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.
Prepared for Internet
Publication by the Center for IT & IS Staff at Bar-Ilan University.
Inquiries and comments to:
Dr. Isaac Gottlieb, Department of Bible,
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
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,"
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.
Dathan and Abiram were not included in the test of offering incense since they
did not seek the priesthood.
Thus, part of
Korah's following desired inheritance of the land, the other part, the
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.
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
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"
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.
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
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
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
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.
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,
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.
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.
Exodus 30:9: "You shall
not offer alien incense on it." Also cf. Ex. 30:37-38, Lev. 10:1 and parallel
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.
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.
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
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.
"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)
"The priests were awarded
eating at the High [i.e., Lord's] table" (Beitzah
21a, and other
Cf. Mekhilta de-Rabbi
: "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]"
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).