Temple Beth Sholom – Torah Study July 9, 2016: Korah (Numbers 16:1 – 18:32) (p. 315 JPS, p. 1126 old Plaut)

Mike Rubin


  • Theme: How does one connect with (interact with, gain access to) the Divine? [or How do Jews connect with (interact with, gain access to) the Divine?]
    1. Do we need Priests to connect with (interact with, gain access to) the Divine?
    2. Why was the institution of the Priesthood established in the Torah? Do Jews need Priests?
    3. Why don’t we have Priests today?
    4. Will we need Priests in the future?
    5. What does being holy mean?
    6. Who is Holy?
    7. Are some holier than others, and can those others act as intermediaries to the Divine for us lesser souls?
  • Contextual background: The Korah rebellion takes place immediately after parashah Shelah-Lekha where God tells the people they will be punished with 40 years in the wilderness for not rejecting the skeptical intelligence of the ten scouts sent to the promised land, and no one over 20 years of age will live to reside in the promised land.  This puts the people in a mood of utter frustration with what seems like the failed leadership of Moses, and ripe for rebellion due to what appeared to them to be Moses’ and God’s false promises. And rebellion there was ….
  • Korah is viewed by most commentators as a weaving together of two different rebellion stories, (1) one is the Korah rebellion with two hundred and fifty “chieftains of the congregation, prominent ones of the assembly, people of repute.” and (2) two is Dathan, Abiram and On, descendants of Reuben.   Friedman’s “The Bible with Resources Revealed” shows how the two stories were cleverly weaved together into one.
  • Reading: Numbers: 16:1 – 35.    Numbers 17:6 – 15.  Numbers 17:27.   Numbers 18:1-7.   Numbers 18:19.  Copy of the reading is an excerpt from Friedman’s “The Bible with Sources Revealed” and is Friedman’s own translation of the Hebrew and shows in different colors the portion of Korah that stems from the P (Priestly) source (which chronicles the Korah rebellion) and the portion that stems from the J source (which chronicles the Reubenite rebellion) and the R (redactor) edits that blend the sources together.
  • Traditional View of Korah: Korah is universally criticized as a rebel who sought to displace Aaron and gain priestly power for himself. He is condemned for using democratic rhetoric, and pseudo-Godly words,  to appeal to the crowd in the typical fashion of a demagogue.  [Even by favorite commentator, Rabbi Jonathan Sacks consistently takes this view.]
    1. Who are the winners and who are the losers in the Korah parashah (Moses?, Aaron & the Aaronide priesthood?, Korah & the two hundred and fifty “chieftains of the congregation, prominent ones of the assembly, people of repute” who followed him?, the Reubenites?, the Levites?, the people of Israel?)?
    2. Is Korah a villain as we have made him out to be? Is he a hero?  Why?
  • Rubin’s proposition: Korah was an early warrior for the kind of Judaism we embrace today, rebelling against the establishment of a priestly institution which has a monopoly upon access to the Divine, and espousing a more personal religion where everyone is viewed as holy and access to the Divine is direct and intimate rather than through intermediaries. Numbers: 16:3 “You have gone too far!  All the community are holy, all of them, and [Hashem] is in their midst.  Why then do you raise yourselves above [Hashem’s) congregation?”
    1. While Korah is painted the villain in our parashah and by our commentators, there is much evidence that Korah had a favorable following that lasted through the codification of the TANAKH (the Hebrew Bible). The prophet Samuel was a descendent of Korah (see I Chronicles 6:16).  Numerous of our psalms bear the heading “For the Sons of Korah” (See Psalms 42-49, 84-85, 87-88).
  • There has always been a tension in Judaism, as there is in almost all religions, between institutional ritualistic religion and the charismatics, those who seek spirituality by some sort of direct connection with the Divine. This tension is represented in part in Judaism by the long line of Prophets who received direct revelations from the Divine, and who condemned the corrupt ritualistic behavior going in the Temple, led by the priests.
  • Max Weber (1864-1920), perhaps the all-time most famous sociologist, wrote in “Sociology of Religion” that religious beliefs begin from the work of skillful, charismatic individuals, who seem endowed with divine spirit, but their actions become transformed over time into systematic, church-based religion, moving from charismatic authority into traditional authority. (See Wikipedia article on Sociology of Religion). Korah was rebelling against this transformation that was going on from a Moses led religion to a cult of priests, headed by Aaron.
    1. Weber further generalizes that the priesthood of a religion is often part of the elite. All too often, they become corrupt and oppressive.  A prophet then emerges to overthrow or reform the priesthood.  The prophet is often from the non-elite classes of society, a democratizing force. (see burtonbeyond.com/id23.html)
    2. See Isaiah 1:10-18: “What need have I of all your sacrifices? Says the Lord.  …  Who asked that of you?   …  Your new moons and fixed seasons fill me with loathing.  …  Cease to do evil.  Learn to do good.  Devote yourselves to justice; Aid the wronged.  Uphold the rights of the orphan; Defend the cause of the widow.  Come, let us reach an understanding.”
    3. See Micah 6: 7-9: “Would the Lord be pleased with thousands of rams, with myriads of streams of oil?  Shall I give my first-born for my transgression, the fruit of my body for my sins?  It hath been told thee, O Man, what is good, And what the Lord doth require of thee:  Only to do justly, and to love mercy, and to walk humbly with thy God, Then will your name achieve wisdom.”
    4. Judaism always had an echo of the democratic notion of a direct connection, direct access between individuals and the Divine. Moses himself was a prophet, one who received a direct revelation.
    5. Aaron and Miriam criticized Moses in earlier in Numbers 12:2 (B”Haalot’cha) for seeming to monopolize access to the Divine. “Has [Hashem] spoken only through Moses?  Has [Hashem] not spoken through us as well?” Miriam was punished with temporary leprosy for this criticism. This criticism also came after a disaster – the incident of the quail where myriads died from a severe plague brought on by God.
    6. B”Haalot’cha also provides us clear instances of other individuals being able to commune directly with the Divine. See Numbers 11: 16-18:  “Gather for me seventy of Israel’s elders … I will draw upon the spirit that is on you and put it upon them; they shall share the burden of the people with you, and you shall not bear it alone.”    Later is the incident where Eldad and Medad remained in camp, yet “the spirit rested upon them… and they spoke in ecstasy.”  (Numbers 11: 26).  When Moses was told of this, he responded: “Would that all the people were prophets, that [Hashem] put the divine spirit upon them.”
    7. These are all reflections of a thread in the religion that did not view access to the Divine as available only through the Priests where sacrifices accompanied requests and petitions.
    8. But in Korah, the priests prevailed. The Women’s Commentary at p. 896 states: “The lesson to be drawn from his (Korah’s) fiery death is that the priestly hierarchy is necessary in order to maintain the congregation’s holiness.”  In Numbers 18:1 we find God speaking directly to Aaron (not Moses).
    9. Korah was used as a warning to anyone who might challenge the Aaronide priesthood. The victory of the Aaronide priesthood is consecrated in Chapter 18: “And you and your sons with you shall watch over our priesthood for everything of the altar’s and for inside the pavilion, and you shall serve.  I give your priesthood as a gift of service. And the outsider who comes close shall be put to death.”
  • It is very notable that Moses did not become the High Priest. In fact, there is much in our tradition to point to an ongoing struggle between descendants of Moses (Mushite priests) and descendants of Aaron (the Aaronide priesthood) for control of the priesthood.  In fact, commentators say that the Golden Calf incident was planted in the Torah as a criticism of the Aaronide priesthood, by disgruntled Mushite priests (see Friedman, Who Wrote the Bible?).  There were likely other struggles for control of the Priesthood in our history.  The Korah story is viewed by most commentators as the earliest of these struggles.
  • The Korah parashah also has echoes with the incident of the strange fire of Nadab & Abihu. In both stories, firepans are used by victims who are consumed by Divine fire, and in both instances there is eerie language suggesting that God is drawing the victims closer to Him, to reflect God’s holiness.
    1. Exodus 10:2-3: After Nadab and Abihu were consumed, Moses said to Aaron: “This is what [Hashem] meant by saying ‘Through those near to Me, I show myself holy, And gain glory before all people.”  Does that suggest that Adab and Abihu were especially “close” to God, had a special spirituality that transcended what others had and were thus deserving of merger with the Divine?
    2. Korah’s followers with their firepans met their demise with similar words of “drawing close” to God. Numbers 16:5 “Come morning [Hashem] will make known who is [Hashem’s] and who is holy, and will grant him direct access; the one whom [Hashem] has chosen will be granted the access.”  [Women’s Commentary, p. 896.]
    3. Numbers 17:27-28: “And the children of Israel said to Moses, saying ‘Here we’re expiring, we’re all perishing!  Everyone who comes close – who comes close to [Hashem’s] tabernacle – will die.  Have we come to the end of expiring?”
  • More questions?
    1. Were the Israelites justified in wailing that “Everyone who comes close – will die. Have we come to the end of expiring?
    2. Why does our tradition justify the giving of “direct access” to the Aaronide priests and denying “direct access” to everyone else? If you were everyone else, would you think this is unfair of a just and merciful Deity?  Would you rebel against those who were claiming a monopoly on direct access? Would you switch religions? Would you seek to reform what you found odious? 
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