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Summer Heat and Inner Warmth

  • Summer Heat and Inner Warmth

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

Although the summer seems to be the season of rest and tranquillity, in truth, every reader of the Torah begins this time with a boiling conflict. Parashat Korach, which arrives every year as the blistering heat rolls in, has its own kind of heat-the heat of an overwhelming challenge to the order at hand.

Korach and his band, jealous of Moses and Aaron, fire a shot across the bow of the greatest leader in Jewish history Rav-lachem, they tell Moses and Aaron: "You have gone too far!" (Numbers 16:3) What is their claim? They maintain that Moses, in asserting his leadership, has deprived the congregation of their proper roles. "For all the community is holy," Korach protests (Numbers 16:3), as he demands his band's piece of the leadership pie.

Summer is the season of competition and challenge. From ultra-competitive sports to wild parties to angry riots, people do crazy things when the world heats up. And Korach is no different: He picks a fight with someone who clearly has God on his side. In the end, Korach and his band lose it all in this match: "The earth opened its mouth and swallowed them up." (Numbers 16:32)

But the telling moment in this parashah is found not in Korach's complaint nor in God's punishment, but in Moses' response. Threatened by Korach and his band, Moses fell on his face, as the Torah says: Vayipol al-panav. (Numbers 16:4) Moses, perhaps still prone, in effect replies to Korach and his band: We'll see in the morning just who is with God and who is holy. On initial reading, falling on the ground and waiting until tomorrow in the face of a serious challenge does not appear to be prudent crisis management. But our commentators tell us otherwise.

Saadiah Gaon (tenth century, Babylonia) suggests Moses has a motive: The commentator explains that Moses falls on his face in order to seek a vision from God. After all, every great leader needs a mentor for times like this. By freeing himself from the moment of crisis and seeking good advice, Moses is able to rise above whatever human anger he feels and respond in an appropriate, disciplined way to the momentous situation at hand.

Rashbam, Rabbi Samuel ben Meir (eleventh century, France), agrees with the basic idea of Moses' asking God for help but suggests that Moses prays for guidance so that he might discover what to say to Korach. As we know, the Hebrew word that means to pray, lehitpallel, is reflexive. Thus, Rashbam indicates, Moses is seeking counsel with himself. In prayer, he is searching his deepest recesses to find the strength he needs-the answer he needs-for this disturbing moment.

Midrash Bemidbar Rabbah asks a pointed question about Moses' odd behavior: "What did he see to say 'in the morning'? [Numbers 16:5] Moses said: 'Perhaps out of eating and drinking they said this. Maybe between now and then, they will do teshuvah [repentance].'" Far from being a shrinking violet here, Moses is thoughtful and compassionate. He sees the good and the potential for repentance, even in as motley a crew as Korach and his friends are. And so, he waits to see what will be.

Our commentaries point out to us three possible reactions inherent in Moses' one set of actions. First, when life overwhelms us, some of us seek the answer from a "higher-up." We find spiritual guidance from someone we trust, we ask for a vision of what we should do, and the rest resolves itself. Others among us choose deep prayer and inner searching to help us seek a solution. The third alternative is to let the challenge stay with us for a bit, to let us absorb it, until we have the courage and knowledge to deal with it appropriately. Just by waiting, we may allow the problem to resolve itself.

These are mighty lessons of leadership because they indicate three powerful sources of strength to help us undergo and vanquish our own personal tests: trusted spiritual guidance, internal prayerful search, and thoughtful temporal perspective. In the hottest time of the year, in the hottest conflict in our Torah, comes good advice for the tough choices we each face daily.

Take a Moment to Examine the Ideal
Davar Acher By: 
Lori Marx-Rubiner

As I write this, it is Election Day, and I again find it a challenge to discern what each candidate actually stands for. Reflecting on Parashat Korach, one sees that playing dirty in politics is not per se a result of TV advertising or the immorality of the press. But what does the parashah tell us about leadership?

A quick review:
Korach is a member of the tribe of Levi--a scholar and a prophet--who challenges the authority of Moses and Aaron. Along with Dathan and Abiram and a group of 250 men, Korach claims that the entire community is holy and that Moses and Aaron do not have the authority to be self-proclaimed leaders. (Numbers 16:5) Moses' response is: Let's all get together tomorrow, offer our incense to God, and let God decide. Moses then turns to Korach and says: You especially shouldn't be acting like this. As a Levite, you are already chosen for a special relationship with God.

The next day everyone gathers together--Korach, Dathan, and Abiram, the 250 supporters, and the entire community. After they had all gathered, God instructs Moses and Aaron to move away so that God could destroy everyone. But Moses urges God to spare the people. God agrees, and once the Israelites had removed themselves, the earth opens and swallows up Dathan, Abiram, and Korach and all their households. Then fire consumes the other 250 men. When the Israelites come to Moses the next day to complain against him and Aaron, God is again prepared to kill off all the Israelites. But Moses once again intercedes on their behalf. By the end, 14,700 men have died of a plague, all on account of Korach.

God is clear about who the designated leaders of the people are here. Since during our wandering in the desert, we weren't a democratic community, what in Parashat Korach can guide us today?

Issues to Consider

  1. What was wrong with Korach's challenge to Moses and Aaron? How might it have put the community in jeopardy? What might have happened had God not intervened? Did Korach deserve to die for his actions? Did his supporters?
  2. The rabbis teach that Korach was punished because he was motivated by personal gain. Indeed, when a large group wanders through the desert, it is helpful for them to have a clearheaded, well-supported leader. It is easy to see how Korach's rebellion jeopardized the well-being of the entire community.
  3. How does Moses handle this situation? What does this say about him as a leader? What traits does he exhibit that are valued in a leader?
  4. When Moses was first challenged by Korach, he "fell on his face." (Numbers 16:4) Some commentaries teach that Moses' first response was to pray. Later in the story, God is prepared to kill the entire people because of the rebellion begun by Korach. But Moses pleads for them and God listens to Moses' plea and destroying only those who were actually involved. In contrast to Korach, it is clear that Moses' first concern is for the people he leads, and even when they are difficult, he advocates on their behalf.
  5. What can we who are without God-appointed leaders learn from Parashat Korach about how to choose our elected leaders and those who head our synagogues and organizations? What kind of leaders should we look for? What makes an ideal leader? What traits should we avoid? What traits are ideal, and how are they reflected in the parashah?
6/19/1999
Topics: 
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