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The Spiritual Life in the Material World

  • The Spiritual Life in the Material World

    Korach, Numbers 16:1−18:32
D'var Torah By: 

The title figure of this week's portion, Korach, is one of four rebels to launch an ill-fated coup d'état against the leadership of Aaron and Moses. Korah repudiates Moses and Aaron's authority, claiming that "all the community are holy" (Numbers 16:3). Moses initiates a contest pitting himself and Aaron against Korah and his followers. Participants will ignite incense to determine which leaders represent God's elect. God is seen to have rejected Korah's claim to holy authority when "a fire went forth from the Eternal and consumed the two hundred and fifty men offering the incense" (Numbers 16:35).

More than a few have observed that Korah's spoken grievance appeals to a sensible reader's notions of fair play. "For all the community are holy, all of them, and the Eternal is in their midst. Why then do you raise yourselves above the Eternal's congregation?"he protests to Moses and Aaron (Numbers 16:3). Indeed, the Torah has already implied that all Israelites may lay claim to holiness: ". . . you shall be to Me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation" (Exodus 19:6).

So what was Korah's big mistake? We could propose many answers: an unbridled lust for power and prestige; a failure to honor God's selection of Moses and Aaron for leadership; arrogance, evident in Korah's dissatisfaction with his already high station in Israelite society. (The man was, after all, a Levite and a first cousin of Moses and Aaron-a person of influence, even without the mantle bestowed on his more illustrious cousins.)

To these customary explanations we could add one more. Korah's fatal flaw was his allegiance to the material over the spiritual. Korah got caught up in the material trappings of power, when the actual job called for acute sensitivity to the spiritual dimension of leadership.

We derive this teaching from a Talmudic legend that identifies Korah as the richest man to depart Egypt in the Exodus. In a classic example of Rabbinic hyperbole, Rabbi Levi taught that it took three hundred mules to carry just the keys to Korah's treasure chambers-and these were keys of leather! (Babylonian Talmud, Sanhedrin 110a). As to the source of his wealth, the same Talmudic tradition suggests that Joseph had stored up treasure in Egypt, some of which fell to Korah; another midrash proposes that Korah had served as Pharaoh's finance minister and thus had access to his riches (B'midbar Rabbah 18:15). To this day, if one wants to exclaim in Yiddish that a person is extremely wealthy, one says that "he is as rich as Korah" (er is reich vi Korach).

Such folklore paints a picture of a man who privileged the material over the spiritual, who related more to possessions than people, and who despite his riches would have made the poorest of Jewish leaders. Make no mistake: Judaism understands and values the world of material things and even money. Our religion discourages asceticism. Judaism urges us not to disengage from the "real world,"but rather to work and earn industriously and then enjoy the fruits of our labor. Jewish law frowns on vows of poverty-in fact, one should not give more than twenty percent of one's income to charity, lest he place his household in a precarious financial state. The paramount mitzvah of tzedakah presupposes that money makes a real difference in the lives of people in need and is essential to the ongoing repair of the world. The way in which our religion consistently downplays concern about a purported afterlife in favor of the pursuit of holiness here in the physical world further attests that Judaism is rooted in the material world.

But there is also the spiritual dimension of human existence-that which Korah neglected. The very story of the Jewish people evinces a religious evolution from worship of the physical to veneration of the spiritual. Beginning with Abraham, who, legend says, shattered his father's idols, through Jacob, who pried a blessing from the night messenger and became Yisrael , "the one who struggled with God . . ." (Genesis 32:29); Moses, who demanded of God, "let me behold Your Presence!" (Exodus 33:18) but whose request was rebuffed; and the Ten Commandments, the second of which forbids graven images (Exodus 20:4-5; Deuteronomy 5:8-9), we have progressed from reliance on the visible to reverence for the hidden. Even our most sacred biblical relic undergoes a transformation from artifact to idea: Jewish law begins as a set of tablets-a one-of-a-kind totem, words literally engraved in stone. Later it becomes a Torah scroll, mere ink on parchment. And, from there, it is transformed into the precept "Take to heart these instructions with which I charge you this day" (Deuteronomy 6:6). So does our faith proceed from stone to parchment to the human heart. Even as we parade the Torah around our congregation with joyful singing, arms outstretched, and affectionate kisses, we adore not the scroll itself nor its finery, but the hallowed words within-the mythic narrative, legislation, and poetry that midrash aptly calls "black fire on white fire" (D'varim Rabbah 3).

For the thoughtful Jew, the spiritual matters at least as much as the material. Think of how many of our most excruciating struggles transpire with intangibles. Are these any less "real"? We call the toll of lost love "heartbreak."We suffer mysterious maladies brought on not by virus or bacteria or injury, but by the dark force of stress. We are as much thought and emotion as we are blood and bone and skin. Grief can bend the back; shame, lower the head; surprise, make the hair stand up on end; rage, simmer within; and joy, warm the soul.

Without cultivating the life of the spirit-without striving to apprehend the invisible, the essential-we become hollow men and women, all flesh and no soul. We become like Korah-obsessed with mere things, unable to attain holiness, unfit for the blessings that attend a "kingdom of priests."

Antoine de Saint-Exupéry said it best in The Little Prince, "And now here is my secret, a very simple secret; it is only with the heart that one can see rightly, what is essential is invisible to the eye" (Orlando, FL: Harcourt, 2000).

How Incense Makes Sense
Davar Acher By: 
Rachel Adler

In Parashat Noach, Moses challenges the Korahites to a strange competition. Each was to take a firepan, set fire in it, and lay incense upon it "before the Eternal," that is, at the entrance to the Tent of Meeting (Numbers 16:17). The incense was compounded from many exotic resins and spices. Yet it was special not simply because it was rare and expensive, but because it was the most ethereal of all the offerings. The incense is a substance used as a metaphor. "Take my prayer as an offering of incense," says the Psalmist (Psalm 141:2). Prayer and incense smoke are intangible. You cannot grasp them, yet you can experience them. Both spiral up to some other place. Both are efforts to communicate with God.

The incense imitated the cloud that covered the Tent of Meeting when the Tabernacle was dedicated (Exodus 40:34-35). Professor Nahum M. Sarna explains, "The function of the Tabernacle was to create a portable Sinai. . . .The cloud is the manifest token of the immediacy of the Divine Presence . . ." (Exodus, TheJPS Torah Commentary [Philadelphia: Jewish Publication Society, 1991], p. 237). The competition, then, is a test of who takes metaphors seriously.

One can imagine Korah saying, "Let's not get rattled by the mere metaphor of a Divine Presence. So we pour some expensive spices on a fire. They smoke. Big deal."Korah does not understand that material things can point toward the insubstantialities of the spirit. So he certainly cannot envision that the incense will summon up the very cloud it imitates. Because Korah cannot extricate himself from the material rewards of power and wealth, he ends not high up at the top, as he had hoped, but very far down, buried in the all-too-solid earth. Thus, one of the many morals of our story is this: we ignore the spiritual dimensions of the material world at our own risk.

Reference Materials: 

Korach, Numbers 16:1–18:32
The Torah: A Modern Commentary, pp. 1,127–1,140; Revised Edition, pp. 1,001 - 1,017
The Torah: A Women's Commentary, pp. 893–914