By Rav Reuven Tradburks
The story of the rebellion of Korach parallels the story of the spies from last week. Both are a rejection of the Divine, albeit in the rough and tumble of human dynamics. In the sin of the spies, although G-d promised the land to us over and over – many times – the reality of the actual march gave the people cold feet. The sense of inadequacy, of weakness, of lack of confidence, of inferiority in the face of the nations of the land drove the people to demur. As if to say: we are inadequate even with G-d’s promises. Korach, on the other hand, suffers not from a sense of inadequacy but rather the opposite, of inflated self image. The best person to lead this people is me. Korach’s bloated self perception led him to challenge Moshe’s leadership, in spite of G-d’s repeated selection of Moshe. As if to say: I know better than the Divine who is the best to lead this people and it is me. The opposite self perceptions; the same conclusion. With the spies, the people felt inadequate. With Korach, he felt superior. The stories of Bamidbar revolve around the reality of human nature; the challenge of fealty to the Divine amidst the myriad of human weaknesses. And a myriad of weaknesses there are.
1st Aliya (Bamidbar 16:1-13) Korach staged a rebellion against Moshe and Aharon along with Datan, Aviram and On and with 250 others. They claimed: we are all holy, why then are you above us? Moshe was distraught. He countered: G-d Himself will affirm whom He chooses. Bring an incense offering and He will choose. Moshe spoke to Korach: Why is it insufficient for you to serve as a Levi that you seek to be a Cohen as well? Moshe called for Datan and Aviram. They refused, saying: your leadership has failed, for you failed in bringing us to the land of Israel.
The rebellion is multi pronged. There is Korach. He seeks to be leader, either in place of Moshe or of Aharon. For we are all holy. Which is true. Datan and Aviram challenge Moshe’s leadership; Moshe has failed to lead them to the Promised land. Which is also true. But as in any rebellion, the criticisms while true are but half the story. We are all holy; but, please, G-d speaks to Moshe face to face. And true, Moshe is not going to lead them to the Promised land; but they are going to get there. Oh, and what about leading them out of Egypt, leading to Mt. Sinai? The success of a leader lasts til nightfall; by morning, all’s forgotten. There is no memory when it comes to dissatisfaction; past success is old news. And, did we forget that it wasn’t Moshe’s fault but the spies’?
2nd Aliya (16:14-19) Moshe was angry. He said to G-d: Do not accept their offerings. I never took a thing from anyone. He turned to Korach: tomorrow, Aharon and you all shall offer incense on coals, each bringing the incense before G-d. They did so, gathering at the entrance to the Mishkan. G-d appeared to the entire group.
Leadership in the Torah is not self serving, but service of the people and of G-d. Moshe is insulted. He has had no personal gain. Those looking for leadership foist their ignoble intentions on others. The criticisms tell more about the rebel than about the leader. Korach’s interests are exactly what he criticizes in Moshe – power and personal gain. Ironic to criticize Moshe when, in fact, Moshe is the most humble of all and with no personal motive. He is the paradigmatic leader: the selfless servant of his people and of his G-d.
3rd Aliya (16:20-17:8) G-d warned Moshe and Aharon: stand clear for I am ready to destroy them. Moshe and Aharon objected: one sins and You are angry at them all? G-d instructed the people: stand clear. Datan and Aviram stood brazenly at their homes with their wives and children. Moshe: The following test will establish whether I am sent by G-d. If you all suffer a unique fate, swallowed into the earth, then it is clear that you have displeased G-d. The earth opened up, swallowing they and theirs into the earth. A fire consumed the 250 incense bearers. Elazar, son of Aharon took the incense fire pans for they had become holy by use. He took these and used them for a plating of copper for the altar, so all will know that only Cohanim are to bring incense. The people complained to Moshe and Aharon that they were killing the nation. A cloud covered the Mishkan.
From the punishment, we see the sin. Desired leadership, high office, lording over others; their fate was to fall low, below the earth. The bearers of the incense intended high religious office; the fire of religious desire consumed them. Incense assumes a central role in this story. Moshe told all to bring incense. In the next aliya, during the plague, Aharon brought incense to arrest the plague. Why not some other offering, like a sacrifice? Incense symbolizes the ephemeral, the spiritual, the intangible. The Hebrew word for smell is reyach, akin to ruach, spirit. The word for breathing is noshem, related to neshama, soul. Incense is smoke, scent, wafting, intangible, like the soul. Man was created from the adama, the earth, with his neshama breathed into his nostrils. Moshe is indicating a powerful lesson of religious leadership: religious leadership, sought by the rebels, must be like incense. It need be pure, lofty, holy, driven by purity of motive, not the earthy desires of power and influence.
4th Aliya (17:9-15) G-d wanted to destroy the people. Aharon avoided this calamity by bringing incense immediately, standing between the dead and alive.
The intent to destroy the people by G-d is a recurring theme. But it never happens. This is a crucial theme: what the people deserve is one thing. What they actually receive is another. Man may deserve destruction; but the power of G-d’s mercy mitigates the harshness of what we deserve. We have seen this theme a number of times; the destruction is avoided. You have to read to the end of the story. The Torah is the story of love of G-d for the Jewish people, suspending what we deserve out of love.
5th Aliya (17:16-24) Moshe said: inscribe the name of each tribe on a staff, with Aharon’s name on the staff of Levi. The staff that sprouts is the one chosen. They were all placed in the Mishkan. Aharon’s sprouted.
The staff in the Torah is a symbol of power; Moshe’s staff was the vehicle of the plagues, defeating Paro through Divine Power. Aharon’s sprouted staff is a symbol of his Divine right to the power of religious leadership. His power does not come from his initiative, it comes from Divine sanction.
6th Aliya (17:25-18:20) G-d said: place Aharon’s staff as a commemoration of this. The people complained to Moshe that those that approach the Mishkan die. The Cohanim and Leviim are charged with protecting the sanctity of the Mishkan. While the Cohanim will serve at the altar, the Leviim will serve them and preserve the sanctity of the entire Mishkan. The Cohanim are to both safeguard and to enjoy the holy offerings. They are given portions of offerings to consume, though with strict holiness. Agriculture also has holy produce, gifts that are given to the Cohanim, eaten with strict holiness. First born animals are holy gifts to the Cohanim, offered as offerings with holiness, consumed by the Cohanim; while first born humans are redeemed. The Cohanim are not to receive a portion of land in the Israel; G-d is their portion.
The people complain that proximity to G-d is tough, life threatening. Moshe reassures the people that the Cohanim and the Leviim will protect the holiness, ensuring that all is done in accord with the demands of the holiness of the Mishkan.
7th Aliya (18:21-32) The Leviim also receive Maaser in lieu of a portion in the land. With Cohanim and Leviim responsible for the sanctity, calamities ought to be avoided. The Leviim are to give a portion of their Maaser to the Cohanim. The Maaser of the Leviim differs from the portions of the Cohen, as they do not have the holiness that requires them to be eaten in a specific place and with purity. The Maaser is the property of the Levi, a benefit for public service.
Benefits given to those doing the public service, the Cohanim and the Leviim is perfectly understandable. But the Torah is pointing out not only what they get, but what they don’t. Those in positions of religious power can easily use that position to extract wealth from a willing public. The Cohanim and Leviim are told what they are to receive portions of offerings, meaning, this and no more. Not land, not gold and silver, not palaces. The allotted gifts alone.