Bar-Ilan University's Parashat Hashavua Study Center

Parashat Korah 5762/ June 8, 2002

Lectures on the weekly Torah reading by the faculty of Bar-Ilan University in Ramat Gan, Israel. A project of the Faculty of Jewish Studies, Paul and Helene Shulman Basic Jewish Studies Center, and the Office of the Campus Rabbi. Published on the Internet under the sponsorship of Bar-Ilan University's International Center for Jewish Identity.
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Parashat Korah 5762/ June 8, 2002

A Portion in the Lord, a Portion in the Land

Rabbi Yisrael Samet
Midrasha for Women

Korah's "party" that challenged Moses and Aaron was comprised of several factions. All complained about Moses and Aaron being above the community, but each group in Korah's following apparently had its own particular set of grievances. Dathan and Abiram complained that Moses had taken the Israelites out of a good land, Egypt, and had not brought them to another land, and that it had been decreed that they die in the wilderness.[1] The words of the two-hundred and fifty chieftains of the community are not cited in the Torah separately from the claims of the community as a whole, so we can only deduce their arguments from the test proposed by Moses: offering incense. Since the Torah is exceedingly strict about "alien incense,"[2] offering incense here is a way of determining who is "holy" and "whom the Lord chooses" (Num. 16:5), i.e., who is worthy of the priesthood. Thus we conclude that the two hundred and fifty men wished to be priests.[3] Dathan and Abiram were not included in the test of offering incense since they did not seek the priesthood.[4] Thus, part of Korah's following desired inheritance of the land, the other part, the priesthood.[5]

Nor was the punishment meted out to the different groups the same; one group was incinerated when offering incense, and the other group was swallowed up by the ground. The punishments were related to the substance of their complaints. Those who challenged Aaron's priesthood died while attempting to offer incense like the priests, whereas those who complained about not yet being brought into the land of Israel did not live to inherit the earth, but were swallowed up by it.[6]

Thus far we see that Korah's following was comprised of several factions making a variety of claims, each faction being punished in accordance with its complaint. The question we want to clarify here is whether they all banded together only for the sake of challenging Moses and Aaron, or whether we can connect between these separate claims about land and priesthood.

The Torah draws a connection between the various factions in Korah's following, in the way it describes their punishment. Though there were different punishments for each group, in both the Torah uses words associated with eating or consuming. In the case of Dathan and Abiram we are told that "the earth opened its mouth and swallowed them up" (Num. 16:32); similarly, with the punishment of the two hundred and fifty, "fire went forth from the Lord and consumed" them (Num. 16:35). Furthermore, the Torah stresses that both penalties were extraordinary happenings wrought by G-d. Moses says in the case of Dathan and Abiram, "But if the Lord brings about something unheard-of, so that the ground opens its mouth" (Num. 16:30), and in describing the punishment of those who offered incense, Scripture says, "fire went forth from the Lord" (Num. 16:35).

Another theme connecting the two factions emerges from the laws concerning gifts to the priests and Levites, Terumot and Ma'asrot, appearing at the end of this week's reading: "And the Lord said to Aaron: You shall, however, have no territorial share among them or own any portion in their midst; I am your portion and your share (nahalatkha) among the Israelites" (Num. 18:20). This principle is reiterated regarding gifts to the Levites: "And to the Levites I hereby give all the tithes in Israel as their share, ... But they shall have no territorial share among the Israelites; for it is the tithes set aside by the Israelites ... that I give to the Levites as their share. Therefore I have said concerning them: They shall have no territorial share (nahala) among the Israelites" (vv. 21-24).

Why was this collection of laws about tithes placed right after the story of Korah and his factions? Scripture chose to define the gifts given the priests and Levites as their "share", and thus give them something parallel to an inheritance in the land. The words used by the Torah with regard to the priests and Levites recall the words uttered by Dathan and Abiram: "Even if you had brought us to a land flowing with milk and honey, and given us possession of fields and vineyards (nahalat sadeh vakerem)" (Num. 16:14).

The subject of the gifts given the priests and Levites also relates to the dispute of Korah and his following. On one hand, these commandments serve to strengthen the position of the priests and Levites, which had been challenged in the dispute of Korah and his following.[7] On the other hand, their objective was to show that the rights of the priests and Levites were not the right to power and supremacy, since they have no portion in the land. This comparison indicates that Scripture sought to draw a connection between the rights of the priests and Levites and the issue of inheriting the land, which appears in the arguments of Dathan and Abiram. Thus, a connection emerges between the claims to priesthood of the two hundred and fifty chieftains and the claims to the land made by Dathan and Abiram.

To appreciate this connection we must understand the relationship between the role of the priests and Levites and the role of the Israelites. When the Israelites enter the land, each person will then be obliged to dwell in his tribal inheritance: "the Israelite tribes shall remain bound each to its portion" (Num. 36:9). The "portion" of the priests and Levites are the gifts given the priesthood and Levites, the "portion" given the priests being greater than that given the Levites. The Levites are given the tithes of the Israelites as their portion, whereas the priests are told, "I am your portion and your share," which Nahmanides interprets as meaning, "at My table shall you eat." The priests, as the Lord's servants, are permanent residents in His house and eat, as it were, at His table.[8]

The principle that the Lord's dwelling is also that of the priests explains the test of the staffs that appears in this week's reading (17:16-24). This test proved that Aaron had been chosen for the priesthood by the fact that out of all the staffs of the chieftains, his staff was the only one that blossomed and produced fruit. Aaron's staff blossoming showed that the Tent of Meeting was the milieu for Aaron, the place where he should grow, his portion and place for being nurtured: "I am your portion and your share." It should be added that the sanctity of the priests serving in the Temple and the sanctity of the Israelites receiving a portion in the land are interrelated. The sanctity of the priests and Levites is "from among the Israelites" (Num. 8:16) and expresses the sanctity of the entire people, defined as "a kingdom of priests and a holy nation" (Ex. 19:6). Just as Israel could not be without priests to express the holiness of the people, so too we could not have priests without the body of Israel from which they were "separated out" (18:6) to serve. Likewise, even the Sanctuary is not a place for the Divine spirit to dwell apart from the people, for it is written, "And let them make Me a sanctuary that I may dwell among them" (Ex. 25:8).

In the wilderness, a temporary state of affairs developed, different from what would pertain in Israel. The people as a whole had not yet received their portion, but the priests were already serving in their office. In the previous week's reading it was decreed that the Israelites remain in the wilderness for forty years. The positions taken by Korah's partners were influenced by this unnatural circumstance.

Now, let us return to the connection between the punishments and the faction comprising Korah's following. Korah's adherents were swallowed up precisely by the thing that they desired. We learn from this that their sin, too, lay in having been engulfed by their desire. In the wilderness all the Israelites were like priests, insofar as they had no portion in the land and their sustenance was provided them by way of miracle.[9] The Israelites should have learned from this that "man does not live on bread alone, but that man may live on anything that the Lord decrees" (Deut. 8:3). The two hundred and fifty chieftains who desired the priesthood wished to perpetuate this state of affairs. Perhaps they understood that the Israelites would not live on miracles forever, but would some day settle on their own land; but they believed that anyone who so desired could abandon his portion of land and become a priest, the Lord becoming his portion.[10] This group held as its principal aspiration the priesthood that was separated from apportionment in the land and did not wish to have the usual portion. They were consumed by fire to teach us that a priesthood which is not integrally bound with the people who receive a portion in the land, cannot maintain itself in this world but is destined to be consumed by the Lord's fire.

The other group in Korah's following wished to receive a portion in the land of Israel, and did not view the existence of the Israelites in the wilderness as an actual national entity. In the eyes of this group, the essential condition for the existence of the nation was to possess its own land; the spiritual development associated with the priesthood, that had already been given to the Israelites, was of no import to them. For them, the priesthood was but an unnecessary added embellishment to the existence of the nation. The fact that Dathan and Abiram were swallowed up by the earth indicates that without the holiness of the priesthood, land itself is destined to lead to the netherworld, Sheol.

We hope that we have shown that while the claims made by the partners in Korah's following were different, they nevertheless had a common denominator. The argument that "all the community are holy, all of them," mouthed by Korah and his following, did not reflect national unity, rather the opposite. It reflected an approach in which each individual sought to fulfill whatever role he personally wished, without taking into account that his individual role is part of a broader perspective. Thus, this week's reading teaches us that the Israelites' nahalot or "portions" differed one from another; for some, their portion was the priesthood, and for others it was a portion to be inherited in the land. Only when there is a connection between territory and spirituality and these separate interests are bound up together, can the House of Israel be fully established.

[1] This is according to Nahmanides. According to Ibn Ezra's commentary (16:1), all the groups in Korah's following complained about the rights of the first-borns having been taken away. Even Dathan and Abiram, sons of Reuben, complained that the rights of the first-born had been taken from Reuben and given to Joseph (cf. I Chron. 5:1-2). This interpretation is problematic with respect to Dathan and Abiram since they did not mention the issue of first-born rights in their arguments.
[2] Exodus 30:9: "You shall not offer alien incense on it." Also cf. Ex. 30:37-38, Lev. 10:1 and parallel texts.
[3] Cf. Deut. 18:5: "For the Lord your G-d has chosen him"; Deut. 21:5: "The priests, the sons of Levi, shall come forward; for the Lord your G-d has chosen them to minister to Him"; also cf. Num. 17:20. According to the interpretations of Ibn Ezra and Nahmanides, the two hundred and fifty chieftains were first-borns, accustomed to offering sacrifices, and therefore they objected to the priesthood being taken from the first-borns and given to the priests, the sons of Levi. To their credit, the incense pans of the two hundred and fifty became incorporated on the altar. See the commentary, Haamek Davar, on this week's reading. According to this commentary, the two hundred and fifty leaders were motivated by love of the Lord.
[4] Cf. Nahmanides on Num. 16:16. According to him, when Moses realized what they were saying, he decreed a severe death on them and removed them from the test of the incense given Korah's following. As far as we can tell here, the test of the incense was inappropriate from the outset to the claims made by Dathan and Abiram.
[5] The text does not relate specifically to the argument made by Korah himself, and perhaps other Levites who were with him (cf. Moses' words to Korah, 16:8-10). From what Moses said, we conclude that the Levites wished to share in the priesthood. The Sages also ascribed to Korah a demand to rule. Cf. Rashi on 16:1: "What induced Korah to quarrel with Moses? He was jealous of Elizaphan ben Uziel, whom Moses had appointed chieftain."
[6] The punishment meted out to Korah is not clear from this week's reading. Regarding verse 26:10, "Whereupon the earth opened its mouth and swallowed them up with Korah," the rabbis disagree. Some believe he was among those swallowed and those burned, others that he was neither among those swallowed nor among those burned. Cf. Sanhedrin 110a.
[7] "Because Korah came and challenged Aaron's right to the priesthood, Scripture [G-d] came and gave him twenty-four "gifts" of the priesthood as an everlasting covenant of salt. Therefore this passage is placed here." (Rashi on Num. 18:8)
[8] "The priests were awarded eating at the High [i.e., Lord's] table" (Beitzah 21a, and other sources).
[9] Cf. Mekhilta de-Rabbi Ishmael, Be-Shalah: "Rabbi Simeon bar Yohai says: The Torah was given for interpretation to none other than those who ate the manna; equivalent to them are those who eat terumah. [i.e., the priests]"
[10] This aspiration was later realized by Jeroboam son of Nebat, in the Kingdom of Israel, who "ordained as priests of the shrines any who so desired" (I Kings 13:33).