The Courage of their False Convictions

Much of this week’s parsha deals with the rebellion of Korach and those who joined him, and our Rashi selections reflect that. Two to start with (which I’m counting as one, because they make the same point) remind us of how fully Korach and his group must have believed in their cause. Rashi to 16:6, on the words זאת עשו wonders at Moshe Rabbenu’s saying that whomever Hashem selects is the one sanctified to the job of priesthood — isn’t that obvious?

His answer is that Moshe was warning them that the one chosen would live, the rest would die. From that point — unless they didn’t believe Moshe, in which case I wonder at their agreeing to this particular test — the ones who gave their incense-pans seem to have told themselves yes, they had a shot at being chosen.

Similarly, Rashi to verse 19, ויקהל עליהם, sees Korach as having spent the night electioneering, telling the tribes he was doing this for them, to prevent Moshe and his family from grabbing all the positions of power and influence. I can easily imagine someone doing this today, with the significant difference that governments are man-made.

Korach is doing it in an environment where he should have known that wasn’t true. He and his group seem to have convinced themselves Moshe Rabbenu had given Aharon a job on his own say-so, and that Hashem had let it happen without interfering. Despite Moshe being the one to suggest the incense test, they seem sure Hashem would come down on their side.

There are more examples, in the text and in Rashi, but we need not belabor the point: people convince themselves of what they want to be true, and will act on it up to and including dying for it. Watching Korach is a reminder to be careful about that which we become certain, to check we’re not fooling ourselves into following the truths we what rather than the truths that are.

Dealing with Disputes

In the lull between the challenge and the next day’s test of who was right, Moshe summons Datan and Aviram, apparently to talk it out. Rashi to 16:12 comments that this shows we should not hold on to disputes, that Moshe was trying to forge a peaceful resolution. They refuse, impudently enough to spark a reaction in the man described in last week’s parsha as ענו מאד מכל האדם, more humble than any other human.

Before we consider his reaction, let’s note Rashi’s reminder that we have to avoid becoming overly convinced of the rightness of our position. Disagreements are part of life, and we are supposed to avoid letting them degenerate into something so divisive we cannot speak with each other, cannot find enough common ground to work something out.

Moshe Snaps

Datan and Aviram refuse to meet him, implying that Moshe would not fool them as he had been fooling the people. Verse fifteen tells us Moshe was very bothered by this (Rashi says pained), and he asks Hashem not to turn to their offering.  Rashi on the words אל תפן notes the simple meaning, that Moshe was asking that their offering of the next day be rejected.

That is somewhat obvious, since Hashem had indeed chosen Moshe and Aharon — why would Moshe worry Hashem might accept the offering of those challenging them? Perhaps that is why Rashi offers a Midrashic reading that has Moshe asking that the fire not burn up the duo’s share of the community’s daily offerings. With the interesting implication that the sacrifice being eaten by the fire in some way necessarily signals that Hashem had accepted the offering, at least to those watching — only if the fire left it behind would they and others know that Hashem had rejected Datan and Aviram fully, not only in this contest.

I am more interested here in Moshe’s reaction. As part of his request that Hashem ignore their offerings, Moshe says he had not taken one donkey from them. For Rashi, that includes Moshe’s paying for the donkey that brought his family from Midian to Egypt, a relocation whose costs could legitimately have been charged to the community.

Moshe was bothered by Datan and Aviram’s refusal to talk it out, as well as their unfounded charges that he had mismanaged communal funds. When it’s personal, like last week, he could ignore it, that’s humility. But when people create strife they are unwilling to resolve, or falsely charge leaders with misconduct related to their communal functions, that must be answered forcefully.

The Magical, Mysterious Ketoret

After the incident, the people accuse Moshe and Aharon of having been the ones to lead to people being swallowed by the earth and then burned by fire.  Their complaints spark a plague, which Moshe tells Aharon to stop by taking ketoret, incense, in a fire-pan and standing between the living and the dead. Rashi to 17;11, the words וכפר עליהם, says that the Angel of Death taught Moshe that incense stops plague during his stay on the top of Sinai.

In verse 13, on the words ויעמוד בין המתים, Rashi offers a second comment (the first is also interesting, but I have limited space), that Hashem chose ketoret to stop this plague, because the Jews were becoming suspicious of it — Nadav and Avihu were killed while offering incense, as were the 250 who submitted their candidacy for High Priest.

To show that incense was not the issue, Hashem has it be the vehicle of salvation. Incense doesn’t cause death, sin does. But if the incense isn’t crucial, what did the Angel of Death reveal to Moshe? Rationalists might argue that incense stops plague by, perhaps, neutralizing or serving as a barrier for germs.

But it’s never purely physical, as the second Rashi shows. Some sinners will be killed no matter what, some non-sinners will be protected no matter what. Incense, perhaps since it’s used as part of the close-up service of Hashem, occupies an environment of heightened Divine Providence (Hashem is more “there,” somehow, when we are serving Hashem directly, as with the offering of incense). As the widow said to Eliyahu about his presence in her house, closeness to Hashem can lead to us being judged more carefully or strictly, and incense might function the same way.

By using it here, Hashem could show that it’s not the incense that does it — incense might stop the plague spreading, avoiding the more general release of death that comes with the advent of a deserved plague, and it might be an agent of closeness that leads to strict judgment, but life and death aren’t in the hands of the incense.

A Different Path to a Similar End

18:20 tells us Levites cannot take a portion among the Jewish people, and Rashi adds that this applies even to the spoils of war (prohibitions 169 and 170 in Rambam’s Sefer haMitzvot). Later verses tell us that when the Levi’im receive tithes from the farmers around them, they are to give a tenth of those to a kohen. Superficially, this looks like a tithe, but verse 27 tells us it will be treated like terumah. Rashi to the words ונחשב לכם notes the rules of terumah that apply to this gift, that non-kohanim and the ritually impure may not eat it, that wrongly eating it incurs a heavenly death penalty as well as the need to repay it with a fine of one-fourth of its value, like terumah.

Verse 28 harps on the same theme, that Levi’im have to tithe their produce like other Jews do from theirs. Of course, Levi’im didn’t grow this, they had it given to them by farmers (just like they didn’t get cities in Israel, they were given them by their brethren). One part of the role of Levi’im was that they didn’t work fields and build economic lives, they had it provided for them.

Within that, the experience of giving terumah to a kohen, a yearly reminder that priests are Hashem’s representatives, was so important that Hashem created another kind of terumah, so the Levi’im, too, could give it.

From Korach and his group, who couldn’t stand not being leaders, to Datan and Aviram, who couldn’t understand the need for groups to find ways to compromise and move forward, to Moshe Rabbenu’s correct sense that certain calumnies of leaders needed to lead to excision from the community, to the incense that had developed a reputation that needed to be counteracted, to the Levi’im learning where they weren’t part of the ordinary community and where they were, we see Rashi highlighting the ways in which we do and don’t, should and shouldn’t, join and participate in the broader community.


A project in memory of Baruch Leib Hakohen b. Mordechai Yidel ve-Dobba Chaya.