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Torah Commentary
Korach (June 21, 2014)

Rachel Brumberg, Associate Director of Lifelong Learning

THIS WEEK’S TORAH PORTION, Parashat Korach, was not easy for me. In it we read about the rebellion of Korach, Dothan and Abriram — all of whom question the authority of Moses and accuse Moses and Aaron of raising themselves above the Israelites and, therefore, treating the rest of the people as less holy than themselves. In response, Moses tells Korach and his followers, 250 people in total, to come to the Tent of Meeting the following day with their fire pans and incense offerings for the Eternal. The community does as Moses tells them; however, God questions their motivation. Korach and his followers bring their fire pans and incense to the Tent of Meeting, but while there, they gather with Korach, waiting to see him confront Moses and Aaron. This makes God want to annihilate them all instantly, but Moses and Aaron petition on their behalf. God acquiesces, and instead, God’s ire is turned momentarily to the houses of Korach, Dothan and Abriram. To prove that their punishment is something delivered by God and not something that a man like Moses could do himself, the earth opens up and swallows them, and then God sends forth fire to consume the 250 men offering incense.

What? To review: A few men question Moses, and as a result, the earth swallows some people alive and the rest get burned to a crisp. This was hard for me to read, understand and glean something to learn and share. People with whom I discussed this portion seemed to smile with excitement when I mentioned my shock and frustration at this turn of events. “Korach is my favorite rebel!” and “God gets a bit big-headed in this book of the Torah” were just two of the comments I got. Really? All I could think was, “I have so many questions and problems with the parashah. How am I ever going to write a Torah commentary on this?!?”

So, I read and re-read the portion to try to find something that resonated with me. And then I found it: Through God’s act of destruction, something sinful is rendered sacred.

Right after God smites the 250 men offering incense, God tells Moses to have Eleazar gather the sinners’ fire pans and use them to line the alter. Even though the people making the offering were not doing so with the correct intention, the offering itself was a holy action, and, therefore, the vehicle for the offering is sacred. By installing the pans in such a public and holy place, they are to serve as a symbol (and a warning) for all to see and recall what happens to those who go against God’s will. The placement of the pans where offerings are made, a place closely connected to God, also serves as a reminder to God of how humans are capable of acting and of God’s own reaction to this incident.

If the Israelites are God’s children, then are their failures a reflection of God as the parent? If so, then maybe God needed to salvage something from this rebellion and killing of 250 of God’s own children by God’s own doing. Just as I had to re-read this portion to find a positive lesson, perhaps after God killed the sinners, God realized the need for some positive action lest the failure be all on God. Yes, the Israelites sinned. And yes, God punished them in a very dramatic way. But, they also were humans and God’s children, so they deserved to be remembered. Maybe in some way, turning their incense pans — the only thing that remained after the fire — into a part of the altar was a way to immortalize not only their actions but also their presence in the community.

My own need for a positive take away from Korach reminds me of when a friend of mine in high school taught me the difference between being angry at someone and disliking a particular action of that same person. In this week’s parashah, perhaps God is beginning to learn this same lesson when God states that the fire pans are sacred and then separates the action of the offering from the action of questioning Moses’ authority. In the end, however, I still find this portion immensely troubling as the sacred element is only found after irreversible destruction has been caused.

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