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KORACH: The Rebellion

June 21, 2009

Joel Cohen's Question:

Korach, along with Dathan, Abiram and On, supported by 250 leaders, confronted Moses and Aaron: "It is too much for you…why do you exalt yourselves over the Congregation of G‑d?" In response, Moses fell on his face, and said: "In the morning G‑d will make known who is His own, and the holy one He will draw close to Himself..."

Moses and Aaron prayed that G‑d not become angry with the overall assembly and instructed the assembly to remove themselves from Korach and his collaborators to save themselves. Then, curiously, Moses—without G‑d describing to him the means of the rebels' destruction—warned the assembly that G‑d would open the earth and swallow the rebels. And it occurred precisely as Moses foretold.

  • This story presents a rebellion against earthly leaders. Doesn't it demonstrate the flaw in a theocratic state, whose leaders can't be challenged?
  • Was it right for Moses to importune G‑d to destroy his personal enemies?
  • Doesn't this incident show that Moses was a poor leader? After all, Korach couldn't possibly have won over the group if the Nation at large didn't resent Moses.

Rabbi Adam Mintz Responds:

Joel, I think that you have raised some interesting questions regarding Moses' leadership as reflected in the story of the rebellion of Korach. Most importantly, does Moses' response to Korach signify a weak leader as he would have been much better served had he ignored Korach?

I would like to suggest two answers: First, Moses felt that this rebellion was not only against his leadership but also against G‑d's leadership. In this vein, Moses felt the obligation to announce to the people that G‑d was the ultimate leader and that Korach had sinned by questioning G‑d and His choice of Moses as leader. This approach would explain the dramatic splitting of the earth and the swallowing up of Korach. What better way than a miracle to signify that G‑d is right and Korach is wrong?

However, there is a second way to understand the story. According to this explanation, following the story of the spies, Moses was indeed a weakened leader. Throughout the year since they had left Egypt, Moses had proven to be an amazing leader who defended his people before the Almighty, and every act they took at his instruction had been blessed. Suddenly, though the spy mission had Moses' blessing, the people ended up being punished by G‑d with forty years of wandering, and the spies themselves died instantly. Moses seemed to have failed in his representation of the people over a fiasco that he had brought about. While the people had asked for the spies, couldn't Moses have orchestrated the mission more appropriately to avoid the problems that ensued?

At this point, Moses is very vulnerable as a leader. And to make matters worse, he is once again challenged, this time by Korach, a member of his own family about his qualifications for leadership. And, at that decisive moment those criticisms hurt the institution of leadership that Moses had stood for more than we can imagine.

Given this background, we can understand why Moses did not allow the rebellion to run its course and fizzle. He did that by annihilating Korach and his supporters.

As we watch the unfolding saga of the world's leaders at the beginning of the twenty-first century, we can't help but realize that the challenges of leadership remain very similar to the challenges that Moses felt over three thousand years ago.

Rabbi Eli Popack Responds:

If democracy is a good thing, why should G‑d have the sole deciding power as to how we go about our lives? Let's take a vote, and give someone else equal opportunity to dictate our fate and run our world. Sounds ludicrous, no?

Well, that's exactly why Korach's rebellion is so unacceptable by the Torah. Every member of this nation had heard G‑d communicate with Moses at Mt. Sinai. Every member knew with absolute certainty that G‑d chose Moses to take them out of Egypt. Moses was indisputably G‑d's chosen leader. So what exactly makes Moses' leadership more of a theocracy than G‑d's own control of the world?

Thus, Moses says, "With this you shall know that G‑d sent me to do all these deeds, for I did not devise them myself." Is he asking G‑d to fight his personal battles or are his battles the battles of G‑d Himself? And if they are his own, why is G‑d so quick to split the earth to bury these people alive?

This is true not only about Moses, but indeed this is the Jewish attitude towards our prophets and sages throughout the generations. The Talmud (Sanhedrin 110a) learns the laws of valuing Torah teachers (which far exceed the respect that we accord any human leadership) from the story of Korach. To quote:

Rabbi Chisda said: Whoever contends against the ruling of his teacher is as though he contended against the Shechinah (divine presence), as it says, "Dathan and Abiram, the chosen of the congregation, who incited against Moses and Aaron in the assembly of Korah, when they incited against G‑d" (Numbers 26:9).

So Joel, are we up for a regime change? Are we voting G‑d out?

SHELACH: The Incident of the Spies

June 14, 2009

Joel Cohen's Question:

G‑d told Moses: "Send forth men, if you please, and let them spy out the Land." He chose distinguished princes and instructed them to determine whether the inhabitants were strong or weak, few or numerous. They reported back that the Land flowed with milk and honey, but that the cities were fortified, their inhabitants powerful: a Land of Giants.

Caleb and Joshua calmed the people and assured them of victory. The others, though, gave an "evil report," that the Land devours its inhabitants. They complained bitterly that it would have been better to have died in Egypt.

Having reported their "honest" assessment of impending doom, G‑d became angry: All of those above the age of twenty would die in the wilderness. Further, as punishment, because the spy mission took forty days, the nation would wander aimlessly in the wilderness for forty years. The spies themselves would die in a plague.

  • What mortal sin did the spies commit, if they actually believed that the Land was unconquerable?
  • Why was the nation punished for simply "listening" to an adverse report by their princes—princes whom Moses himself selected to spy on the Land?
  • Maybe, the spy episode was actually G‑d seeking to "justify" killing off a slave nation whose past enslavement made them unequipped to "conquer"?

Rabbi Adam Mintz Responds:

Joel, as I reviewed this week's questions, I realized that I basically agree with your conclusion—that G‑d decided to kill the remnant of the slave nation as they were unfit to conquer the land. Yet, there needs to be some development to reach this conclusion.

The Jews are prepared to enter the Land of Israel and G‑d is convinced that they will succeed in created a Jewish homeland. But, then everything begins to unravel. In last week's Parshah, the Jews complain for no reason. We all know that when people start complaining for no reason that bad things are about to happen. Yet, G‑d still trusts the people and commands Moshe to send the princes of each tribe to scout the land. These twelve princes were not spies as is commonly translated—they were scouts whose job was to bring back an accurate assessment of the Land and its inhabitants.

At the beginning of their report, they did exactly as they were commanded. They described the land and the giants that lived there. The cities, they said, were well fortified. All of this would have been fine had the conclusion of the report led the people to believe that in spite of the intimidating circumstances, G‑d would lead the people into the Land. However, instead, they reported that due to what they had seen, the Jews would never be able to conquer the land. And, to compound the problem, the Jews who listened to this report did not reprimand the scouts and reassure one another that G‑d would lead them into the land. Rather, they cried out of a sense of desperation.

It was at this point that G‑d recognized that the people who had experienced the slavery of Egypt did not have the faith and the confidence to enter the Land of Israel. So Joel, I believe that G‑d decided that the generation of slaves could not enter the Land. However, I believe that G‑d came to this decision only after giving this generation every chance to rise to the occasion.

Rabbi Eli Popack Responds:

You've picked what I believe is one of the most telling stories in the Torah. It is a story that addresses man's mission in this world, the attitude necessary in order to achieve it, and the essence of failure—is it, too, part of the plan? I'll address the questions one-by-one: the spies' sin, the people's mistake, and G‑d's plan throughout this all.

The Spies

The Hebrew word for the verb "to spy" is leragel, and a spy is a meragel. Interestingly, Moses never instructs the spies "leragel," rather he tells them "latur," to "explore." Throughout the episode we read about their "exploring" the Land.

What's the difference? Explorers merely "examine for the purpose of discovery," while spies "observe secretively or furtively with hostile intent" (thank you dictionary.com!). Moses never instructed his delegates to spy; all he wanted was a factual report of what they saw. Whether or not the Land was conquerable was not an issue, they were not asked to supply a report regarding the feasibility of that task. For, after all, G‑d had promised them the Land, and would certainly ensure their victory in battle.

Their sin was this minute deviation from what they were told to do. What started as a mere subjective assessment of how they would militarily conquer the land, ended up in them saying "for they are stronger than He," doubting the ability of the Almighty G‑d Himself.

Lesson One: When human beings, of limited intelligence and perception, receive instructions from the One who knows all, they ought to stick to what they're told to do, and not embellish upon G‑d's command with their own ideas of how to serve Him.

The Nation

Why would a nomadic nation in the middle of a barren desert be so quick to abandon a dream of a homeland? Why would they be so untrusting of the G‑d who splits the sea at whim, brings down a full menu from the sky, and has crushed every army they've encountered until now?

Apparently, it was less about mistrust than it was about being actually quite happy where they were and dreading a change of scenery. And for good reason, both materially and spiritually.

In their estimation, for one to properly receive and assimilate divine wisdom, one must be utterly free of the responsibilities and frustrations of physical life—something only possible in the kind of environment which they enjoyed during their sojourn in the desert.

The daily miracles they experienced provided them with sustenance and protection. But more so, they shielded them from any and all involvement with the material world. For the first generation of our existence as a people, we lived a wholly spiritual life, free of all material concerns; the very food which nourished us was "bread from heaven."

This is why, says Rabbi Schneur Zalman of Liadi, the entire generation was less than excited about entering the land. Becoming a people with a land would require complete immersion in the task of developing and running a successful country. Think of all the work in the kibbutzim in this past century!

The nation's underlying problem with the land was, as the spies expressed it, that "it is a land that consumes its inhabitants"—it consumes one's time and energy with its demands and infringes on one's capacity to study the divine wisdom of Torah and meditate upon its truths. They were unwilling to relinquish their spiritual utopia for the entanglements of an earth-oriented life.

This way of thinking, however, completely misses the point of the creation of the world and man upon it. The raison d'etre of the entire mess we call a "world" is for the human being to discover the Truth and reveal it within every aspect of physical life.

"Make a dwelling for G‑d in the lowly realms!" says the Midrash. You came to this planet to imbue your eating and sleeping, your commerce and government, with a holy and G‑dly purpose.

Lesson Two: The hustle and bustle of material life can not be allowed to disturb you from a spiritual, Torah-based lifestyle. Rather, it's there waiting to be imbued with the Truth, by the Jew who is conscious of his mission in life.

The Plan

Is sin part of the plan too? Does G‑d allow the opportunity for failure so that we can do better in round two?

It's a difficult thing to say, but that's why we have an article entitled "G‑d's Business," where the Rebbe's explanation of how sin is unwanted by G‑d, but part of His arrangement too, is put in plain words.

In short, the free choice that G‑d gives us is G‑d's "fearsome plot upon the children of man" (Psalms 66:5). It is He who creates us with the ability to make mistakes, because the might of the rebound that is inspired by the search to come home is even greater than when you never left in the first place. This is obvious in our own story where immediately after Moses stormed angrily at the people for their mistake, they were immediately filled with remorse, were prepared to enter the Promised Land despite all, even at the cost of their very lives.

For another perspective on this issue, one that explains how and why it indeed was all part of G‑d's plan – all for their benefit – see Life Behind Bars.

Lesson 3: Don't despair because of your past mistakes. They serve only as a springboard to bring you to even greater heights. In the words of the Talmud (Sanhedrin 99a): "Where the penitents stand the perfect saints cannot."

BEHAALOTECHA: Eldad and Medad

June 7, 2009

Joel Cohen's Question:

G‑d told Moses to gather seventy men from among the elders. He emanated from Moses' spirit upon the seventy men, who then began to prophesy.

Two men, Eldad and Medad, however, remained behind in the camp. The Spirit rested upon them, and they prophesied in the camp. Joshua, however, beckoned Moses to incarcerate them. Moses rejoined: "Are you being zealous for my sake? Would that the entire people of G‑d could be prophets, if G‑d would but put His spirit upon them."

  • Were Eldad and Medad foretelling when the Hebrews would come into the Land?
  • Were they predicting Moses' death?
  • And was Joshua motivated by his impression that Eldad and Medad were supplanting him, causing him envy? That's surely what it looks like.

Rabbi Eli Popack Responds:

Joel, before judging any of the characters of this story, we need a few crucial details that, as you've pointed out, are not written explicitly in the Torah:

  1. The verse tells us these two men who remained in the camp "were among those written, but they did not go out to the tent" (Num. 11:26). In other words, they should have been among the elders who gathered at the Tabernacle, upon whom G‑d conferred of Moses' spirit, but instead remained in the camp. But why didn't they join the rest of the elders?
  2. What exactly did they prophesy about?

The Talmud discussed these questions, and in classic Talmudic style there are a few opinions as to what went on here.

But first, the Talmud (Sanhedrin 17a) tells us how the seventy elders were chosen. Assuming that each of the tribes would want equal representation, we are stuck with a problem, because 70 is not divisible by 12. If each tribe provides six elders we have a total of 72 people, while G‑d only asked for seventy. So Moses took 72 slips of paper; on seventy of them he wrote "elder," and two of them he left blank. He then chose six men from each tribe and instructed them: "Draw your slips from the urn." Whoever picked one inscribed with "elder" was in. Whoever picked a blank slip was out.

What happened next? Here, we have three opinions:

  1. Eldad and Medad were the two who picked the blank slips.
  2. Eldad and Medad feared that they would pick a blank slip, so they did not participate in the lottery at all, choosing to "remain in the camp" instead.
  3. Rabbi Shimon says that Eldad and Medad actually picked "elder" slips. Yet, feeling unworthy of greatness, they did not go to the Tabernacle—even though they "won" the lottery.

(For the rationale behind this dispute, see Where Were Eldad and Medad?)

So according to the first opinion, Eldad and Medad were not part of the seventy, but for some inexplicable reason, known to G‑d alone, they were suddenly imbued with their own "resting of spirit."

This would also explain why Joshua was so disconcerted by their prophecy: it wasn't due to what their prophecy was, but simply because they prophesied. They were not from the seventy upon whom G‑d promised to confer from Moses' spirit. This was not part of the "distribution of prophecy" plan. So, Joshua concluded, it must be a charade, they must be either insane or offensive.

But according to the second two opinions, Eldad and Medad were part of the seventy—and therefore they were simply prophesying with the others, albeit from the camp. (Although according to the second opinion they didn't pick their slip, some explain that another two elders had gotten the blank slip, leaving Eldad and Medad among the seventy elders of choice.) If so, why then was Joshua so upset? Well, according to these opinions, it was the content of their prophecies.

What was the prophecy?

Here, too, the Talmud offers a variety of opinions:

  1. "Moses shall die and Joshua shall bring Israel into the land."
  2. Abba Chanin said: They prophesied concerning the quails (the birds which the Israelites were miraculously fed in the wilderness, starting immediately after this incident): "Arise, quail; arise, quail."
  3. Rabbi Nachman said: They prophesied regarding Gog and Magog (the war which will be fought at the End of Days).

According to the view that they prophesied that Moses would die, Joshua's reaction is quite expectable: as a student who loved his teacher dearly, as one who spent time with the greatest prophet of all times and the one who brought the Torah from heaven to earth, he was appalled at their chutzpah, their suggestion that Moses would die and not be the one to lead the Israelites into the Promised Land.

"But according to the two other views," the Talmud continues, "why did he say 'My lord Moses, incarcerate them?'—Because their behavior was unseemly, for they were like a disciple who answers questions in the presence of his teacher."

To assume a position of guide and leader in the presence of your own teacher, even when divinely inspired, is not in concordance with Jewish ethics.

Notwithstanding Moses' reply – "If only all of G‑d's people were prophets, that G‑d would bestow His spirit upon them" – Joshua's reaction teaches us an important lesson in respect for our teachers and educators.

Rabbi Adam Mintz Responds:

The Talmud includes two views about the identity of Eldad and Medad. The Talmud explains that G‑d chose 70 elders to assist Moses. Yet, this was an unfair distribution as there were twelve tribes. One view in the Talmud states that Moses chose six people from each tribe, totally seventy-two. Eldad and Medad were the two extras who were not included in the chosen ones. The other opinion claims that Eldad and Medad decided on their own to remain in the camp so as not to embarrass the two people who were not chosen. According to this second opinion, which is the one that is adopted by the commentators, they were rewarded and given an extra amount of prophecy. The Talmud adds to the intrigue by claiming that the prophecy that they uttered was that Moses was going to die and Joshua would lead the people into the Land of Israel.

If this is the case, it is easy to understand why Joshua felt uncomfortable and reported their action to Moses. But, how can you explain Moses' reaction? Didn't he realize that this type of prophecy would lead to terrible discouragement among the people? How could they imagine entering the Land without their leader Moses? I believe that this story highlights the quality of leadership in Moses that allowed him to feel secure in his role and therefore not be afraid to share that role of prophet with others. Moses was one of those few leaders in history who did not feel threatened and was not afraid of competition.

Yet, we can still wonder whether Moses' humility got him in trouble. In next week's parshah, the sin of the spies causes the Jews to wander in the desert for forty years. This event was the beginning of the decline of the Jews culminating in Moses' hitting of the rock and G‑d's punishment that he too would not enter the Land. Did Moses begin his downward spiral by not standing up for his position and his role as leader of the Jews? An interesting question to ponder.

Each week, Joel Cohen poses questions on the weekly Parshah (Torah reading). These questions are addressed by Rabbis Adam Mintz and Eli Popack.

About the Participants:
Joel Cohen, a former federal and state prosecutor, practices criminal defense law at a prominent NYC law firm, and is an Adjunct Professor of Professional Responsibility at Fordham Law School. He also authors a column at the New York Law Journal.

Rabbi Adam Mintz has served as a pulpit rabbi for over twenty years. He is an adjunct professor in Jewish History at Queens College, and lectures widely on a variety of topics. His weekly streaming video, “This Week in Jewish History,” is featured at rayimahuvim.org. Rabbi Mintz has recently published Jewish Spirituality and Divine Law (Ktav, 2005).

Rabbi Eli Popack grew up in South Africa, and is the founder and president of Map International, a socially responsible business engaged in Electronic Financial Infrastructure in Africa. In the summer he serves as spiritual guide to the Beach Minyan in Westhampton Beach, NY.