Weekly Reading Insights

Korach 5763

Overview of the Weekly Reading: Korach (outside Israel: Shlach)
To be read on 28 Sivan 5763 (June 28) Shabbat Mevarchim


Torah: Num.16:1-18:32; Haftorah: Samuel I 11:14-12:22 (Korach's illustrious ancestor)

Pirkei Avot - Chapter Four

Stats: Korach , 5th Reading out of 10 in Numbers and 38th overall, contains 5 positive mitzvot and 4 prohibitive mitzvot. It is written on 184 lines in a parchment Torah scroll, 32nd out of 54 in overall length.

Overview: Korach (Numbers 16:1-18:32) opens with the dramatic account of the rebellion of Korach, Datan, and Aviram and their 250 followers against the leadership of Moses and priesthood of Aaron. Moses challenges them to make an offering of incense. Aaron, too, would do so, and whosever offering was accepted would clearly be G-d's choice for the priesthood. The earth swallows Korach, Datan, and Aviram, their families and possessions, and a fire descends from heaven consuming the other men who burned incense, all except Aaron. The following day the Jews complain about the deaths of so many men, whereupon G-d sends a plague, resulting in 14,700 more deaths. Moses tells Aaron to stop the plague by offering incense and then running into the middle of the assembled masses. Then, to again strengthen Aaron's position as High-Priest, each tribal leader was told to write his name on a staff. These staffs were placed in the Sanctuary. The next day, Aaron's staff was found with almond blossoms and nuts growing on it. It was left as a memorial next to the Holy Ark. Then comes a description of the priestly and Levite duties in the Sanctuary, including preventing Israelites from approaching places forbidden to them within the Sanctuary area. G-d then tells which produce and animals are included in the priests' and Levites' portions which Israelites must bring them. Also the Levites are commanded regarding the portions that they must bring to the priests.


"Everything that is separated from the holy things...have I given to you and your sons...it is an eternal covenant of salt." (18:19)

There is a connection between salt and priestly donations. A person may be reluctant to give charity, because it may cause his wealth to shrink. The Torah shows us that charity is like salt. It may cause meat to shrink a little, but the preservative effect far outweighs the loss. When a person gives charity, his wealth may seem to shrink a little, but his earnings are actually being preserved.

(Shaar Bat Rabim) (From L'Chaim #475)



Selected with permission and adapted from the three-volume English edition of Shney Luchot HaBrit -- the Sh'lah, as translated, condensed, and annotated by Eliyahu Munk.
Rabbi Isaiah Horowitz (1565-1630), known as the 'Sh'lah' - an acronym of the title, was born in Prague. A scholar of outstanding reputation, he served as chief Rabbi of Cracow, and more famously, of Frankfort (1610-1620). After his first wife passed away, he remarried and moved to Israel in 1621, where he became the first Chief Ashkenazi Rabbi of Jerusalem. He later moved to Tiberias, where he is buried, near the tomb of the Rambam.

Another difficulty is the Torah saying: "Moses heard and fell on his face" (Numbers 16:4). The Talmud (Sanhedrin 110a) asks what it was precisely that Moses had heard, and Rabbi Samuel son of Nachmeyni says that he had heard that each Jewish husband suspected Moses of adultery with his wife, since the Torah had stated that "Moses took his tent and put it up outside the camp" (Exodus 33:7). The question arises that even granted the Jewish people were sinful, how could they have suspected Moses of adultery?! After all, Miriam had criticized Moses for not even living with his own wife, much less with other husbands' wives! What possible reason could these people have had to suspect Moses of something so patently absurd?


Many commentators have written that this accusation is not to be taken at face value, but rather that the rebels denied the quality of Moses' prophetic insights, claiming that it was not, as stated, of a face-to-face variety as described in Deut. 34:10, i.e., qualitatively superior to the prophetic powers of other prophets. The rebels claimed that the angels by means of whom prophetic images are transmitted are known as "ishim," "men," meaning that they are the means by which humans receive intelligence from celestial sources. The recipient would then be described as eishet ish, "a married lady", much as a wife describes herself as such, seeing she is the "passive" part of her husband. Their intention then was to deny Moses his special relationship with G-d.


The Maimonides, in his Guide for the Perplexed, maintains that the people were protesting Moses' arrogant behavior in claiming special status. They were apparently alleging that the reason Moses appointed Aaron and his sons as Priests was to avoid being involved in the procedure of the mayim hamarim (the bitter waters) that a wife suspected of infidelity has to drink, seeing the Priest was his blood relation, and as such unable to administer the procedure.


These were the grounds then for the suspicions, and Moses removed his tent to silence these suspicions. This is what Rashi explains there. Now that a quarrel had surfaced these suspicions were voiced openly, and that is why Moses fell on is face when he "heard." This is how one has to explain the plain meaning of the verse.

(adapted from Torat Moshe - the 16th commentary of Rabbi Moshe Alshech of Zefat on the Torah, as translated and condensed in the English version of Eliyahu Munk)

An essay from Rabbi Shaul Yosef Leiter, director of Ascent

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(W:38-63 Korach)

This week's portion is called Korach. Korach was a Levite and a first-cousin to Aaron, and a very smart and insightful person. The rebellion he led followed the return and punishment of the spies, described in last week's reading. The spies were afraid to come into the land where physical mitzvot would become primary. They wished to remain in the desert and continue with their pure spiritual life: eating manna, being protected by the clouds of glory, drinking from the well of Miriam and learning Torah all day. After it became clear that they were mistaken, and that it is imperative to perform physical mitzvot because that is the main purpose of life, Korach rose and said, "As long as the goal was Torah study, who can compare themselves to Moses, the receiver of the Torah. But now we are supposed to focus on active involvement in the world through fulfilling the commandments; in this we are all obligated equally and perform exactly the same actions, so why should they, Moses and Aaron, be above us?"

It may sound admirably altruistic and democratic, but the truth is that Korach himself wanted to be the high priest, and that he challenged the authority of Moses and Aaron in order to attain his goal. In the end, a hole opened up and swallowed him and the 250 Jewish leaders he had influenced. The name of a Torah portion is always significant; since it is not always the first word, it is not arbitrary. The Lubavitcher Rebbe asks an interesting question: Clearly Korach was the opposite of a tzadik, so why should a portion of the Torah be called after a person who set such a bad example? What is more, we say, "The name of evildoers should rot." (Prov. 10:7); naming a Torah portion after such a person immortalizes his name, the opposite of the intention of the verse! We have to assume there must be some benefit to naming the portion specifically after Korach, but what is it?

While most of the portion is about the disastrous results of the rebellion, we are nevertheless touched by how tenacious and strong-willed Korach was to accomplish his goal and not give up on his dream. His desire to be the high priest is in itself something positive. Similarly, each of our souls was brought into this physical world - an environment where making mistakes is easily possible - solely so that we can overcome the difficulties and use our intelligence and free choice to best serve the Almighty. Each of us is expected to struggle towards the highest level of spiritual service we can attain. The lesson from the parasha, apart from the obvious of not making the mistakes Korach did, is to know ourselves and use the ability that G-d granted us for the greatest good possible. We should want to be a high priest, against all odds.

The name Korach, in Hebrew, is made up of three letters: kuf, reish and chet. The Lubavitcher Rebbe shared an amazing insight: each of these three is similar to the letter hei, the second and fourth letter of G-d's Ineffable Name, yet the minor differences are powerfully significant. The letter hei is made up of three lines. The horizontal line and the vertical line on the right represent thought and speech, while the left vertical line represents action. In Korach's name, the first letter, kuf, has a long left leg that descends below the line; this hints at unwanted and unwarranted additional action, i.e. obsessive behavior, contradicting the prohibition not to add to G-d's commands. The letter reish has no left leg at all; where there was supposed to be proper action, i.e., reconciliation and friendship, there was nothing. In the final letter, chet, the space between the left line and the right lines has been obliterated; this hints at an impulsive movement into action from thought and speech, without first considering Jewish law to ascertain if the action is appropriate or thinking through the consequences. Each of these three deficiencies contributed to Korach's dispute. Real wisdom, as I was taught, is learning from the mistakes of others as well as our own.

This Shabbat precedes the 3rd of Tammuz, the anniversary of the passing of the Lubavitcher Rebbe, Menachem Mendel Schneerson. Sephardic Jews call such a day hillula, a celebration, because each year on this day, all of the accomplishments of a tzadik are revealed again in the world, but on a higher level. R. Yechiel Michel of Zlotzhuv wrote that there are tzadikim in each generation that delay the Redemption, because they hold themselves back from the effort that is required. Instead, they cling to the service of Torah and mitzvot exclusively. Their focus is to be connected to their source on high and to take pleasure in the rays of the Divine Presence. They identify with the pain and discomfort felt in this long and bitter exile; nevertheless, these mundane topics do not truly concern them. Their attention is elsewhere.

Then there are tzadikim for whom the fight to bring the Redemption is everything. They never give up. About them it is said that they do not have rest, not in This World and not in the World to Come. Is this fair? Who can imagine a lifetime, worse, an eternity, with no rest! The answer is that they need no rest because they do not become tired. One only gets tired when a task has frustrations. For a tzadik, serving the Almighty is all-encompassing, pure pleasure. There is no room for frustrations.

R. Levi Yitzchak of Berdichev said that a tzadik who is only interested in giving G-d pleasure doesn't care if he is the cause or if someone else is. But the person who wants reward for his actions has to be right in front, trying to do everything. This is the meaning of the first words of the portion, "And Korach took…", where it is not specified what he took. He wanted it all for himself. The Rebbe, in contrast, was focused entirely and worked tirelessly that we should bring the Redemption. He continues to live through our continuing his life's work.


Shabbat Shalom, Shaul Leiter

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