone they set. God’s presence manifests as an angry natural force shaking the ground.

The five daughters of Tzelophechad, who have no brothers, want to keep their father’s land in the family. They request a revision in inheritance law allowing daughters to inherit when a man has no sons. In front of a formal public assembly, they make a rational case, focusing on the legal issue. Moshe brings their case to God. When God speaks, God’s words reflect the emotional tone set by the daughters. Recognizing the need for justice and change, God articulates a more inclusive law.

The ongoing Rainbow Revolution has followed the model of Tzelophechad’s daughters. The movement has relied on public demonstration, reasoned education, and legal challenge, even in response to violence against LGBTQ people. In response, many liberal religious leaders have taken the question to God. To those leaders, God has appeared in a loving guise, saying, “Follow your Talmudic teacher Ben Azzai: every human being is created in the image of God. Create inclusive, welcoming and just communities.”

Join us this Shabbat at Or Shalom as we celebrate our LGBTQ committee with a special aliyah, prayer for diversity and kiddish lunch.


Leadership Techniques (5770/2010)

In Parshat Korach, Korach and two fellow tribal leaders challenge the leadership of Moshe and Aharon. Tempers and events get out of hand, as the confrontation becomes dramatic and dangerous. Thus, Parshat Korach offers an opportunity to reflect on our styles of leading, confronting, redirecting, and effecting change.

Traditional commentators tend to write about what Korach does wrong. He confronts Moshe in front of all the people. He asks for prominent responsibilities for himself, using the disingenuous argument “all the people are holy.” He starts a dialogue with Moshe but spurns Moshe’s response.  Through it all, he speaks with arrogance and sarcasm.

Modern commentators tend to write about what Moshe does wrong. He “falls on his face” – that is, he becomes so emotional that he fails to see the person behind the complaint. He doesn’t set up a meeting to understand what drives Korach and his followers. He doesn’t try to broker a compromise.

Only a few commentators write about what Korach does right: he gathers support and speaks up. Only a few write about what Moshe and Aharon do right: they continue to take responsibility even as the conflict escalates, standing in the middle to demand that everyone calm down.

Taken together, our commentators offer many good insights for solving group problems. Confront a person privately. Be honest about what you want and why. Remember that dialogue is two-way. Speak respectfully. Listen carefully and try to understand the root of a problem. Wait until everyone calms down. And then, consider a compromise.


Conflict and Healing (5778/2008)

Parshat Korach is a story of challenge, conflict, and – generations later – healing.

Korach is a rabble-rouser. He challenges the way Moshe runs the sanctuary. Two groups of priests have a “battle of the incense pans” to decide who is right. Moshe’s group wins – their incense offerings are accepted. Korach’s group loses – they are swallowed up by the ground in an earthquake. When the conflict calms down, the silver and copper pans that Korach and his group used are refashioned into beautiful handmade works of art. They are integrated into the sanctuary, giving it a whole new look.

Tradition teaches that the dropped threads of the Korach family continued to be woven into Jewish spiritual expression. The descendents of Korach were skilled musicians and lyricists. Seven of the psalms in the Biblical book of Psalms begin with the phrase “by the Korach family.” One of them, Psalm 42, explicitly yearns for wholeness and connection:

Deep calls out to deep/ In your towering waterfall/ Waves and billows drench me

As the hart thrills for the fresh brook/ So do I thrill for you/ When will I enter your presence?

My hope is yet in you/ One day I will thank you/ When in you I find wholeness

In the daytime you summon your kindness/ And at night you sing to me/ A prayer for my life to be living/ So I will rise in the morning and sing to you.


Who Should Get the Ten Per Cent? (5767/2007)

In the time of our earliest ancestors, a tithe is a gift offered to God or a priest, in exchange for a blessing. When our ancestor Avram receives a blessing from Melchizedek, a priest of God Most High, Avram gives Melchizedek one tenth of everything (Gen. 14:20).  Our ancestor Ya’akov vows to God, “If you bring me back safely to my father’s house, I will give you a tenth of all I own” (Gen. 28:22).  In Parshat Korach, when a group of Levites complain to Moshe and Aharon that they too want to be priests, they receive a compromise.  Moshe does not grant them the right to offer sacrifices, but he allows them to guard the mishkan and be supported through tithes (Num. 18:24).

In the years of the Israelite kingdom, the tithe becomes a blessing offered to the community at large. Torah teaches that when a capital city is built with a central place of worship, each family should set aside a tenth of their farm’s profit to buy food and drink so they can enjoy religious festivals.  And every three years, each town should bring a tenth of the property of all its inhabitants to the capital city for distribution to all who have no land: Levites, immigrants, widows, and orphans (Deut. 14:26-29).

What should you do with your extra 10%? Reward those who bless you? Support nonprofit institutions? Create joyous gatherings for friends and family? Feed the hungry?  Challenging as it may be, Torah teaches that all are obligatory mitzvot.


A Future After Conflict (5766/2006)

The fire pans belonging to the men who committed a mortal sin have been presented before God and thus sanctified, so Elazar shall make them into beaten plates to cover the altar.  Let this be a sign for the Israelites.  (Devarim/Numbers 17:3)

Korach the Levite speaks against Moshe’s decision to appoint only one family from among the Levite tribe to the priesthood: the family of Aharon, the brother of Moshe.  Moshe then invites Korach and other Levites who wish to be priests to take a test: bring fire-pans to the altar and see if God chooses their fires.  During the test, God chooses to send a flame that burns up Korach and the other challengers.

The Torah states explicitly that the sons of Korach did not die (Bamidbar/Numbers 26:11).  It seems Korach left a positive legacy in Jewish tradition. Korach’s fire pan is made into a covering for the altar. And the sons of Korach reappear in the book of Psalms as the authors of eleven beautiful Psalms, their topics ranging from lamentation to wedding to national pride.

What kind of a sign is this for the Israelites?  Perhaps it teaches that conflict and challenge are not inherently bad, but can eventually lead to change for the good.  And that a new generation can observe their parents’ lives and make different choices. And that a disruption made through words can be healed through uplifting words.  And that atonement is holy, even if it comes generations after the original conflict.


You May Have A Point (5765/2005)

Adapted from Rabbi Neal Joseph Loevinger

Korach, a cousin of Moshe and Aharon, leads a group in challenging their leadership.  Ultimately the challenge is defeated. The Torah presents the group’s challenge and Moshe’s response:

“You have gone too far!  The whole community is holy, every one of them, and the Lord is with them. Why then do you set yourselves above God’s assembly?”  When Moshe heard this, he fell face down.” (Bamidbar/Numbers 16:3-4)

Rabbi Shneur Zalman of Liadi writes that Moshe fell on his face because he really had to ask himself if Korach had a valid point.  “Moshe, our teacher, had a feeling that maybe they were asking him this from On High, and Korach was only a messenger. Thus, he first fell on his face for self-reflection, to see if in truth he had any arrogance. After he thoroughly checked himself, and found no trace of pride, he understood that Korah was not a messenger from On High, but was a divider.”

In the rabbinic tradition, Moshe is the archetypal good man, and Korach the very symbol of selfishness and evil.  Shneur Zalman, however, resists this stereotyping.  He reminds us that all people, even Korach, are made in the Divine Image. Even Korach could have been the agent of holy truth.

Some people may be truly bad, but we must always be open to hearing the truth from any source. Who knows–we might be in the presence of a “divider,” or we might be in the presence of “messenger from On High.”

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