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Parashat Korah

July 6, 2016

by Cantor Sandy Horowitz

[The AJR Devar Torah email will be taking some time off during the summer, but don’t worry, we’ll be back before you know it.]

“Everyone has a choice when to and not to raise their voices, it’s you that decides”
Run of the Mill by George Harrison

In this week’s Torah portion Korah, along with Datan, Aviram and 250 chieftains from among the Israelites, attempts a full scale rebellion, challenging the leadership of Moses and Aaron.

When Moses hears about it, “Vayipol al panav,” “He fell on his face” (Numbers 16:4). According to Rashi, after having endured the incident of the golden calf, and the complaining about food, and the spies who had so little faith in God, Moses feels utterly discouraged.

As he lay on the ground following this challenge from Korah and his followers, imagine how Moses might have reflected on the three prior incidents that Rashi mentions.

While on the mountain at Sinai with God, God saw that the people had created a molten calf-god, and threatened to destroy them for their blasphemy. But Moses pleaded that they should live — and God listened (Exodus 32:11). However, when Moses came down and saw the calf-worshippers with his own eyes, he became enraged and smashed the tablets containing God’s law (Exodus 32:19). Having been able to placate God, he was less successful with his own response.

Similarly, in Parashat Beha’alotcha when the people complained, God started to destroy them with fire until Moses prayed to God, “and the fire was quenched” (Number 11:2). But when the people escalated their complaints by demanding meat instead of manna, Moses again reacted. This time though, he launched his complaints towards God rather than acting out against the people. And God responded by providing seventy elders to help Moses, saying, “and they shall carry the burden of the people with you, that you carry it not yourself alone” (Number 11:17).

In last week’s Torah portion Shelah, the spies who were sent to scout out the land across the Jordan showed little faith in God (except Joshua and Caleb), when they give their report regarding the strength of the people there. Again Moses intervened: God threatened to disinherit the entire people for believing the bad reports, and Moses convinced God to pardon them instead, invoking what have become known as the thirteen attributes (“Adonai…of great mercy, forgiving iniquity and transgression…” (Num 14:18). As a result, death by plague came only to the ten spies who had demonstrated their lack of faith.

As Moses lay on the ground unable to react to Korah, one may wonder whether he recalled his repeated successes at communicating with God on behalf of the people? Did he regret destroying the tablets, or notice that in the second incident he was able to keep his anger in check? In any case, what happens next in Parashat Korah is that Moses gets up.

It is a moment that recalls (pre-calls?) the last line of The Unnamable by Samuel Beckett: “You must go on, I can’t go on, I’ll go on”. Moses addresses Korah, asking that they bring their censers to the Tent of Meeting the next morning, where God will determine their fate.

Moses doesn’t try to placate or change God’s mind this time. Nor does he vent his anger at the Israelites. Instead, he attempts diplomacy: “Listen sons of Levi…”, perhaps hoping to change Korah’s mind before the inevitable divine wrath descends. Korah does not respond.

Moses then appeals to Datan and Aviram, who reply with further provocation: “Is it not enough that you have brought us out of a land flowing with milk and honey to kill us in the desert, that you should also exercise authority over us?” We then read, “Moses was exceedingly distressed, and he said to the Lord, do not accept their offering” (Numbers 16:13-14). And indeed, the next day God causes the earth to open up and swallow the community of rebels.

Despite his despair as illustrated in the words “Vayipol al panav,” Moses makes the choice to get up and go on. He resumes his role as ever-evolving leader of the Israelites, and maintains his relationship with God.

Post script: It was during the week of Parashat Korah one year ago, that nine congregants of Emanuel AME Church in Charleston SC, while engaged in bible study, were brutally shot and killed. We should make no assumption that Korah was the subject of their church bible study. But we did learn that they each lived caring, God-loving lives. In the face of so much publicity about the shooter, a CNN online post at the time described the victims in detail; here are excerpts:

Rev. Clementa Pinckney, Pastor and state Senator. “He had a passion for helping the poor, for helping to improve the quality of life for all mankind.”

Rev. Daniel Simmons Sr. age 74, regularly came on Wednesday nights to study Bible with his fellow congregants.

Cynthia Hurd worked in the public library. She “dedicated her life to serving and improving the lives of others.”

Sharonda Singleton, Reverend, speech therapist and high school track coach, “a God-fearing woman (who) loved everybody with all her heart.”

Myra Thompson, 59. “She was a person who loved the Lord. Her every objective was to please Him in all that she did. She was teaching Bible study when she was killed.”

Tywanza Sanders, age 26. When he saw the shooter he ran to stand in front of his aunt in order to protect her, before they both were killed.

The Rev. DePayne Middleton-Doctor, 49, was an admissions coordinator at Southern Wesleyan University. She “truly believed in the mission to help students achieve their potential by connecting faith with learning,”

Ethel Lance, 70, retired from having worked backstage at a local theatre, and loved by her co-workers.

Susie Jackson, 87, longtime church member, also an usher and choir member, she was remembered by her grandson as a “very helpful person.”

We remember the righteous who died in Charleston that day, and who, like Moses, chose to live their lives working to do God’s will.


Cantor Sandy Horowitz is the cantor of Adas Emuno in Leonia, NJ.