Method of Study
- first read this commentary
- then look up the references and read the parasha
- reflect on how the parasha relates to your personal
- memorize the plan
- until you are capable of teaching it by heart
Summary of the parasha
With the help of injunctions and examples, the parasha
teaches us why it is important for man to achieve a balance
in his life between what is terrestrial and what is divine,
for if he fails to do so, then death and destruction will
prevail among men.
The parasha teaches us this moral lesson in two ways:
in a negative form, through the example of Korah's political
and ideological revolt and his manipulative use of half-truths,
in a positive form, represented by Moshe's reaction to
Korah's perrfidy and in the rules for the organization
of the people which take into account the different levels
of existence (division into three categories: Cohanim-Levites-people,
the type of differentiation and the links that unite the
three categories, the role of donations).
It is against this background that the parasha describes
mitzvot nos. 388-396:
" The Cohanim and the Levites are given charge (mishmeret)
of parts of the Temple;
" The people are forbidden from entering these areas
or assuming the functions of the Cohanim and Levites;
" All human and animal firstborn must be redeemed,
except those of animals that are to be sacrificed;
" The Levites must accompany the sacrifices with
music and singing;
" The people must give a tenth of their harvest to
the Levites, who in turn must give a tenth to the Cohanim.
The commentary of the Shla will help us to understand
the meaning of these mitzvot.
meaning of the injunction to "keep charge of"
The injunction given to the Cohanim and the Levites to
"keep charge" of the Temple does not refer to
the dangers posed by robbers or enemies. Its aim is to
ensure the honor, dignity and beauty of the sanctity of
the Temple: ushemartem et mishmeret hakodesh, "and
ye shall keep charge of the holy things" (Bemidbar
18, 5). Tractate Berakhot (page 3a) in the Talmud comments
at length on the importance of the night guard and the
Sages, who understand the secrets of tradition (Zohar
I 188, II 196 a), abide by this injunction by studying
the Torah at night.
Let us try and understand this more. The Shla says that
the guard must be kept night after night (layela velayela),
which evokes the image of the Sages of the Pesah Haggada
who studied till the small hours of the morning.
not to fail?
An important question:
how does one sustain a constant level of holiness and
beauty during the night without weakening, for the night
is a time of fantasy, delirium and fear? Korah failed
on this point.
Psalm 91 (Yoshev beseter eliyon, He that dwelleth in the
secret place of the most High) seems to deal with this
problem. Let us read it and then analyze it:
1. In order to have faith, one must learn to dwell in
the "secret" (beseter) and "invisible"
presence of Hashem, as within a living fortress (metsudati)
to whom we talk to and to whom we direct our desires;
2. In this way, we will clearly not overcome the numerous
attacks against us, but these will be of no effect and,
sooner or later, our enemies will pay their dues.
3. What is this fortress, this place of safety and well-being?
It is the Torah, say the Sages, noting that the first
letters of the words of verses 8 and 9 of Psalm 91 ("beineika
tabit veshilumat reshaim tire ki.., with thine eyes shalt
thou behold and see the reward of the wicked, because
form the word beTorahtekha (by Your Torah); it is through
the Torah that man is linked to God and it is through
it that he is saved (verse 14). This is written explicitly
in the Torah: "ki-yada shemi, because he knows My
name." This knowledge comes solely from the Torah,
which was given to the Jewish people and which is studied
by a people who respect the covenant of the circumcision,
the key to all this knowledge.
4. The Psalm tells us where happiness is found:
- in marriage (beaholekha, the "tent" refers
- in all the ways of life which will be "guarded"
(lishmorekha, verse 11);
5. Two conditions are given: man's desires should be directed
towards Hashem and man should know Hashem through study.
- his prayer will be heard,
- Hashem will accompany him in his travails,
- he will join in the glory of Hashem,
- he will have a long life,
- he will find salvation;
7. The use of verbs with the suffix hu (the last letters
of the tetragram) in the last three verses of the Psalm
indicates the state of redemption and unity which will
be granted to those who know the Torah, whose totality
stands for the holiest name of Hashem.
I have used this Psalm in
order to illustrate more clearly what parasha Korah teaches
- to live one's life according to the Torah does not only
mean to live a religious life,
- the Torah prescribes a social and political organization
of the people in which the task of the different groupings
is to preserve life itself (this is the art of Judaism),
- all this is based on inner feelings,
- these feelings come from love and knowledge through
II. Rules and regulations for controlling
man's desire for power
The body of rules given in Korah are necessary because
even the most noble moral or religious ideals can turn
into destructive fanaticism if they are not controlled
by 2 criteria: reality and the teachings of the Torah.
In parasha Korah, the Torah seems to tell us that a noble
ideal will inevitably turn into tragedy unless it is regulated.
The first essential rule limits
the possession of power. This limitation is structured
in an order of 100-10-1: from 100 fruits of harvest, 10
are given to the Levites (maaser), who in turn give 1
from each of the 10 to the Cohanim. Read verse 18, 26;
the tithe (maaser) and the tithe of the tithe (maaser
min hamaaser). The Shla explains that, in this way, each
member of the people (represented as one of the 100) benefits
in two ways:
- on the one hand, his desire for complete power is limited
(he remains small as one of the group of 1000 and can
never be "the" 1),
- on the other hand, association with the Levites and
the Cohanim brings him closer to the 1 of the Cohanim,
which represents the holiness of Hashem who is One, ehad.
It is only through these two contradictory processes that
destructive tendencies common to the best of men, as in
the case of Korah, can be controlled and vanquished. Even
the sons of Aharon, Nadav and Avihu, perished because
their desires, though positive, were not controlled or
Regulation by adherence to
one's correct place
The Shla gives us this wise teaching: he who tries to
dwell in a place that is not his or that is above his
level within the divine plan will burn himself and even
This was the case with the sons of Aharon, and for the
children of Israel when they succumbed to an irrational
desire for the quails that fell from the skies; they had
hardly finished eating them when they died and the place
where they perished was called Kivrot-hataava ("the
tombs of envy," Bemidbar 11,34) . The Sages warn
us not to approach a place that is too divine for us,
where we will not be able to stand or even exist.
This is not just a lesson in modesty, for to be in one's
correct place means to be where we are connected with
Hashem, "in" His secret (beseter).
In contrast, what Korah's wife said to him (Tractate Sanhedrin,
page 110a) involved pure ambition and the desire to be
no. 1 without the presence of Hashem: "see what Moshe
did, he became the king, he made his brother the Cohen
gadol, the high priest and the sons of Aharon, his assistants.
He receives the offerings and from what should come to
you as a descendant of the Levites, he takes a tenth for
the Cohen. He made you shave your head and humiliates
you as one does with prisoners ; all this because he envied
the beauty of your hair."
Regulation through the klal
The Shla analyzes at length the rules of Talmudic logic
and shows how in the Torah everything is inter-connected.
This is the uniqueness of Judaism, as opposed to the religions
which claim to derive from Judaism but which abandoned
the oral law found in the Talmud.
The Shla demonstrates that the klal ufrat rule is based
on a general rule which applies to all levels of existence
and to the Torah: indeed there are only thirteen points
in all the Mishna and the Talmud on which the Sages do
not disagree: these are the thirteen rules of interpretation
(middot) of Rabbi Yishmael.
These rules are based on the first rule, which is the
klal ufrat. We have already encountered this important
rule in parasha Behar (refer to it). The reasoning is
as follows: whenever there is a general rule and at the
same time a specific case is given, it is only the specific
case which counts. This means that the general rule (klal)
is correct and must be acknowledged but it does not relate
to our limited world where only the specific (prat), i.e.
what is limited, is evident. The specific detail (prat)
is that which is revealed (the nigla), while the general
(the klal) belongs to the realm of what is hidden (the
nistar). Judaism is not based on false ideals or false
leaders, and no false messiah ever succeeded in imposing
himself over the Jewish people. This is because we have
been given numerous rules that help us overcome false
leaders, irrespective of their gifts or the miracles they
accomplish. These rules are described in detail in Devarim.
The Jewish balance between
what is general-ideal and what is specific-concrete. This
means that Judaism:
does not make simplistic black/white differentiations
(with all the good on one side and the bad on the other);
it differentiates between different components;
and does not eliminate any element;
but inter-connects them.
Thus the Cohen represents the klal (the ideal), and the
people represent the prat (the specific).
There is the same connection between the neshama (soul)
and the body (prat).
The ideal is as real as reality and if it is absent the
body becomes a corpse; at the same time it must remain
separate from concrete reality.
Let's take an example: In the Psalms, the Hebrew word
for money (kesef) and the word for desire (nikhsefa, Psalm
84, 3) have the same root: for desire must not be based
on material things like money and money must not be separated
from the feelings of desire that motivate it. Read the
The ideal goal, the klal, is to know Hashem and to love
Him, to "know His name" as says Psalm 91, 14,
but this ideal desire is false and dangerous if it is
not preceded by the study of the Torah and if it is not
based on the Torah. If this is absent, men can easily
claim that they murdered or carried evil actions in the
name of "their God," while these actions are
in fact projections of their own personal desires. When
the prat believes it is the klal, believes it is God,
it becomes crazy and kills.
God, the absolute, can only be "known" by men
- who live within boundaries and limitations - through
a complex process of discovery and study.
The same concept is found
in the unity of the name of God, which is expressed in
the 27 letters of the alphabet (klal) but can only be
discovered through the 304, 805 letters of the Torah (prat).
Those who do not know these letters and their inter-connections
cannot claim that they know God or His divine plan ; and
they can even less claim to know the reasons for God's
actions. This is a lesson in modesty, particularly for
those who aspire to lead our people.
Let's return to the aggada.
The same page of the Talmud (Sanhedrin 110a) tells us
that Korah is the son of Yizhar (Bemidbar 16,1) because
he succeeded in setting fire to the world, like the fire
of midday (tsohorayim). Madness reigns. But the wife of
On (cited in the same verse) succeeds in preventing her
husband from joining the prevailing madness. This is what
she told him:
don't get involved in this plot ; there is no difference
between Moshe or Korah as leader, because you will always
be small among the people.
but, he answered, I don't know what to do as I am part
of the plot against Moshe and I have taken an oath together
with the other conspirators.
I shall save you (she made him drunk and let her hair
loose ; when the plotters came to fetch On, they saw the
two together and let them be ; the plotters all perished).
On's wife succeeded in saving her husband and brought
him down to size.
The story concludes thus: this illustrates Mishle (Proverbs)
14, 1: "every wise woman buildeth her house, this
is the wife of On, son of Peleth, hokhmat nashim baneta
An impostor is someone who tries to impose on the public
his own fantasies, which he claims to be those of God.
History is replete with religious and political dictators
who reaped bloodshed and destruction in the name of a
religion which they and their disciples perverted, and
in the name of the "new" message and revelation
they claimed to bring to the world. History keeps repeating
itself, filling cemeteries with widescale slaughter.
I wish to add a personal clarification on the Shla's commentary.
When the Shla writes of the connection 1-10-100, he adds
(referring to the 22,000 Levites) that this is also the
secret of the connection 2-20-200: in Hebrew he writes
sod alef-youd-kuf beit-khaf-reish. Indeed, when feelings
of desire and love are organized and controlled, both
in men and women, the connection 1-10-100 is doubled and
becomes 2-10-200. Analyzing this in Hebrew, we note that
2-20-200 represents the connection between the letters
of the word benediction (barakh, beit = 2, reish = 2000,
khaf = 20). But a specific order is required for benediction
first beit (2), creation begins with the twinning of all
things in the world (the Shla notes that this fact is
stressed by Rashi in his commentary on Bereshit 1, 4 and
then there is an enormous extension of the 2, attaining
the multiple dimensions of 200 for each member of a pair,
this finally reaches a median balance of 20, which is
connected both to the ideal and to the specific ; when
this comes from Hashem, it means that a state of berakha,
benediction has descended on man. Youd, in Hebrew, has
a numerical value both of 10 (written as the single letter)
and 20 (written as the word youd) and represents the union
of man and woman.
Tyranny in relationships
Instead of total union, many couples base their relationships
on partial knowledge of each other: this leads to dissatisfaction,
tyranny, non-communication, and exploitation. Parents
also often avoid examining their tyrannical attitudes
towards their children. These children, not surprisingly,
often become tyrannical spouses in their turn and the
cycle of domestic violence continues.
An example of differentiation
Rashi writes that from the first day of Creation and from
the first verse of the Torah, everything was given (this
is the klal): this is shown in the use of the word et,
which encompasses everything, in et hashamyim ve et haaretz
(the heavens and the earth). Then what was created globally
is placed within its particular day of creation, within
its time and finally the whole process is entrusted by
God to man so that he will "do" (laasot, Bereshit
2, 3) according to the divine plan. This balanced, progressive
approach does not renounce the ideal, but teaches patience
and wisdom in the development of man's personal and inter-personal
life and for society as a whole.
C. Korah's pretext
I shall now present a detailed exposition of the problem
posed by Korah. It is an important educational lesson
for all us.
12 sons of Yaakov
250 plotters from 11 tribes
(excluding the Levites) join Korah in the plot against
1. The descendants of Reuven
and his children and his son:
Datan and Aviram On
(allied to Korah) (allied to Korah)
3. The descendants of Levi
Gershon 1. Amram Uziel
Aharon 1.Korah Hevron Michael
Miriam Nefeg Elzafan
Moshe Zikhri Sitri
Follow the commentary with the help of the table.
The quarrel takes place among the descendants of Levi,
the third son of Yaakov, and a loyal tribe.
The quarrel begins when Korah attacks his cousin Moshe:
Korah believes he has the same leadership rights as his
cousins and he claims that these privileges have been
concentrated by Moshe:
in the hands of Moshe's siblings, in respect of spiritual
in the hands of Elzafan, in respect of material matters.
Using perfidious means and
contradictory arguments, Korah succeeds in mounting a
he claims that all the people are holy (Bemidbar 16, 3),
not just Moshe's siblings and that the latter's duties
should be divided among all the tribes. In this way he
succeeds in pleasing everyone;
he claims that Moshe is a third child, who took the rightful
power away from elder descendants of Kehath, such as Korah.
This argument is baseless as Korah is a descendant of
Levi who was a third child like Moshe;
but with this argument, Korah succeeds in mobilizing Datan,
Aviram, and On, the descendants of Reuven. He uses them
because they are placed close to him in the south of the
camp. See table.
he claims that Elzafan - who is the second of 4 sons -
has no rights.
he uses every form of attack against Moshe, whom he accuses
of having sexual relations with many men's wives (see
Psalm 106, 16), so much so that Moshe has to pitch his
tent outside of the camp (Shemot 33, 7).
In all of this, Korah rejects the word of God.
The nature of the quarrel
Korah chose to mount his attack at the difficult time
when the people were in the desert, when they were feeling
helpless and had begun to doubt Moshe's promises (where
is the land of milk and honey?).
Then, instead of analyzing the situation according to
the Torah, he assembles a group of frustrated men and
attacks Moshe with false demagogic arguments disguised
in logical, democratic terms, i.e.we are all equal, we
are all holy. His main treachery was in claiming that
he was championing the cause of the people, not his own.
Korah was in fact one of the richest men among the people.
It is written (Sanhedrin 110a) that he discovered one
of the three treasures hidden by Yosef and that 300 mules
were needed just to transport the keys of his coffers.
He was Pharaoh's treasurer while his brothers were in
Political and union leaders similarly claim today to represent
the people, while they are in fact rich dictators. And
the same moral and democratic terms are used today to
achieve power, as though these values are no more than
a tool in the battle to gain power.
Many similar attacks have
and are being waged against Israel, both from within and
outside the country. Rashi describes the attack (16, 19-22),
basing himself on Middrash Tanhuman (7): "Korah incited
the people against Moshe and Aharon throughout the night,
claiming: do you think I care just for myself? I am defending
the interests of the whole people. These men have taken
over all the top positions, Moshe the royalty, Aharon
the priesthood. And everyone was convinced."
D - Moshe's response
Moshe does not respond to Korah in kind. He remains faithful
to Hashem, to the fear of Hashem, to humility (he falls
on his face, he prays) and he proposes another form of
combat - that of the censers placed at the tent of meeting
with Hashem (see poem).
Why? Moshe wants to maintain the quarrel at a spiritual
level, for this is the raison d'etre of his role as leader.
He stresses the fact that Korah's attack is against Hashem.
In this, Moshe displays a uniquely Jewish response: he
does not fall for the false arguments with which power
struggles are waged in the name of high moral ideals.
He affirms: I am accused of not acting on behalf of Hashem,
but on behalf of my own interests, but this attack is
an attack against Hashem and it is the plan of Creation
and of kedusha (holiness) which is being put into question.
And if you attack creation, it will devour you.
As in creation, women played an important role in this
story (Tractate Sanhedrin 110a): Korah's wife encouraged
him in his plot, as did Aman's wife; Moshe was accused
of neglecting his wife; while On's wife helped him to
disentangle himself from Korah's plot.
We must not despair because
of such human perfidy: indeed, Korah's sons were great
sages and 9 Psalms are dedicated to them (see the beginning
of Psalms 45, 46, 47, 48, 49, 84, 85,87, 88).
Readers should reflect at
length on this story and on the personal implications
it has for them.
Rabbenu Bahya teaches us some moral lessons based on the
Book of Proverbs and other sources:
he who trusts in his wealth will fail (Korah and Aman
were the richest men in the world), but the tzaddik will
reap his fruits;
he who prays for his friend, while he himself is in need,
will be recompensed: he who does not pray for his friend
will be punished;
the tzaddik who always has faith in Hashem will have his
prayers fulfilled. See Mishle, Proverbs 1, 27-28.
It is important for all of
us to erase, from our minds, thoughts and attitudes akin
to those of Korah. This is the exercise we must do at
the end of the parasha. You can discuss how to do this
with your spouse, friends, colleagues or study partners.
Identify the teachings of the parasha in the story of
On's wife and Korah's wife.
This story should also be
analyzed from the perspective of current, social implications.
It is important to erase, from our social and political
life, all thoughts and attitudes akin to those of Korah.
This should make us think about our role as Jews. Our
values should not be reduced to simple collective, democratic
values, and our actions should not be based on laws other
than those of the Torah. How often have Jews been attacked
with the same tactics as those used by Korah and how often
have Jews themselves attacked those who teach the Torah,
in order to avoid adhering to its message.
level for advanced students
Read: Bemidbar Rabba ch. 18.
Tractate Pessahim 119a. Tractate Sanhedrin 110a.
The remez level of interpretation
This level is no different to what has been written above,
but requires knowledge of the references cited in the
commentaries, the middrashim and the Talmud.
Those who have acquired this knowledge will find many
connections in other passages of the Torah and other works.
These connections or allusions (remez) are based on letters
and their numerical value (gematria).
Here is one example: Korah's attitude to Moshe recalls
Cain's hatred for Abel (Hevel). Moshe is aware of this
and succeeds in creating a reparation, tikkun. We can
see this in the following gematriot: Hevel (37) + Korah
(308) = Moshe (345). This is our mission: whatever our
faults or sins, we are here in order to improve the world
and make a tikkun (reparation), and teshuva (return).
Many combinations of letters in the Torah show clearly
that Korah, in contrast, took the bad sides of both Cain
and Abel. This is summarized in the first word of the
parasha: Korah "took" vayakah Korah.
Are we people who "take" or are we people who
give and receive? This is the essential question.
The Incense Battle
Against the uncouth barbarian
who tramples on flowers
against the rich upstart
who humiliates the poor
against the brainy know-all
drunk on his sophistry
and valet to our princes
I shall always set the incense
impalpable and troubling
which penetrates and intoxicates
and strips all masks.
Son of the people of the dew
and of the incense
I recite every day its composition
of three hundred and sixty eight
which dispel the death
We shall see who wins.