The theme uniting Parashat Korach is the question “Who is allowed to approach the altar and perform sacrifices there?” Beginning with the rebellion of Korach against Aaron’s priesthood, the Parashah establishes that only kohanim descended from Aaron may offer the sacrifices, but that when they do, other Israelites may safely participate in the worship. The Parashah ends by listing the benefits the kohanim and Levites receive for assuming the risk of guarding and tending the altar and the Mishkan (Tabernacle).
Korach, a Levite, along with Datan and Aviram, rebels against Moses, as do 250 chieftains. Moses responds by asserting that God will clarify who is to speak on God’s behalf, and who has access to God’s altar. Each is instructed to take their fire pans and put incense in them. Aaron did the same. Then, in front of the Tent of Meeting, God’s presence appears, threatening to wipe out the entire fickle community. The community pleads with God to punish only the guilty, and God agrees. Moses instructs the people to withdraw away from the abodes of the rebel leaders, Korach, Datan and Aviram, and the earth opens and swallows them alive. Then a fire issues from God and consumes the 250 rebel chieftains as well.
The rebellion now suppressed, God tells Moses to hammer the fire pans into plating for the altar, as an eternal reminder. The community is infuriated at Moses and Aaron, and threatens to kill them. The two leaders escape to the Tent of Meeting and Moses notes that a plague from God has already begun to strike down the stiff-necked Israelites. He tells his brother to take his fire pan and bring incense among the people to make expiation for them. Aaron is able to stop the plague in this way, although many people die.
Next, God has each chieftain inscribe his name on a staff, instructing Aaron to do the same for the tribe of Levi. Everyone leaves their staffs before the Ark of the Covenant and the next morning Aaron’s has blossomed and borne almonds. His staff is to be displayed as a permanent reminder.
Questions for discussion:
1- Being a Cohen or a Levite had benefits and obligations, even risks, by being so close to the Holy. Sounds fair, but how do we deal with the fact that was a hereditary condition and a cohen could not choose not to serve or an Israelite could not choose to join the priesthood?
2- Do you see any connection between the sin or fault of Korach and his people and the way they were punished?
3- Can we blame the people by being angry at Moses and Aaron after so many people died for challenging them? On the other hand, weren’t they witnesses already to God’s power backing the brothers?
Rabbi Mijael Even-David