Archive for Korach

Korach: Two Kinds of Power


Copyright 2016 Neal Joseph Loevinger


Torah Portion: Korach 


Then Samuel said to all Israel, “I have yielded to you in all you have asked of me and have set a king over you. Henceforth the king will be your leader. (Samuel 12:1-2)

Good afternoon! 
It’s a late in the day drasha, so rather than detailed textual commentary I’ll offer a more general thought about the conjoined stories of our Torah portion and haftarah. Both stories are about power, politics, and authority, which are not always the same thing. In fact, in the Torah portion, the rebel Korach challenges Moshe and Aharon on the basis of a political claim: that all the people are equally holy and should therefore share in the leadership. Korach claims political or hereditary standing equal to Moshe and Aharon, but the text makes clear that his moral claim was weak indeed, as he and his comrades are portrayed as divisive, violent and self-serving,
The haftarah is also about power and authority: the people want a king to fight their battles, and finally accept Saul on the basis of his military victory over the Ammonites earlier in the chapter. Samuel, the prophet and political leader, had tried to set up his sons to succeed him, but they turned out to be ethically and spiritually unworthy. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that Samuel warns the people about the dangers of monarchy after personally experiencing the problematic nature of hereditary offices. Samuel also pleads for vindication from the people that he has never been corrupt, greedy or abusive, thus not too subtlety making a distinction between the spiritual standing of a prophet and the legal standing of a king. To put it another way, he says: you have asked for a king who can fight for you, but someone who can be aggressive and command armies will wield that power in ways that are not always for your benefit. Be careful what you wish for, you just might get it. 
When Moshe reminds Korach that he’s already a Levite, and set apart for a special role in serving God, I think he’s reminding us that there’s more than one way to be effective in the world; not all power is political. It’s easy to forget that in an election year, when all the news is conflict and posturing, but let’s remember that there are people changing the world who seek no high office, including spiritual leaders, teachers, researchers, organizers, and role models of great human depth and compassion. That kind of power is unlimited, shareable and cannot be acquired by force. There can only be one king, but we can have as many moral leaders as we have people willing to put themselves forward for the common good. 
Shabbat Shalom, 


The views expressed are my own and do not reflect that of Vassar Brothers Medical Center or Health-Quest.

Leave a Comment

Korach: Seeing the Individual

Copyright 2014 Neal Joseph Loevinger

Torah Portion: Korach

Then Samuel said to all Israel, “I have yielded to you in all you have asked of me and have set a king over you. Henceforth the king will be your leader.

“As for me, I have grown old and gray — but my sons are still with you — and I have been your leader from my youth to this day.(1 Samuel 12:1-2)

Good morning! I apologize for the spotty postings over the past few months, but I hope to be a more regular commentator over the summer.

The lines in bold above are from this week’s haftarah, an excerpt from the book of Shmuel in which the prophet Shmuel accedes to the people’s wish to have a king like other nations and peoples. Shmuel willingly, albeit reluctantly, turns power over to a king, in sharp contrast to Korach, the eponymous antagonist of this week’s Torah portion. Korach, you may remember, is a Levite prince who leads a rebellion of chieftains against the leadership of Moshe and Aharon.

Besides the contrast of Korach’s power-grab with Shmuel’s faithful obedience, another interesting connection is in the prophet’s own history: Korach was Shmuel’s ancestor. (See here for more on t hat.) Korach divided the Jewish people, but Shmuel united them under a king. In a way, you might say he did t’shuvah for his ignoble predecessor.

OK, so far, so good. Yet the story doesn’t stop with the prophet Shmuel; if you refer to the verses in bold above, you see that in giving the people a king, he refers to his sons, who will still be with the people after he has died. One medieval commentator interprets this as Shmuel meaning “my sons will be able to impress upon you my Torah teachings after I am gone.”

Well, that would be nice, but the problem is, Shmuel’s sons were corrupt and evil men, and everybody already knew that long before the events reported in this week’s text. In fact, if you go back to chapter 8, you find that it’s precisely because Shmuel’s sons do not “walk in his ways” that the people demand a king- his sons are not fit for leadership.

So why does Shmuel say, “I have grown old, but my sons are still with you?” We might  understand him as saying that his sons might someday be worthy men, or perhaps he’s saying they can teach in his name even if they are otherwise not of good character. (If we demanded only spiritually perfect teachers of Torah there wouldn’t be very many.) Then again, maybe he’s just in denial about how corrupt they really are, which is understandable for a parent.

Whatever the reason that Shmuel brings up his (no-goodnik) sons, bringing them into the story deepens our understanding that we cannot judge another by tribe, name or lineage. Korach was a Levite, a cousin to Moshe and Aharon, yet despised his birthright and perverted his role of leadership. Shmuel was descended from this demagogue- and was one of the greatest leaders and uniters of the Jewish people. Yet his own sons were corrupt and greedy men, who are remembered only for their avarice.

There is a famous rabbinic teaching to the effect that God created humankind from one man and one woman so that nobody could ever say, “my father is better than yours.” We learn that again this week, along with is corollary: children should never be judged by the parents, but we must instead see people as unique and responsible for their own character. Collective judgment is alien to the belief that we are all created in the Divine Image, and each of us is responsible for making that spark of Divinity manifest as best we can.

Shabbat Shalom,



Leave a Comment

Korach: The Possibility of Conscience

Copyright 2013 Neal Joseph Loevinger

Torah Portion: Korach

“Then he spoke to Korah and all his company, saying, ‘Come morning, the Lord will make known who of God and who is holy, and will draw him close . . . .’ “ (Bamidbar/ Numbers 16:5)

Greetings! The book of Numbers is full of stories of conflict and competition, and this week’s reading is perhaps the most intense instance of this ongoing theme. Korach, a fellow Levite, challenges the leadership of Moshe and Aharon, threatening them with his sidekicks and a large gang of angry men. Moshe answers their challenge first by “falling on his face”- perhaps as a sign of humility, or frustration, or as an act of prayer- but then tells Korach and his gang to come back the next morning with their incense-pans, used in the religious offerings, so that God may choose one side or the other.

Our friend Rashi brings an earlier text to answer an obvious question: why the delay? Why not make an immediate and decisive demonstration that Korach was not chosen for leadership? The answer that Rashi brings is twofold: first there was a ruse, telling Korach that nighttime is for drinking and it certainly would not be appropriate to appear before the Holy One intoxicated! (Hence, “come morning. . .”) Then Rashi says Moshe’s real intention was to delay so that Korach and his gang might “go back” – that is, have a change of heart about the rebellion and anger they were directing at Moshe and Aharon.

This is a bit strange but also very beautiful. As I interpret it, the midrash imagines Moshe, who is earlier called the most humble man in Israel, portraying himself as a guy who likes to have a drink at night and therefore can’t appear before the Holy One, in order to create a delay and possibly head off the crisis without unnecessary conflict. In this reading, Moshe wants to put off a confrontation more than he wants to preserve his own dignity; he hopes that Korach will change his mind, rightly understanding that sometimes people need time to “cool off.”

Of course, once it becomes clear that Korach and his co-conspirators will not change their course of action, Moshe demands a clear and unambiguous ratification of his leadership- and gets it when the earth opens up and swallows the rebels whole. (I’ve always understood Korach’s fate to be a visual metaphor for the basic truth that those who like to stir up trouble often get “in over their heads,” so to speak.)

Yet at the beginning of the narrative, if we are to follow Rashi’s lead, Moshe is hopeful for a peaceful resolution, even though he’s been publicly insulted and accused of a power grab. To put it another way: Korach and his gang may have lost their faith in Moshe, but Moshe didn’t lose his faith in them, or the power of conscience to turn a human heart. That faith in the potential of conscience and t’shuvah is what allows Moshe to portray himself as drunk in the night- because for a peacemaker and true leader, making peace through peaceful means is more important than honor or status or personal dignity. In this case, Moshe’s hopes for reconciliation were not realized, but as for us- how often do we truly believe that those who hate us might change and repent? What a different world it might be if only we gave each other the chance to prove ourselves better people, as Moshe is understood to have done when faced with the greatest challenge in his long years of leadership.

Shabbat Shalom,



Leave a Comment

Korach: A Life of Service

Copyright Neal Joseph Loevinger 2010

Torah Portion: Korach

In this week’s portion, named for its protagonist, a gang of resentful Levites and tribal leaders start a rebellion against Moshe and Aharon, who beg them to reconsider. The rebels are swept away in a miracle, and the parsha concludes with a set of laws for the priests and Levites.

Shalom from sunny Poughkeepsie!

“I hereby take your fellow Levites from among the Israelites; they are assigned to you in dedication to the Lord, to do the work of the Tent of Meeting . . . .” (Bamidbar/ Numbers 18:6)

After the accusations, recriminations, conflicts, insults and power struggles- and no, I’m not talking about the California and Arkansas primaries, I’m talking about this week’s Torah portion- there is a set of laws in Bamidbar 18 which govern how gifts are given to the Kohanim and Levites. To review: the Levites, descendants of Levi- are set aside as a tribe of service, performing such duties as packing up and carrying the Mishkan and singing psalms in the ancient Temple. The Levites also serve the Kohanim, the priests, who are also Levites but are a special family within the tribe, descendants of Aharon.

To this day, in traditional synagogues, we honor those who are descended from either the Kohanim or Levi’im [Levites] by calling them to the Torah for the first and second aliyot or readings. The Kohanim also offer the “priestly blessing” to the congregation on various occasions, and the Levites re-enact their ancient role of service in washing the hands of the Kohanim before they come up to offer the blessing.

The liberal movements (Reform and Reconstructionist) have by and large done away with the ritual remembrance of Kohen and Levi, and various Conservative synagogues have different practices. On the one hand, it can rub against the grain of a modern, egalitarian ethos to honor members of a hereditary class- especially one which performed animal offerings which most modern Jews would not like to see restored. On the other hand, making new meanings out of our most ancient practices is what connects us as Jews to our shared history and common destiny.

So. . . what do we do with the Kohanim and the Levi’im? One way to understand the honor given to these families is to see the status of Kohen and Levi as representing or symbolizing particular spiritual concepts to which we can all aspire. To me, the idea of a Kohen, a priest, is about being one who feels fully empowered to enter into the presence of the Holy, and helps to bring others into that spiritual state. The Levites, on the other hand, represent the idea of selfless and humble service, giving to others with no need to gather glory.

Let me illustrate this with a story: here at Temple Beth-El, we have recently re-instituted the priestly blessing on holidays, and some months ago, I took two Kohanim and two Levi’im out into the hallway during services for the hand-washing and to go over the prayers. As it happened, the two Levi’im were older gentlemen, both refugees from Europe and both older than the Kohanim whose hands they washed by pouring water from a pitcher into a bowl. It felt wrong to me- should not the younger ones serve the older?

I was humbled and awed by the Levi’im recalling how their fathers took them to do this when they were boys- and humbled and awed that such men would gladly perform a simple task for others. I learned a lesson that day about the meaning of service, about the connection between generosity and humility, about the enduring truth that giving to others is an honor unto itself.

That, to me, is why we honor the Levites- because their ancestors served with joy and song, giving up a share in the Land in order to help the people be close to the Sacred Presence.

That, to me, is something worth remembering.

Shabbat Shalom,


Leave a Comment

Korach: Remembering History

Copyright 2011 Neal Joseph Loevinger

Torah Portion: Korach

I hope everybody is have a pleasant and serene week- well, I would
imagine that most of us are at least having weeks better than the one
described in this week’s Torah portion, Korach, named for the
nefarious main character. Just to refresh our memories: Korach, along
with two buddies and a large gang of disgruntled tribal princes,
challenges Moshe and Aharon for leadership of the people. Korach and
his gang lose their bid for power and are swallowed up by the earth-
not a pretty scene for anybody.

Fast-forward several generations and the Israelites are living in the
Land, but things aren’t going so well: the tribes aren’t unified and
it’s hard to defend the borders and keep the peace (cf. the book of
Judges – the whole text, more or less- on this point.) A great
prophet, Shmuel [Samuel] is, like Moshe, both a political and judicial
leader, but the people want a king “like other nations.” (I Sam. 8)

So Shmuel appoints a king, Shaul, who promptly embarks on a great
military victory- so far, so good. Shmuel then takes Shaul to Gilgal
(where this week’s haftarah picks up the story), so the people can
reaffirm him as the new king, but Shmuel rebukes them for wanting a
king, and reiterates that he – Shmuel- has always been honest and
fair as leader of the people.

Gilgal is an interesting place – it’s where the Israelites first
crossed over the Jordan River into the Land; not only did a great
miracle of “crossing the waters” happen there, but memorial stones
were set up and the men of the wilderness generation were circumcised
before beginning to settle the Land. (Cf. Yehoshua/Joshua chapters 4
and 5.) Thus, our haftarah seems to be suggesting that Shmuel took the
people to Gilgal to remind them of their history- how the Holy One
brought them to the Land, and their own spiritual commitments,
symbolized by the covenant of circumcision.

Shmuel warns the people that a king may aggrandize himself and
oppress them; by taking them to Gilgal he reminds them that the nation
of Israel has principles and memories more powerful than even the
king, and which, in fact, must keep the king in check.

That all makes sense, but it’s astounding to realize that Shmuel is
himself is a direct descendant of Korach, his great-grandson, no less!
(See 1 Chronicles 6 for the genealogy.) Now we see an even more
poignant connection between the Torah portion and the haftarah: what
the great-grandfather, Korach, tried to tear apart, the
great-grandson, Shmuel, kept together. Korach tried to arrogate the
leadership for himself, but his descendant Shmuel willingly- albeit
reluctantly- turned the leadership over to Shaul, even when he had
great misgivings.

The connection between the Torah portion and the haftarah is more than
just contrasting Korach and Shmuel; it also suggests, perhaps, that
because Shmuel knew his own history, he wanted to impress history upon
the people (by taking them to Gilgal), so that they would not let the
new king unmoor them from the meaning of that history.

This interpretation is both powerful and poignant: powerful, because
it turns a personal sense of history into a compelling tool for social
leadership, and poignant, because we as readers know that a Korach
arises in every generation, from Biblical times onward. The good news
is that from a Korach can arise a Shmuel, a wise teacher, who brings
insight and ethics and a sense of history to the people of his or her
community. From painful history can come great insight and commitment-
that’s the line from Korach to Shmuel, a truth which endures in each
one of us and challenges us to great things.

Shabbat Shalom,


Leave a Comment

Korach: Conflict and Peacemaking

Copyright 2011 Neal Joseph Loevinger

Torah Portion: Korach

Shalom everybody, we’re reading the Torah portion Korach this week-
which is always an interesting portion to read in an election year. A
story of leadership and its challenges, most of the mitzvot in the
portion have to do with the priests and Levites, and are thus no
longer practiced.

However, while not being a separate mitzvah, as such, our friend Rashi
does derive an ethical principle from the verse in which Moshe reaches
out to two of the ringleaders of Korach’s gang of rebels:

“Moshe sent for Datan and Aviram, sons of Eliab; but they said, ‘We
will not come!’ ” (Bamidbar 16:12)

Rashi teaches that we learn from this that we should not persist in a
dispute [“machazikin,” literally, to grasp or hold tightly to the
dispute], as he understands “Moshe sent” as relating that Moshe
answered his opponents with peacemaking words. That is, “Moshe sent”
for Datan and Aviram in order to talk with them and answer their
concerns. As an ethical principle, this would be consistent with other
mitzvot, such as the prohibitions against holding a grudge or taking

According to this reading, Moshe tried to make peace with Datan and
Aviram even though, as the Torah presents it, Moshe was on the right
side of the argument and they were wrong, both factually and
ethically, in their challenge to his leadership. In other words, “not
persisting in a dispute” doesn’t only mean “letting it go,” in the
sense of no longer actively participating in the conflict, it also
means humbling oneself and trying to reconcile even if one is
absolutely convinced that the other person is wrong.

To say the least, this is not easy, especially in public settings,
where disputes become wrapped up in ego and honor and the argument
itself gets lost in the tangle of personalities and wounded pride. To
make peace is not always possible- as with Korach and his followers,
sometimes the best efforts at compromise tragically fail. Yet Judaism
teaches us that the ways of the Torah are “darchei noam” or “the paths
of peacefulness.” [“Noam” is pleasant, peaceful, nice, agreeable,
etc.] Nobody possessed a surer grasp of the truth from Heaven than
Moshe and yet he didn’t let his authority get in the way of his
humanity- how much more so must the rest of us, who do not have a
direct mandate from Sinai, be pleasant, humble, reconciling
peacemakers in a world full of (often quite legitimate) disputes,
arguments and conflicts.

Shabbat Shalom,


Leave a Comment

Korach/Haftarah: The Prophet & the King

Copyright 2011 Neal Joseph Loevinger

Torah Portion: Korach

Dear Friends: It’s been a sad week here at the HQ of Rabbineal-list.
The world lost a great scholar and a wonderful man this week, who
happened to be my uncle, Sam Weissman. (Also known as Samuel I.
Weissman, but I never called him that.) Sam was a scientist, a
professor, a learned aficionado of classical music, and perhaps the
best teller of funny stories in all of St. Louis- especially if those
stories involved the colorful characters of his youth in Chicago.

In thinking about Sam- which is most of the thinking I’ve been doing
this week- I first thought to compare him to Korach, the villain of
this week’s Torah portion, and indeed, one could contrast the arrogant
and divisive Korach with a man who was gregarious, generous, and
confident enough not to talk down to anybody (though Sam had little
patience for pompous people or oversized egos.)

However, I take even more comfort from the fact that the haftarah
[prophetic reading] associated with the portion Korach is a story from
– you guessed it- the Book of Samuel, and more specifically the story
of how Samuel, who was both prophet and leader of the people, gave in
to the people’s demand to have a king. He tells the people that
they’ve done a foolish thing, but he assents nonetheless to their
demand, perhaps realizing that although a human king may lead the
people astray or oppress them, the alternative (not allowing them to
have a king who unites the tribes) may be worse. So Samuel crowns Saul
as king- which didn’t work out so well- and reminds the people that
they chose to have a king more out of fear of other nations than out
of faith in God’s law. (Important note: This year, in the Diaspora,
Korach falls on a Shabbat which is also Rosh Hodesh, or the New Moon,
so that haftarah takes precedence- the haftarah from Samuel is read
all other years.)

The emotional resonance of this story, for me, is the prophet’s
realization that he has to do something he finds problematic, because
the alternative is simply worse. To refuse the people their king could
have led to anarchy, military defeat, and discord among the tribes,
each with their own leader. In making Saul the king, Samuel had to
choose practical outcomes over idealism, which is never pleasant, but
is something confronted by sensitive and ethical people every day;
hard choices cannot be avoided in a life which encounters important

My late Uncle Sam understood the necessity of hard choices, because he
participated in developing an atomic bomb for the USA during WWII, and
told me on several occasions that he and his colleagues did what they
felt they must do to win the war. Also like his Biblical namesake, he
was suspicious of human authorities, albeit for secular rather than
theological reasons- he lived long enough to know that human beings
often abuse their power and inflate their own egos, from the king on

I understood his healthy scepticism of human foibles not as cynicism,
but as a reminder to pay even greater attention to the right things,
rather than get distracted by the wrong ones. In the prophet Samuel’s
case, the people would not suffer for their choice to have a human
king if they made the right religious choices, whereas for my secular,
humanist uncle, there was redemption, if I may use the word, to be
found in the humbling experiences of great art, reasoned discourse,
and the universal language of science – all of which required
diligence (and good humor) in their pursuit. I learned much of value
from my uncle Sam Weissman, and I thank each of you for allowing me to
dedicate this week’s Torah learning to his memory.

Shabbat Shalom,


PS- if you’re curious, here’s a couple of pictures of Sam Weissman-
the first is his badge from the Los Alamos laboratories during WWII,
and the second is from a few years ago, when his portrait (seen behind
him) was dedicated at Washington University, where served on the
faculty for many years:

Leave a Comment

Korach: Intensity Matters

Copyright 2011 Neal Joseph Loevinger

Torah Portion: Korach

Shalom Alecheim! Last night I saw the new Superman movie, and during
one scene where our hero uses his “heat vision” to burn a hole in the
crust of the Earth, my filmgoing companion whispered in my ear: “like
Korach!” She was right, of course- can it be a coincidence that the
movie was released during the week of the Torah portion Korach, who
was swallowed up in a huge hole after a dramatic challenge to Moshe
and his authority?

Well, OK, it probably is in fact a coincidence, but it’s true that
we’re reading Korach this week, and it’s also true that after the
story of the rebellion and narrowly averted civil war, the Torah
clarifies in greater detail the duties, rights and privileges of the
Levites and Kohahim [priests.] To review: the tribe of Levi does not
have an inheritance in the Land of Israel, but instead is dedicated to
religious service in the Mishkan, and later, in the Mikdash, or
Temple. The descendants of Aharon are the priests- they are one family
within the tribe of Levites, but most Levites are not priests.

The Levites and Kohanim live by the tithes of produce and set-aside
portions of animal offerings that the rest of the nation brings to the
Sanctuary; clarifying these rights and duties is the major point of
chapter 18 in our portion. However, one detail that is not very clear
is an unusual description of the covenant between God and the
descendants of Aharon, a covenant which is dependent on the gifts and
offerings brought by the rest of the Israelites:

“All the sacred gifts that the Israelites set aside for the Lord I
give to you, to your sons, and to the daughters that are with you, as
a due for all time. It shall be an everlasting covenant of salt before
the Lord for you and for your offspring as well.” (Bamidbar/Numbers 18:19)

So, nu, what’s a covenant of salt, and what does that have to do with
the priests living on their share of the “sacred gifts” of the Israelites?

Rashi explains this in a very straightforward way: just as salt
preserves things, so this covenant will be everlasting- as if it were
preserved in salt, so to speak. Hirsch has a different take; he says
that since the priests are given these portions as compensation for
their life of service and dedication to God and Torah, consciousness
of their special role and status must permeate the Jewish people like
salt permeates food. (I’m paraphrasing here.) As I understand Hirsch’s
idea, the priests represent the possibility of Torah and holiness in
the midst of the Israelite nation; what they stand for should not just
remain in the Mishkan, but should be “salted” throughout the life of
the community, in all relationships and daily affairs.

In other words, the “covenant of salt” is a three-way deal: God lets
the priests have a portion of the offerings, they dedicate their lives
to holy service, and the entire people are uplifted by these exemplars
of Torah. Salt is thus a metaphor for how something that is small
physically can have a big impact on the “flavor,” or character, of the
greater whole. After all, the priests weren’t even a whole tribe- they
were only a small portion of one tribe out of twelve- but they had a
huge impact on the spiritual life of the nation, just as a pinch of
salt has a huge impact on the taste of one’s food.

It’s a beautiful and empowering image, and as true today as it was
then. Any person reading this might become the “salt” who changes
their community for the better- sheer numbers are not required, just
intensity of purpose and commitment. A bit of salt changes a whole pot
of food; a few dedicated people can change a whole community, lifting
up its spirituality and compassion and holy values. Salt is a humble
image, but the Torah makes of it a grand encouragement to live life
with bold ideals and an expansive moral vision.

Shabbat Shalom,


PS- as usual, the summary and many further commentaries are in the
first link, and the text of the Torah portion and haftarah in the second.

Leave a Comment

Korach: The Staff of Service

Copyright 2011 Neal Joseph Loevinger

Torah Portion: Korach

Happy Independence Day, for my American readers!

Perhaps the 4th of July weekend is a good time to be reading
parshat Korach, because our Torah portion is very much
concerned with issues of leadership, community, freedom, and
responsibility. Briefly, Korach is a prince of the people who
challenges Moshe and Aharon and disputes their right to lead
the people.

A ritual test shows that God supports the current leadership,
Korach and his gang of rebels are swallowed up in the earth.
After this crisis is resolved, Moshe also demonstrates the
worthiness of Aharon’s role as High Priest (more on this below),
and the parsha concludes with laws pertaining to the proper
handling of sacred donations to the Mishkan (the portable
Sanctuary) and the priests who serve in it.

The story of Aharon’s rod of leadership, which comes after the
Korach crisis, doesn’t get much attention in commentaries and
sermons, but it’s a fascinating narrative, rich with symbolic
meaning. Basically, what happens is that God tells Moshe to
take a staff- a rod- from each tribal leader, twelve in all, each
inscribed with the name of its owner. Moshe puts them all
together in the Tent of Meeting- the sacred center of the Mishkan-
and the next day, here’s what he found:

“The next day Moshe entered the Tent of the Pact, and there the
staff of Aharon of the house of Levi had sprouted: it had brought
forth sprouts, produced blossoms, and borne almonds. Moshe
then brought out all the staffs from before the Lord to all the
Israelites; each identified and recovered his staff. ” (Bamidbar/
Numbers 17:23-24, JPS translation.)

Now, what are we supposed to make of this miracle? Do
almond blossoms really appear overnight on sticks of wood in
the desert?

Let’s review: Aharon, if you remember from way back in Exodus
4, was originally assigned to be Moshe’s “mouthpiece” in
confronting Pharaoh. Not only that, but that story (Exodus 4- the
burning bush) also contained a miracle involving a staff:
Moshe’s staff turned into a serpent in order to convince him that
God could indeed bring a great miracle of liberation, through
Moshe, to the people oppressed in Egypt.

So now we’ve come full circle from Moshe’s reticence at the
moment of his commission for leadership. Back then, he was
unsure of himself, and needed the promise of Aharon’s
assistance in order to go forward. Now, he’s fully in charge, and
needs to demonstrate to the people that Aharon is the legitimate
High Priest, a role entirely separate from Moshe’s more judicial
and political position.

So what does all this have to do with miraculous almond

We might imagine the blossoms and fruit on Aharon’s staff –
clearly a symbol of his leadership role and authority as High
Priest- as images of productivity, vitality and creativity (in the
broadest sense.) Even in contemporary English, when we say
that something is useful and meaningful, we say that it is
“fruitful,” and I think that’s close to what’s being represented
here. Aharon’s leadership, which was accepted in humility and
servitude, is life-giving and “fruitful” precisely because he’s not
like Korach, who wanted power for reasons of ego and self-
aggrandizement (according to most readings of the Korach

Aharon became a leader almost inadvertently, because his
brother Moshe needed help- not because he sought out the
spotlight but because he sought to give support. In later Jewish
literature, Aharon is seen as the model of compassion and love
for his fellow human beings- again, the opposite of Korach, who
is willing to start a civil war for the sake of his pride and ego.

Aharon’s staff blossoms and gives fruit because his leadership
is about giving to others, bringing forth good things for the
community and sustaining them through service. The
relationship of a servant-leader to her or his community is fragile
and delicate- like a blossom- but also nourishing and
sustaining, like an almond itself. Humility and generosity of heart
bring forth beautiful things; this is the example of Aharon’s life,
which is the deeper truth behind the story of the miraculous

As always, you can read the full text of this week’s Torah portion
and haftarah here:

While we’re on the topic of leadership, I’m proud to be
associated with a group of rabbis taking a leadership position
on the issue of greater inclusiveness in the Conservative

Leave a Comment

Korach 5761

Copyright 2011 Neal Joseph Loevinger

Torah Portion: Korach

This d’var Torah was originally distributed by Kolel: The Adult Center for Jewish Learning during the year 5761 and can be found in its archives.

Korach (Numbers 16:1-18:32)


In this parashah, the Israelite people come dangerously close to splitting apart. A man named Korach leads a group of followers to challenge Moshe and Aharon’s leadership. Korach has powerful arguments, but in a dramatic test, God demonstrates again that Moshe and Aharon are God’s choice to guide the people. The rebels are punished, and the role of all the priests and Levites, not just Aharon, is clarified. Finally, there are laws specifying that the “first born” of plants, animals, and human beings is to be dedicated to God; this is the source of the ritual of pidyon haben, or redemption of the first-born.


“They came as a group to oppose Moses and Aaron and said to them, “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 Moses heard this, he fell face down. ” (Numbers 16:3-4)


Moshe does not get immediately defensive or angry with the assembled crowd, nor does he assert his authority. Instead, he humbles himself, and asks the rebels about their motivation. He also points out, a few verses later, that they should have no problem with Aharon; it’s interesting that Moshe comes to Aharon’s defense before defending himself.


Continuing our study of Moshe’s reactions to leadership challenges, a famous Hasidic commentator offers a different kind of explanation of Moshe “falling facedown.” R. Shneur Zalman of Liadi (lived in Russia, died in 1812), the founding rabbi of the Lubavitch (or Chabad) Hassidic movement, says that Moshe fell on his face because he really had to ask himself if Korach has a valid point:

    It would have been fitting for Moshe to answer him immediately, so why did he first fall on his face? 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 he [Korach] was not a messenger from On High, but was a divider [of people], and so he answered as he did. (Tanya, quoted in Itturei Torah)

I think this is a very psychologically provocative midrash. R. Shneur Zalman (also known as the Ba’al HaTanya after his most important book) challenges us to follow Moshe’s example by first reflecting on our own actions in any situation of conflict or anger. In effect, this midrash says to us: even Moshe had to consider the possibility that Korach had a valid point, or at least that his accusations contained some kernel of truth. In the rabbinic tradition, Moshe is the archetypal good man, and Korach the very symbol of selfishness and evil- so how much more are the rest of us, all the “in-between” people, challenged to consider the possibility that other’s words may contain painful truths.

What’s so brilliant about this midrash is that that it refuses to provide any easy answers to human relationships. It would be too easy to say that any situation of conflict reflects equally badly on both parties, and thus slide into a kind of psychological relativism. Yes, sometimes people do bad things out of their own pain, but this way of seeing things gets people “off the hook” for their actions.

On the other hand, it would also be too easy to say that some people do evil or hurtful things simply because they are evil people- but this does not account for Judaism’s insistence that all people, even Korach, are made in the Divine Image. Even Korach could have been the agent of holy truth. As it turned out, he wasn’t, but there was no easy way, other than real soul-searching, to either “validate” Korach’s feelings or write him off as an arrogant usurper.

According to the Ba’al HaTanya, some people may be bad, but we must always be open to hearing the truth from any source. Or, as Kolel’s webmaster often says, we must “seek first to understand,” before we react in a situation of conflict. Who knows- we might be in the presence of a “divider”, or we might be in the presence of “messenger from On High”.

Leave a Comment

Older Posts »