DEDICATION: To all people killed or who have lost family members or loved ones in terrorist attacks --
may their souls be bound up with the One and may their loved ones find comfort and healing.
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Welcome to the renewal of this weekly practice. I have missed it as my schedule became too hectic to write down the impact of the weekly Parsha. Fortunately, I can now return to this practice since my workload is returning to its normal pace.
A few weeks ago in June, I was awarded a Masters from Siegal College of Judaic Studies. I want to take this opportunity to thank all of the people there -- the Professors and the administrative folks and even my fellow students. While it was a brief time and I will most likely continue to take some classes at the college, it feels appropriate to comment just a bit on the experience.
I am going to start by mentioning some of the janitorial and service staff. During my time at Siegal, the College experienced a serious upgrade of the heating and cooling system. Now, my engineering background comes into play here -- there is never an easy transition from one system to its upgrade, no matter what the contractor promises or even tries to do. Life happens. And yet, these folks, who usually end up feeling the brunt of any such "glitches" still took the time to smile at students and professors and do what they could to help us through the rough spots.
And then there were the student encounters -- such community. Whether it was forming a ring to chant healing prayers for one student who had a loved one undergoing extremely dangerous surgery or simply discussing a fine point of something the Rov (Solevechick) said or debating on the translation of a Chassidic text, the students at the College are truly great folk. Smiles and hugs are commonplace in the hallways as students greet each other and exchange a few words between classes.
Administrative staff, from the library to the various offices that keep the college running -- you folks are awesome! The many "little" things that you do that keep things from becoming "big things" are beyond number -- and I am sure that only know about a fraction of what you do in a typical week.
Professors -- what can I say? Thanks so much! Thanks for the great classes and the stimulating discussions and the assignments that challenged me. I appreciate the time many of you took to talk to me in the hall from time to time, whether to share an interesting thought or to teach some sage advice at a critical moment. Diverse topics, diverse styles -- I learned not only the material of the class, but also practical techniques to hone my own teaching skills. I will not be able to teach myself without seeing your faces and expressions time and again or hearing your voices and inflections. Thanks for the structured teaching and for the rest of what you taught.
As we marched in for the ceremony and were "counted off", the hours spent in study and in class coalesced. I ask that it be the will of the One that I carry forth your instruction and give it back into the community in a way that brings the college the credit it deserves.
1. Parsha details: Num 16:1-18:32 [ Haftorah I Samuel 11:14-12:22 ]
2. Questions and a few observations
Summary: Power struggle with Korakh of Levi and with Datan and Aviram of Reuben, Korakh's earthly/fiery death, descension, twelve rods, first born and tithes.
Oy, what a Parsha. This one isn't a WOW, it's an Oy! And it's not really a surprise -- we had a serious warning about this in the very first Parsha of this Sefer (book), however that warning is simply there and there is no indication if it was heeded or missed.
Korakh and 250 Priest Wanna-bes challenge Moshe and Arahon. Also, Datan and Aviram and some Reubenites also challenge Moshe, but they are more resistant than struggling. There are two separate incidents/events here and it is not easy to piece the parts apart. Since they deal with the subject of opposition to leadership they become lumped together.
And the telling, the listening in this Parsha -- that's dramatic and quite suspenseful. Torah Drama, to be sure. So is Torah being allegorical or simply recounting something that has lived in memory for a long time before it was committed to parchment?
Let's look at some of the features. The Hebrew is very idiomatic -- the phrase "rav lachem" only appears eight times in Tanach (one usage is not idiomatic, the words just happen to be together), five times in Torah and twice in this section. Another idiomatic phrase is the use of ham'at, also used two times in this section. This word is used the same way by Leah when she challenged Rachel about the mandrakes (Gen 30). Otherwise, it is used to indicate less or least three more times in Torah (what the spies should check out, how cities are to be given to the Levi'im, and that Yisra'el was the least among nations in Egypt). It is used six time in the rest of Tanach in a similar idiomatic usage.
Does this mean that this story was fabricated in a later time? No. It could simply be that the story is very ancient (and I will explain some features that support this) and that the retelling of it got more dramatic as time went by and later idiomatic usage became part of the dialogue between the main characters. To me, the "problems" in Torah are part of the proof of antiquity of the core tradition (or story or account). If someone were to fabricate this entire volume at a much later date, it would have been much more coherent and the points the writer wanted to make would be clear and irrefutable, without "problems" in the text. That is was edited, probably many, many times, I have no problem with -- that does not detract from the essence that is there.
I believe that it is no accident that Torah is exactly the way that it is -- so that we can layer through it, drash, search, wrestle or whatever. Torah's problems are there for us to dig into and learn what we can so that we can use it for our situations today.
One such problem is Korakh. He is from the house of Levi. And he is a Cohen (at least a Cohen wanna-be), but he is not a son of Aharon. Is this the story of an internal power struggle in the house of Levi? Is this the result of Aharon and Moshe failing to heed the warning not to cut them off from the rest of the family? (Num 4:18-20) [see also on my website the discussion on Parsha Bemidbar for more discussion on this point]
Korakh and his 250 (a nice round number) have censers and they know how to use them. And Torah talks about the Mishkan of Korakh. Now, mishkan can just mean a house, a dwelling place. Our did Korakh establish his own little priestly practice? And were Datan and Aviram part of Korakh's congregation? Torah refers to "eydat Korakh", so this may well be.
The telling gets confusing here. Moshe has separate arguments with Korakh and his 250 censer-bearers and then with Datan and Aviram, the powerful and politically-well-connected princes of Reuven. The elders of Yisrael trek along behind Moshe as he goes from place to place, so this is a VERY public dispute.
Let's look at the parts a bit more closely:
Korakh and Datan and Aviram and Ohn are doing their thing, saying to Moshe (who may not have been physically there, by the way), "This is enough -- the whole people is Holy, YHVH is in our midst -- who are you to be higher?"
Moshe learns about this. He talks to Korakh and challenges him and the 250 to the censer showdown. Korakh must have been nearby or Moshe went to Korakh's place -- Torah isn't clear. There are two discussions here, the first one ending in "rav lachem" (Enough, sons of Levi!) In the second one, Moshe is asking them why they aren't satisfied with their designated Levi status, do they also want the K'huna, the priesthood? Or is there a particular reason for their actions? Torah records no answer.
Moshe summons Datan and Aviram, who do not come and send back the message: "Aren't you ashamed that you led us out of Mitzrayim to die here? You promised us a great land and we aren't there -- so you want to be our prince?" (We won't come to you, you come to us...)
Moshe is angry and turns to YHVH (in the presence of the Elders?) declaring that he has done nothing to them that warrants this attitude. What a great little piece of dramatics. And there is no response from YHVH.
Moshe turns to Korakh and sets the date for the censer showdown. Torah's tomorrow.
And Korakh and the 250 and Moshe and Aharon stand in the door to the Tent of Meeting with their lit censers.
Then the Glory of YHVH appears and Moshe and Aharon (and others?) pray that the sins of the few not be visited upon all (another interesting public dramatic display).
Then Moshe goes to Datan and Aviram (Elders in tow) telling them to leave the Mishkan of Korakh. They do, but they then appear, armed, at the openings to their tents, with wives and children alongside (for protection?)
Moshe announces that what is about to happen is not his doing, not from his heart, but from YHVH.
And there is fire and tumult, earth opening its fiery mouths, destruction and so on. Korakh and his men (not his sons according to Num 26) and Datan and Aviram and all of their families and possessions perish spectacularly.
Eleazar, Aharon's son, takes the censers that somehow survived (perhaps left at the Tent of Meeting?) and starts to remake them into a cover for the altar.
The next day, the people blame Moshe and Aharon for killing "a nation of YHVH". Obviously THEY did not perceive the fiery deaths as being from YHVH.
And now, a cut away from the Drama to the scene that just might have been happening in the Heavenly Abode -- YHVH says "Oy - this is getting out of hand and there is not an easy solution. I will have to be a little heavy handed here to let Moshe get on with leading this people." So....
A plague breaks out and kills 14,700 on top of the killing of Korakh and company.
The rod ceremony, symbolizing national healing, where Aharon's rod (Levi) blooms and yields fruit and the others do not. Aharon, as the sole representative of Levi, blooms, whereas the other twelve rods for the land-owning tribes does not. Levi is now unified under Aharon as prince and priest, as is all of Yisrael.
3. Some Observations
The story in this Parsha is about civil war versus civil disagreements. When do brethren cross the line between differences of opinion and war? When do people become so entrenched in their positions, that retreat is no longer possible?
How much of what happened was purely the doings of Korakh and Datan, Aviram and Ohn? Was any of it Moshe's fault? Obviously, Torah is written from Moshe viewpoint, but even so, let's dig into this a bit.
Korakh starts the ball in action with saying against (not to) Moshe, "Enough! (rav lachem) who are you to be prince?" Moshe answers "Enough! (rav lachem) sons of Levi." (and not my brothers)
Then Moshe says to Korakh, without an answer to his earlier comments, "Hear, I beg you, sons of Levi, aren't you ashamed......? Do you want the Priesthood? And why are you doing this, anyway?" And then Moshe sends for Datan and Aviram (and not Ohn, who disappears from the story) and they answer "We aren't coming. Aren't you ashamed....."
Do you think Korakh, Datan, Aviram and Ohn talked? Might the message in Datan and Aviram's response been, "why should we bother to come when all you're going to do is chastise us?"
By today's teachings on listening, I would guess that Korakh never heard Moshe asking him to talk about things. And since that came so late in the dialogue, did Moshe really want to know? He puts out two barbs and then almost seems to be wondering out loud at why this is happening. Reading his lines makes it seem that he did not want this to be resolved amicably.
The initial dispute between Korakh's group and Moshe is about Moshe's leadership. By now, they have been journeying for at least two years on an eleven day trip. Moshe had told them that the Land would be "flowing with Milk and Honey (very lush and fertile)", which obviously, the wilderness is not. They were happy with the status quo in Egypt, this was supposed to be better. And so on.
The usual gripes in Torah. Again, my listening training tells me that something else is really the issue here.
Ah, yes. At the start of this sefer, Moshe was warned about his treatment of the sons of Kohat (Korakh is a son of Kohat, the dull one) The warning was to Aharon and sons "Don't you kheret the clan, the dull, sodden (Kohat) families, from the tribe of Levi." Again, kheret means to cut off, but it can also mean demean, undermine. Hebrew is so powerful.
This particular family carried their part of the Mishkan on foot while the other Levi'im used carts. And how did their tasks compare when they were camped? Sometimes, when our load is difficult, it is hard to recognize that it is special. Kohat's tasks were -- these parts of the Mishkan were too precious to be bounced around in a cart. But did they understand that? Was that their fault or could Aharon have explained it better to them? And could they have been awarded more community recognition of the importance of their role, or was that overlooked in the daily affairs? Was Moshe too overworked in his effort to supervise everything that he failed to recognize the needs of Korakh's family? (They were not a minor family -- 11 Psalms are credited to them)
Well, we may never know the real causes for this civil war, but we can certainly learn to do more to prevent one around us.
Is what we are saying and doing for a blessing? Does it empower people, facilitate harmony or enable others to feel self-worth. Or do we take people, especially the dull and sodden ones, for granted? Do we remember to let others know that we appreciate what they do for us and for the community, especially when it is not obvious to all? Some sins are acts of omission, rather than commission.
4. Purifying Intimacy
How can the Parsha be about purifying intimacy? Perhaps some insight can be given by recognizing that this is the Yesod shebe'Hod (Foundation within Glory) and from that understanding a connection between the actions of the characters and the appropriate emanations can be seen. The relationship between the community and its leader is indeed the foundation upon which Glory is built.
This Parsha shows several interesting aspects in the dynamics of the days in the wilderness. Both sides are not intent on conflict resolution and neither side is able to see their own role in the events. Of course, we only get the little vignette of the story as it appears in the Parsha -- not all of the things that have led up to it. And so we need to work with what we have.
YHVH is letting Moshe run the show until it gets way out of control and it is as if the plague is a reminder to Moshe and Aharon that their role is about serving the people. Once YHVH voices his anger with the people and the plague starts, Moshe realizes that Aharon must get into the midst of the people and serve them, atone for them, lead them to YHVH. And as soon as Aharon does this, establishing the line between the deadened and the living, Yisrael can start to heal from the terrible rift in the upper levels of Cohanim and civil authority.
5. Rav Sholom (z'l) used to say.....
The Bride is torn in her approach to the Groom. The terms of the Ketubah have been placed before her and she delays. She should be preparing her finery and getting ready for her special day. Instead, she questions herself about what gems to wear on that special day. The Groom has given her sapphires and rubies and shown her how to string them. And she looks also at other gems that are not as precious. In her desire to string them all together and thereby create a longer, perhaps more beautiful strand, she mixes the fine and precious gems with those that are of lesser quality.
As she tries the strand around her neck, the lesser gems turn out to be colored glass and they have sharp edges that cut the silk string she used to strand the gems. The gems fall to the ground and are dispersed everywhere. This is a foreshadowing of the dispersion we still feel as we see the gems of our people rolling away from us and into cracks and crevices, as if the very earth were swallowing them up.
And as she scrambles to find them and pick them up, she finds that they are sharp and she cuts herself on them and bleeds. After considerable effort, the Bride is able to separate out the precious stones, putting the glass ones in a container. She fashions a beautiful necklace out of the precious gems. When she tries on the necklace, it is as if blossoms have sprouted around her neck, she can almost smell the sweet fragrance of the spicy blooms. And so she can continue the preparations for her wedding day.
1. Incense and smoke: Ponder incense and either see or watch its smoke rise. See the movement of the swirls of smoke as they rise. Smell the sweet fragrance and feel it permeate the room and the Self. Allow the smoke to carry some sweet part of you into the Heavens and feel it blend with other spiritual Selfs. Know that you are part of a conscious community and be in the resulting flow that descends gently from above, feeling and joining with the essence and the wonder.
2. Blossoms: Consider a branch of a flowering bush. Every winter the branch becomes bare and naked. No leaves adorn it. If it has become severed from the bush it will dry out and die. If, however, it remains connected to the bush from which it has grown, then the winter is only a period of dormancy, of sleep. When spring comes, the life fluids once again course through it and it comes alive and blossoms in its celebration of life. After blooming it can turn its attention to supporting leaves which nourish the bush and give it the substance it needs to maintain the branches and give them life again the following spring. Consider the number of times that this cycle has repeated itself since the first bush was created.
3. Flame: Ponder a flame. See it as a gentle flame atop a Shabbat candle. See it as a flickering light above an Ark. Feel its force when fire comes from the earth either as a wildfire or as a volcano. Delve into the range of fire from the gentle flame you can put your finger through to the incredible fire that vaporized all before it. Fire can warm. Fire can cleanse. Fire can destroy. Our Soul is a flame that burns within us. When is that flame not felt, when does it warm us, when does it enlighten us? When does it cleanse us? When does it consume us? How can we benefit from that flame without getting burnt?
ADS: ALEPH -- the Alliance for Jewish renewal. www.aleph.org If you aren't a member yet, please give very serious consideration to joining. The magazine, New Menorah, alone, is worth whatever you give. (Plus it helps pay for the rabbinic program where I am studying!)
You can order the Torah Cards and my jewelry through Mercaz at (216)595-0707 -- ask for Larry)
There are many traditional interpretations of the parsha that I neither talk about nor mention. That is done from a position of space. I trust that the average reader is either familiar with these or can find many of them easily in other commentaries readily available.
Thanks for reading this. If I have offended you, please forgive me -- that was not my intention. If you found some joy or happiness in reading this, thank you for allowing me to be a part. If you found a reason to think about something more deeply - kol hakavod and thank you!
And to the people giving me feedback thank you so much! I enjoy all of it. (Including the typos) You have made this weekly practice wonderful.
(c) 2003 Candy Lobb All rights reserved