November 11, 2019

Weekly Parsha: Korach

One verse, five voices. Edited by Salvador Litvak, Accidental Talmudist

[Dathan and Abiram] said [to Moses], “Is it not enough that you brought us from a land flowing with milk and honey to have us die in the wilderness, that you would also lord it over us?” –Numbers 16:13

Rivkah Slonim
Education director, Rohr Chabad Center for Jewish Life at Binghamton University, New York

Common wisdom has it that when you change the way you look at things, the things you look at change. Perspective is pivotal. 

In our verse, we have two people rhapsodizing about a situation that was for all other people unbearable. Calling Egypt “a land flowing with milk and honey” takes more than chutzpah; it’s simply delusional. Or might it just be a cataract of sorts in their eyes? A clouding and distortion of perception based entirely on their personal experience. 

The Midrash teaches that Dathan and Abiram had amassed great wealth in Egypt; for them life in Egypt had been very good. In like manner, they didn’t see or appreciate the loving devotion and self-sacrifice of Moses for his people. Nor did they take note of the hardships inherent to his thankless position. Crazed as they were by their own gluttony for power and wealth, blinded as they were by their self-centeredness, they saw Moses only as “lording” over them. 

I concede that this is a particularly dramatic case, but we all suffer from personal bias, preconceptions and prejudice. 

This Shabbat, we commemorate the 25th yahrtzeit of the Rebbe of righteous memory. One of his greatest gifts to humanity was the way in which he inverted our default negativity bias to a positivity bias. His every word and expression —each teaching and insight — was affirmative and encouraging, nourishing and filled with promise of good times ahead. Let’s say “L’chaim!” and drink deeply from that milk and honey.

Rabbi Michael Barclay
Temple Ner Simcha

In Daniel Quinn’s book “The Story of B,” there is a detailed explanation of the “boiling frog” fable. The metaphor goes that if a frog is put in boiling water he will immediately jump out, but if he is immersed in tepid water that is slowly heated, he will stay in the water until he dies. 

The great irony in this verse of the Torah is that the brothers Dathan and Abiram view Egypt as a “land of milk and honey,” and the journey into freedom as the “wilderness.” The exact opposite is the truth, and the verse is a sad and true illustration of how easy it is for humans to become complacent and accept a truly unacceptable standard as a norm. 

It is easy to read their statements as simple arrogance, but it is deeper than that, and their behavior is an example of what never to do in life. Like the frog in the fable, we often adapt to negative situations, becoming so complacent that we not only view them as normal, but as ideal. But Judaism reminds us to never accept mediocrity, and always strive for excellence in every aspect of our lives. Never are we to be like these brothers, who embrace a survival that they are comfortable with rather than step forward into a journey of truly living. 

May we be like Moses, King David and all our leaders who choose to live passionately, and accept nothing less in our own lives. 

Rabbi Chaim Singer-Frankes
Interfaith Chaplain

Korach’s campaign poster is appealing: Holiness exists already among all the People. Thirty-two years ago, the great Yeshayahu Leibowitz z’’l posited that we are foolish to interpret Korach’s revolution at face value — as a challenge to Moshe and Aaron’s dynasty. Leibowitz adjudged that Korach’s provocation signified a calamitous sea change from which Israel might never recover. Leibowitz’s thesis is reactionary and countercultural. He saw lazy thinking in a doctrine of triumphalist Jewish exceptionalism — a profound falsehood surrounding a belief of innate Jewish supremacy. 

Holiness, like chosenness, isn’t hardwired. God instructs Moshe to teach va’asitem et kol mitzvotai, to observe all My commandments. The rewards of holiness are conditioned upon mitzvot. Korach’s revolt was really against Moshe’s strategy (God’s formula) for holiness. The anti-Moshe component of his campaign was simply a ruse to foment division. Korach’s regime dispensed not just with Moshe, it augured despoliation of the whole Divine system. 

Korach’s lure: Holy favoritism preexists by virtue of communal birthright. Korach curries favor with promises of easy holiness but his true aim is remodeling and reform to achieve self-aggrandizement. Alas, 12 verses before, Moshe presages Korach’s folly when he “falls upon his face.” Why? Was it Moshe’s humility at a legitimate pillorying? Moshe grieves in advance that Korach and company are dead men walking. Their clique failed to recognize that sustainable holiness emerges only from perseverant obligations, i.e., the system of mitzvot. For that is Moshe’s path: a process relationship with the only true Master.

Salvador Litvak

This verse comes from my bar mitzvah portion, and like Moses, Aaron and Korach, I’m a Levite. So I feel doubly connected to this teaching moment in Jewish history. 

Dathan and Abiram find themselves in a pickle when they rise up alongside Korach in his ill-conceived rebellion against the latter’s cousins, Moses and Aaron. Rashi says Korach is motivated by jealousy because he didn’t receive the chieftainship of their sub-tribe, Kohath. Rather than appeal that appointment, however, Korach tries to undermine the entire government by delegitimizing head prophet Moses and High Priest Aaron. Grumbling incessantly, he finds willing cohorts among his nearest neighbors in the Israelite encampment, the Reubenites, who’ve been displaced by the Levites as God’s “firstborn.”

Dathan and Abiram are thus swept along in a local tide of discontent. They not only whine, they completely lose sight of reality as they liken Egypt to a land flowing with milk and honey. Rashi concludes, “Woe to the wicked, and woe to his neighbor!” We must choose our friends carefully and our neighbors even more carefully because the more time we spend around toxic complainers, the more we adopt their ways and attract their troubles. 

Reish Lakish teaches one more lesson from the tragedy of Dathan and Abiram: Don’t persist in a dispute. (B. Talmud, Sanhedrin 110a). Moses gives them a chance to back away from the precipice. First, he summons them and then he goes to them personally. Although they have nothing to gain from Korach’s dispute, they cling to their faulty principle. May we learn from their example rather than our own painful experience!

May we never engage in such dreadful activities. Amen.

Rabbi Lori Shapiro
Rabbi, Open Temple

We are living through historic times; 24-hour news clogs our ears and severs our brains from logical reasoning. It is a power play of media manipulation, a quartet of fake news choir-preaching in an echo chamber of malcontent. 

Numbers 16:13 begins with a callback: the word Ha’m’at. Translated as “is it a small thing,” it mocks Moses’ earlier statement. Dathan and Abiram’s retort is an act of impudence, followed by a thick layer of cynicism: Egypt as the land of milk and honey/Israelites dying in the wilderness/Moses lording over his fellows?!? 

I wonder how Dathan and Abiram’s mockery might have been met today. Indeed, there is an ancient corollary to the #MeToo spin, as B.T. Sanhedrin 110a attributes the entire rebellion to Korach’s wife’s perceptions of Moses’ abuse of power. Were the rhetoric of Numbers folded into our news culture, there might be no end to how his leadership would be undermined. 

Perhaps God’s response is prescient for our time. When egregious allegations beyond human reason arise, the only thing to do is to create a natural disaster to reset the distorted human ego: “and the earth opened its mouth and swallowed all of them …” (Numbers 16:31). With the rising threat of climate change like a sleeping beast snoring loudly in the background of talking-head cacophony, perhaps only a disaster of natural wonders might awaken us all back to our senses and sensibility?