Torah portion Tuesdays is our weekly feature where Cantor Matt Axelrod breaks down each week’s passage so that budding bar and bat mitzvah students can better understand and relate to the text.
In this week’s Torah portion, Parshat Korach, Moses continues to rue the day he ever laid eyes on that burning bush.
This portion might better be titled “Mutiny in the Desert.” We are introduced to Korach, a member of the prominent tribe of Levi, and his rebellious allies Datan and Aviram, from the tribe of Reuven. Apparently some of the Reuvenites felt that their tribe should be the most important one because Reuven was Jacob’s first born.
We’re not exactly sure of Korach’s motivation — was he power-hungry? Was he jealous? Was he setting himself up for a run for office? He probably resented Moses’s leadership in both the political and religious arenas, and the fact that Aaron controlled all the priestly duties. Since Korach was a Levite, he likely felt that he should have more leadership with those duties.
Korach bands together with 250 Israelite leaders and challenges Moses’s leadership. Moses responds in now predictable fashion — he falls on his face and laments his involvement with these complaining and troublesome Israelites. What was probably most upsetting to him wasn’t the rebellion (after all, by now he was used to the constant whining), but that it took place without one word of protest from the rest of the Israelites. He realizes that he needs to quell this rebellion and somehow regain everyone’s trust.
Moses immediately answers Korach and challenges him to a duel. Moses and Korach will each bring fire pans and incense and offer them to God — whosever sacrifice is accepted will prevail.
The next day, Moses, Aaron, Korach, and his 250 fellow mutineers have fire pans and incense in hand. Moses is confident that he will prevail, and he speaks not to Korach, but to the Israelites and tells them that if they witness something extraordinary happen, then they will see that God is truly in charge.
Right on cue, the earth miraculously opens up and swallows Korach, Datan, Aviram, and their families, before closing back up over them. As for the 250 rebellious leaders, God sends fire to consume them. And you thought politics was tough in Washington.
There’s a detail to this story that is easily overlooked — when Moses and Korach met in the town square for dueling fire-pans at high noon, only Korach actually lit his. It was shortly after this that the earth swallowed him up. It’s possible that this was another example of “esh zara,” or strange fire — the same enigmatic event that precipitated the death of Aaron’s sons that we read about a number of weeks ago. So there are a couple possibilities—maybe Korach’s real sin wasn’t in challenging Moses’s leadership — after all, he didn’t threaten bodily harm — but rather that he offered a sacrifice outside of God’s commandments, a much more serious transgression.
Furthermore, if that’s the case, then Moses completely set him up, didn’t he? He played Korach like a violin — knowing that he would be unable to resist a public showdown — then tricked him into lighting the fire pan. Moses never lit his.
This action-packed episode provides a great perspective to b’nei mitzvah kids about appropriate ways to support or challenge leaders. You have a right to make your opinions known, and to fight for a position of leadership if you think you would be the best person for the job. But is that what Korach was doing? Or was he seeking to put only his own interests first?
Hint: if you feel the earth about to open up beneath you, you might consider changing your strategy.
Previous week’s parshas:
Cantor Matt Axelrod (Congregation Beth Israel, Scotch Plains, NJ) is the author of “Surviving Your Bar/Bat Mitzvah: The Ultimate Insider’s Guide.” He’s always happy to hear from you and he might answer your question in a future column. You can email him at cantormatt
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