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By Rabbi Yitzchak Etshalom | Series: | Level:


Our Parashah is made up of two parts: a narrative (Chapters 16-17) and a series of laws (Chapter 18). The narrative describes a rebellion involving Korach, Datan and Aviram and 250 leaders from among the various tribes (see Ramban at 16:5). [Rabbi Menachem Liebtag has astutely pointed out that our story weaves together two independent insurrections – his shiur can be found at] It also includes the death of the rebel leaders and of the Divine approval of the selection of Levi as the “chosen tribe”. The laws in Chapter 18 include various gifts given to the Kohanim and Levi’im – known as “Mat’not Kehunah uL’viyah”. The connection between narrative and law in this Parashah is quite obvious – once the selection of Aharon (and future Kohanim) and the Levi’im has been reaffirmed, it is the most appropriate location to introduce/review the various “taxes” accorded to them.

The narrative itself has many difficulties:

  • When did this rebellion (or these rebellions) take place?
  • Against whom was it directed (God, Mosheh, Aharon, the Levi’im)?
  • What was the real motivation of Korach – and was it the same as his comrades?

The answers to these three questions may be interrelated; since, if Korach was truly motivated by a spirit of populist sanctity, it would be hard to date the rebellion; however, if it is (as Ramban suggests) against the “switching” of the sanctity of the B’khorot (first-born) for the Levi’im, then it would fit right into Parashat Bamidbar, where the Levi’im are reckoned separately – or perhaps in Parashat B’ha’alot’kha, where the sanctification ceremony of the Levi’im is detailed.

Besides these general questions relating to the rebellion, the beginning of the story – specifically, Mosheh’s reaction to Korach’s demands – raises several questions of a more local nature:

Now Korach son of Yitz’har son of K’hat son of Levi, along with Datan and Aviram sons of Eliav, and On son of Pelet – descendants of Re’uven – took two hundred fifty Israelite men, leaders of the congregation, chosen from the assembly, well-known men, and they confronted Mosheh. They assembled against Mosheh and against Aharon, and said to them, “*Rav Lakhem* (You have gone too far!) All the congregation are holy, everyone of them, and Hashem is among them. So why then do you exalt yourselves above the assembly of Hashem?” When Mosheh heard it, he fell on his face. Then he said to Korach and all his company, “In the morning Hashem will make known who is His, and who is holy, and who will be allowed to approach Him; the one whom He will choose He will allow to approach Him. Do this: take censers, Korach and all your company, and tomorrow put fire in them, and lay *K’toret* (incense) on them before Hashem; and the man whom Hashem chooses shall be the holy one. *Rav Lakhem B’nei Levi* (You Levi’im have gone too far!(?))” Then Mosheh said to Korach, “Hear now, you Levi’im! Is it too little for you that the God of Israel has separated you from the congregation of Israel, to allow you to approach Him in order to perform the duties of Hashem’s tabernacle, and to stand before the congregation and serve them? He has allowed you to approach Him, and all your brother Levi’im with you; yet you seek the priesthood as well! Therefore you and all your company have gathered together against Hashem. What is Aharon that you rail against him?” (Bamidbar 16:1-11)

And Mosheh said to Korach, “As for you and all your company, be present tomorrow before Hashem, you and they and Aharon; and let each one of you take his censer, and put K’toret on it, and each one of you present his censer before Hashem, two hundred fifty censers; you also, and Aharon, each his censer.” So each man took his censer, and they put fire in the censers and laid K’toret on them, and they stood at the entrance of the tent of meeting with Mosheh and Aharon. Then Korach assembled the whole congregation against them at the entrance of the tent of meeting. And the glory of Hashem appeared to the whole congregation. (ibid vv. 16-19)



Mosheh’s reaction to Korach is puzzling on several accounts:

  • Why did Mosheh repeat his instructions for the “selection test” of the K’toret (vv. 6-7 and v. 17)?
  • In the first instance (v. 6), Mosheh tells Korach and his group to “take censers” – indicating that they did not already have a designated censer for each leader; in the second instance (v. 17), he says: “and let each one of you take his censer”, implying that each leader already had a “personal” censer.
  • Why did Mosheh choose this particular “test”? After the Nadav and Avihu tragedy (Vayyikra 10:1-2), wasn’t the “danger” inherent in an improperly offered K’toret made obvious to all? Wasn’t Mosheh effectively threatening Korach and his group with Divine death by inducing them to offer this improper K’toret? And from Korach’s perspective – wasn’t he committing suicide by going along with Mosheh’s plan? Surely he and his entire group knew what had happened to Aharon’s sons on the day of Mishkan-dedication!
  • A seemingly ancillary question: When Korach and his followers confront Mosheh in front of the Mishkan, the Torah tells us that “the Glory of Hashem appeared before the entire congregation” (16:19); when the people complain to Mosheh and Aharon that they have “killed the nation of Hashem” (17:6), they all turn to the Mishkan, which is “covered by the Cloud, and the Glory of Hashem appeared”. Why is the Cloud mentioned only the second time – after the death of the rebel leaders – but not during their confrontation with Mosheh?
  • Another ancillary question (or so it seems): Mosheh had prayed on behalf of the people several times (in response to the sin of the golden calf, the sin relating to the spies); but only here, when God threatens to destroy the people in response to the Korach rebellion, does Mosheh address God as *E-l Elo-hei haRuchot l’Khol Basar* – “the God of the spirits of all flesh” – a phrase he used only one other time. When Mosheh asked that God appoint his successor (Bamidbar 27:16), he addressed Him as *Elo-hei haRuchot l’Khol Basar*. What is the meaning of this Divine address and why is it used exclusively in these two places by Mosheh?



    In the description of the Avodat Toharat haMikdash (the service of purification of the Sanctuary), which we associate with Yom haKippurim, the Torah tells us that:

    [Aharon] shall take a censer full of coals of fire from the altar before Hashem, and two handfuls of crushed sweet K’toret, and he shall bring it inside the curtain and put the K’toret on the fire before Hashem, that the cloud of the K’toret may cover the mercy seat that is upon the covenant, or he will die. (Vayyikra 16:13)

    Generating the “cloud of the K’toret” (*’Anan haK’toret*) is the apparent purpose of burning the K’toret itself – in other words, Aharon was told to burn the K’toret in such a manner as the cloud of smoke would cover the entire Kapporet. The Gemara infers from the last two words in this verse that if he does not successfully “encloud” the Holy of Holies with the smoke of the K’toret, that he is liable for death (BT Yoma 53a; see MT Avodat Yom haKippurim 5:25). Indeed, the opening phrase of the description of the Avodat Yom haKippurim in the Torah introduces the K’toret:

    Hashem said to Moses: Tell your brother Aaron not to come just at any time into the sanctuary inside the curtain before the mercy seat that is upon the ark, or he will die; for I appear in the cloud upon the mercy seat. (Vayyikra 16:2)

    This “cloud” is understood by our Rabbis to refer to the cloud of the K’toret (see BT Yoma ibid., MT Avodat Yom haKippurim 1:7).

    As Ramban points out (introduction to Parashat Terumah), the many facets of the Mishkan were established in order to maintain a permanent connection and association with the stand at Sinai – to wit, to take Sinai on the road to Eretz Yisra’el. Since the K’toret, in its most central use, was intended to create a cloud of smoke that would fill the Holy of Holies, it is easy to understand the parallel with Har Sinai. Just as Sinai was covered with an *’Av he’Anan* (thick cloud) during the Revelation (Sh’mot 19:16; 24,15-18), similarly, the Mishkan was to be covered with the ‘Anan haK’toret when God’s Presence was to be made most manifest.

    Regarding the cloud which covered Sinai, God told Mosheh:

    I am going to come to you in an *’Av ha’Anan*, in order that the people may hear when I speak with you and so trust you ever after. (Sh’mot 19:9).

    In other words, Mosheh’s continued “successful” existence inside of this *’Av ha’Anan* would establish and strengthen his leadership and the people’s faith that he was, indeed, God’s prophet. (See Ramban ad loc.)

    We can now “connect the dots” and understand the relevance of using the K’toret – the replica of the Sinai-cloud – to demonstrate the propriety of Mosheh’s selection, as well as that of Aharon and the Levi’im.

    Our answer, however, only takes us halfway – why did Mosheh choose this “dangerous” demonstration and why did Korach and his followers take him up on it?

    In addition, our earlier questions (of a more local nature) remain unanswered. In order to understand them, we have to examine why the ‘Anan – and its K’toret substitute – would represent and demonstrate Divine selection.



    In the Pesikta Rabbati (21:4), we read:

    R. Yanai said: The Torah which God gave to Mosheh included forty-nine arguments in favor of purity and forty-nine arguments in favor of impurity [on any given question]…[Mosheh] asked: “How should we rule?” – to which God answered: “If those who argue in favor of impurity are the majority, it is impure; if those who argue in favor of purity are the majority, it is pure.”

    The Rabbis did not view the resolution of Halakhic disputes as determinations of “right” vs. “wrong”; rather, they understood that the Torah included both possibilities and that arguments could be marshalled to support either side. In the final analysis, the earthly court would decide which arguments held the greatest sway. [The reader is directed to Dr. Eliezer Berkovitz’s “Not In Heaven” and to Dr. Moshe Koppel’s “Meta-Halakha” for in-depth analyses of this area of Halakhic development]. In other words, when Mosheh experienced the Divine Revelation in the ‘Anan, he was experiencing a co-existence of theoretically intolerant opposites: Responses of “Valid” and “Invalid” to the same Halakhic questions. This is the Divine Reality that no other prophet could face head-on (see Bamidbar 12).

    Revelavation, which included mutually contradictory and divergent versions of the Truth, was accompanied by this ‘Anan – the thick cloud. This cloud was replicated in the Mishkan via the K’toret.

    This K’toret, although offered up daily, finds its most critical application on Yom haKippurim, as part of the purification of the Mishkan. Purification, as Rabbi Soloveitchik zt”l points out throughout “‘Al haTeshuvah”, is an inherent contradiction which only the Divine can sustain – taking that which is human, frail and fallible and cleansing it as if the stain of sin and the blemish of impurity had never polluted that which is holy. The K’toret, just like the original ‘Anan, allowed for that Divine mystery of coexistent contradiction. The K’toret even included, by definition, a pungent element which, like all other 10 spices, was indispensable to its validity:

    R. Hana b. Bizna said in the name of R. Shim’on Hasida: Any fast which does not include *Posh’ei Yisra’el* (the sinners among Israel) is not considered a fast; the galbanum (*Helb’nah*) which is pungent was included among the spices for the K’toret” (K’reitot 6b)

    This is where Korach erred – and why the K’toret was the perfect demonstration of Korach’s wrong-headed philosophy.



    Much has been said about the juxtaposition of “Parshat Tzitzit” (Bamidbar 15:37-41) and the Korach narrative. The Midrash Tanhuma which notes that Korach and his followers dressed up in all-T’chelet garments and challenged Mosheh’s ruling that even such garments need a blue thread to fulfill the obligation, is well-known.

    There is, however, another explanation for the sequencing of Tzitizit -> Korach. The purpose of Tzitzit is: “In order that you shall remember to fulfill all of My Mitzvot, that you should be holy to your God”. Compare this formula with Korach’s claim: “All the congregation are holy”. Whereas Korach maintained that everyone is of equal status and their holiness is cut from one cloth, the Torah itself (in the previous section) notes that each person must do his own remembering and striving for sanctity. The holiness which we achieved at Sinai was not a perpetual gift – it was a model of what we must work to experience every day.

    Korach’s claim of populist sanctity and of an egalitarian Kedushah runs counter to the message of Tzitzit – and to the multiple realities implied by the ‘Anan and by the K’toret. While the ‘Anan allowed for different versions of Truth, the K’toret allowed for purification of that which was blemished – for an essential striving for purity which had not been realized.



    We can now go back to our earlier questions and answer:

    Originally, Mosheh directed Korach and his followers to select a spokesman/leader. This would have to be someone who could sense the different motivations, attributes, needs and desires of the members of the group, as befits any successful leader. To demonstrate who could be the *Rav Lakhem B’nei Levi* (note that this is an alternative translation to that suggested at the beginning of the shiur), they would see if the coals (“fire”) in any of their flash-pans would ignite the K’toret inside. This test would, of course, only include Korach and his 250 followers – and exclude Mosheh and Aharon.

    This then explains 16:8: Then Mosheh said to Korach, “Hear now, you Levi’im!”. Mosheh addressed Korach as if he and his followers had gone through the K’toret test and Korach had been found to be the leader of that group. This is a brilliant tactic on Mosheh’s part – in that he addressed his disputant on his own terms; this is often an effective way of redefining the terms of the dispute.

    After this test was successfully completed and a leader of the Korachites was Divinely selected (a notion that flies in the face of Korach’s populist ideology – which means that Korach would not follow through on it), that group would “debate” against Mosheh and Aharon on the matter of Levite leadership and the Kehunah caste. That was to be the next day, when all 250 followers, Korach AND Aharon are to assemble for another “K’toret test”. This is the second set of instructions (v. 17) and explains the differences in the wording between the two that were pointed out earlier.

    This also explains why the 250 followers were not consumed by Divine fire at the first test – because they never went through with it! It was only in the presence of Aharon and Mosheh that they could no longer back down and had to go through with it – and that’s when the Divine fire consumed them.

    This also explains why the Cloud only appeared at the Mishkan after Korach and his followers had been consumed by the fire of God; the Cloud, as the ur-K’toret, represents the ability to abide different types of people, with their varying levels of sanctity and with their individual struggles with impurity. This orientation was the opposite of that held by Korach, such that the ‘Anan could not appear until their demise.

    We now understand the wording of Mosheh’s address in response to the Divine threat to destroy the congregation.

    Commenting on Mosheh’s request of God to appoint a successor, the Midrash Tanchuma states:

    Teach us, master, what B’rakhah should be said if upon seeing different kinds of people?…if you see a great mass of people, you say ‘Barukh…Hakham haRazim’ (Blessed…Who is Wise regarding Secrets); just like their faces are not alike, similarly, their wills are not alike, rather each person has his own will…Know that it is so; when Mosheh requested of God at the time of his death, saying ‘Master of the Universe, each person’s will is obvious and known before You – as you know that not of your children are alike. When I leave them, may it please You that if you choose to select a leader for them, choose one who can tolerate each of them according to his own will.’ How do we know this? From what we read in the matter: ‘Let Hashem, the God of the spirits of all flesh…’ (Midrash Tanchuma, Pinchas Ch. 10)

    In other words, Mosheh phrased his request for a new leader in that fashion because it indicates the ability of a leader to understand the different wills, desires, orientations and attributes of each of his flock – and the knowledge of how to lead them as a group nonetheless. This is a Divine attribute, exemplified not only by God’s intimate knowledge of each of us, different though we are, but also in Revelation of a multi-faceted Torah, as well as the purification of the Mishkan, as explained above.

    This explains why this particular address was used by Mosheh when asking God to spare the people who were led after Korach – that unlike Korach’s approach, equating each person in the his claim that “all the congregation is holy”, Mosheh understood quite well that a multi-faceted Torah was given to a diverse nation, made up of individuals who struggle, each at his own pace, to achieve Kedushah.

    Text Copyright © 2010 by Rabbi Yitzchak Etshalom and The author is Educational Coordinator of the Jewish Studies Institute of the Yeshiva of Los Angeles.