This portion deals primarily with the rebellion of the eponymous Korah and his followers against the authority of Moses and Aaron. A cousin to the leading brothers, Korah protests Moses’s concentration of power in the family, insisting the entire nation is holy. Only God’s intervention succeeds in putting down the insurrection and restoring unity to the camp. The portion ends with a reiteration of Aaron’s priestly duties in the service of God, as well as specific gifts to be apportioned to the priests and Levites.
The Torah tells the tale of Korah, cousin to Moses and Aaron, who leads a rebellion against their authority. Gathering other disgruntled members of the community, notably three men from the tribe of Reuben and 250 others, Korah accuses Moses of hoarding positions of power over a nation that is ostensibly all holy.
Moses is devastated by the accusation. He tells the rebels that in the morning, God Himself will provide a sign of His choice: each man should bring a fire-pan of incense to the Tent of Meeting and God would accept the one of the man He desires to minister to Him. He entreats the Levites among the rebels: is it not enough that God has elevated you to serve Him? Why must you lash out against Aaron? He appeals, too, to Dathan and Aviram, of the tribe of Reuben, but they refuse to listen, saying Moses betrayed them by bringing them to die in the desert instead of escorting them to the promised Land of Milk and Honey.
God tells Moses and Aaron to separate themselves from the Assembly of Israel so that He may destroy them, but Moses begs Him not to destroy the whole nation on account of one man. God then commands the people to distance themselves from the rebels so that He can wipe them out. Moses sets a sign: if the rebels die an unnatural death, swallowed up by the earth, it shows that God has chosen Moses over them. The leaders of the rebellion are indeed swallowed alive by the earth, along with their households, and the 250 rebels who had brought incense pans as instructed were consumed by a flame from God, along with their incense.
The Israel Bible explains the flaws inherent in Korah’s argument: not only do his accusations deny God’s hand in appointing Moses and Aaron, they imply that all Israelites are on the same level of holiness as the two great men! While it is true that all Children of Israel have intrinsic holiness, what each individual does to nurture that seed is in his or her own control. This is true on a national level, as well. By living in the Land of Israel according to God’s laws, we elevate the holiness of the land above all other lands, too.
Points to Ponder
Initially, On son of Peleth is listed by name as participating in the rebellion, yet later he is conspicuously absent. What do you think happened to him? Why might his name have been mentioned at first, only to be left out later?
Following the deaths of the rebels, God commands Eleazar, son of Aaron, to collect the copper fire-pans that had been used for the rebels’ incense, as they had become sanctified. He instructs Moses to hammer them out into sheets to plate the altar, as a reminder and a warning of what will happen to any stranger who approaches with an alien offering.
The people of Israel are shocked by what they have witnessed. They accuse Moses and Aaron of killing the people of God. Once again, God commands Moses and Aaron to remove themselves from the Assembly so that He may wipe them out. Moses then tells Aaron to quickly take incense and atone for the people’s sinful comments. Aaron takes the incense and stands himself between the living and the dead, a human shield protecting them from God’s wrath. 14,700 people fall in the plague before it is stopped.
To further prove that God has chosen Aaron from among all others to serve Him, Moses tells the tribes to each bring forth a staff with their tribal names inscribed upon them and lay them before the Ark in the Tabernacle. The man whose staff blossoms shall be known as God’s choice. The leaders do as they are told, and Aaron’s staff blossoms and sprouts buds and almonds. Moses returns the staffs to the leaders, but at God’s instruction keeps Aaron’s staff as a sign to the people that they should stop complaining lest they die at God’s hand. The people, however, remain frightened of punishment for approaching the Tabernacle.
The Israel Bible relates a story told by legendary Israeli storyteller S. Z. Kahana. Three clergymen visited Mount Zion in 1965. While gazing upon Jerusalem, they asked the Jewish curator why the Jews claimed it as the capital of the State of Israel, rather than maintaining its status as an international city. In response, the curator pointed to the staff of Aaron. The miracle of the earth swallowing Korah’s followers and the plague that followed were not enough to convince the people that Aaron had been chosen by God. Only the budding vitality of the blossoming staff, the sign of life, changed their minds. The curator pointed to the city of Jerusalem. “In the old Arab controlled section of the city, as you can observe, there is desolation: ruins, desert and rocks. On our side is the new Jerusalem, where over 150,000 have settled. You can see our new homes, schools, the new hospital and the new university. Everywhere you look, you see life, growth and vitality. You ask to whom does Jerusalem belong. It belongs to those who make it bud and blossom, to those who make it live and grow.” Half a century later, this insight demonstrates that a Jewish Jerusalem is ordained by God.
Points to Ponder
Why do you think the fire-pans became sanctified, even though they were employed by the rebels?
Priests and Levites: Duties and Gifts
God reiterates to Aaron the role he and his descendents will play in the Tabernacle for all time. They are to perform the rites of atonement, and while the Levites are to offer support to the priests, it is the responsibility of Aaron and his descendents to ensure they do not come in contact with the holy vessels directly, lest they be killed.
God also designates certain gifts to be dedicated to the priests and the Levites. A portion of every heave offering, meal offering, sin offering and guilt offering are to be given to the priests. Other gifts, such as the first fruits of a farmer’s field, are also for the use of the priests. All of these are considered holy and may be consumed in holiness by members of the priest’s household. Additionally, God dedicates the firstborns, either their rate of redemption or the animal itself, depending on the status of the firstborn, to the priests.
God then tells Aaron that he and his tribe will have no share in the Land of Israel as an inheritance. Instead, the Children of Israel will be required to give a tenth of their produce to the Levites, as payment for their service in the Tabernacle. The Levites in turn are to give a tithe on the tithe they receive, turning it over to the priests. These tithes should be chosen from the best of the crop. As the Israel Bible points out, tithes are another example of a commandment that applies only to the Land of Israel. Like the commandment to take challah (Numbers 15:17-21), these physical gifts provide sustenance to the spiritual leaders of Israel in exchange for the provision of spiritual sustenance. The work of the priests and Levites elevated everyone’s existence in the Land.
Points to Ponder
Why do you think the Levites must also tithe the portions they receive? What can we learn from this law?