Rembrandt _1606-1669
  • Old Rabbi (1642), oil on wood,
  •  Museum of Fine Arts, Budapest
  • Portrait of an Old Man - The Rabbi, 1664-65

כ״ג בְּסִיוָן תשע״א
23rd of Sivan, 5771
Sat, 25 June 2011  

The role of the priests
Is made clear in this portion
They lead, not Korach

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In this week's parashah, Korah, the eponymous Levite Priest, wages an aggressive rebellion against Moses and Aaron. While Korah's words in the parashah suggest that he was simply seeking a more egalitarian form of leadership, the violent nature of his protest coupled with his evident envy of Moses' and Aaron's authority and social station, suggest otherwise.
Because of his jealousy, Korah accuses Moses and Aaron of using their claims of divine authority as a way of increasing their own power and control over the Israelites. And his challenge resonates with 250 "other men of renown" who joined him in his "rebellion." 
As the story unfolds God is so angered by Korah and his followers that God causes the "ground to open up and swallow the rebels." When confronted by Moses and Aaron about these deaths God becomes further angered and, according to the Torah's accounting, unleashes a plague that kills an additional 14,700 people, some of whom may have been innocent bystanders, as punishment for 

Much of this week’s parashah is devoted to the rebellion by Korach and his cohorts against Moshe abbeinu. Regarding this, the well-known mishnah in Pirkei Avot (ch.5) teaches: “Any dispute that is for the sake of Heaven will endure [i.e., will have a constructive outcome], but one that is not for the sake of Heaven will not endure. What sort of dispute is for the sake of Heaven? The dispute between [the sages of the Mishnah –] Hillel and Shammai. Which is not for the sake of Heaven? The dispute of Korach and his entire company.”
R’ Yehonatan Eyebschutz z”l (German rabbi and author of significant works in many areas of Torah study; died 1764) asks: How is one to know when a dispute is for the sake of Heaven? After all, disputants typically claim that they are acting solely for G-d’s honor and that their only intention is to defeat the wicked (i.e., their opponents)!

The Jewish laws concerning speech and conflict resolution are perhaps less known than our ritual laws but they are nevertheless very instructive.  This week’s parsha, Korach, tells the story of a squabble among the leadership of the Israelite camp which resulted in death, disappointment and despair. Korach, who confronts Moses, is a Levite – that is to say – a member of a privileged class among the community.  But Korach’s wisdom and motivation do not match his honored position. His “feedback” to Moses is a thinly veiled power grab which smacks of jealousy.  Korach criticizes without sincere intentions and without a good plan.  Strangely parallel to Korach’s episode is the story of a lone desert prophet, Yitro, Moses’ father-in-law.  Yitro is also honored with a named torah portion, usually read around late January.  Yitro too criticizes Moses, yet his feedback is received and incorporated into early Israelite social structure. In fact, implementation of Yitro’s advice precedes and facilitates the revelation at Sinai. What can we learn from the divergent stories of these two men?

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