Category Archives: Korach

The Meaning of Holiness (Korach)

The Meaning of Holiness (Korach)

God created the flirt as soon as he made the fool. -Victor Hugo

The word “Holy” (Kadosh or Kodesh in Hebrew) is used extensively in the Torah. There are many Hebrew words whose etymological root “k-d-sh” stems from the concept of holy, sacred, sanctified, consecrated. Most people are familiar with “Kadish,” the mourner’s prayer, where we sanctify God’s name in that prayer. In Hebrew, to marry is “lekadesh,” and the marriage ceremony is called “kiddushin.” The Temple is called the “Bet Hamikdash” (literally, the sanctified house). The innermost chamber of the Temple is known as the “Kodesh Kodashim” (the Holy of Holies).

In talking about the portions of the sacrifices which the Kohens would consume as part of the Tabernacle (and Temple) service, the Torah states as follows:

This shall be yours from the most holy sacrifices, the offerings by fire: every such offering that they render to Me as most holy sacrifices, namely, every meal-offering, sin-offering, and guilt-offering of theirs, shall belong to you and your sons. You shall partake of them as most sacred donations: only males may eat them; you shall treat them as consecrated. – Numbers 18:9-10

The Meshech Chochma wonders as to why the Torah emphasizes that only a Kohen and his sons, only males, may eat from these sacred sacrifices.

He explains that these holy offerings were eaten exclusively in the Temple courtyard. The eating was part of their divine service. Women were not allowed to eat with them there. The men needed to be focused on consuming these offerings in a state of single-minded divine service. Were they to perform this service accompanied by women, it would turn into a social affair that would sidetrack the Kohens from focusing on the sacrificial service.

The Meshech Chochma adds that this separation of men and women during the holy service is the very essence of what “holiness” means. He states that wherever the Torah refers to “holiness” it is creating a fence against promiscuity. Marriage, “kiddushin,” for example, is the consecration of the bond of a couple, a unique and holy relationship, excluding and prohibiting all other romantic relationships.

May we gain a deeper appreciation for what holiness, “kodesh,” means.

Shabbat Shalom,



To the partial end of the school year and the partial start of the summer. We’ll take what we can get.

Master’s Words, Disciple’s Actions (Korach)

Master’s Words, Disciple’s Actions (Korach)

It is not whether your words or actions are tough or gentle; it is the spirit behind your actions and words that announces your inner state. -Ching Ning Chu

The events in the Torah portion of Korach, the rebellion that Korach led against Moses, occurs after the Sin of the Spies and the decree of forty years of wandering in the desert. That generation of Israelites, known as the Generation of the Desert, would never cross the Jordan River, would never enter the Promised Land. Their children are the ones who would fight the battles, conquer the land, see the promise fulfilled.

The Berdichever explores some interesting differences between the Generation of the Desert, under the leadership of Moses, and the generation that entered Israel, under the leadership of Moses’ disciple, Joshua.

He takes his cue from the Hebrew word for desert (Midbar) which has the same root as the word “speaks” (Medaber) and demonstrates a deep connection in our story. Moses, the leader of the Generation of the Desert, accomplished things primarily via speech. In this week’s reading, Moses speaks, and God causes the earth to swallow the rebels. Moses is the great orator. He speaks with God. He speaks the word of God to the nation of Israel. Ironically, even though when we first meet Moses, he states his suffering of a speech impediment, he subsequently speaks more than any other person in the Torah. Moses undoubtedly has a divinely-powered faculty of speech.

Joshua on the other hand, the leader of the generation that entered Israel, is a man of action. When Israel fights Amalek shortly after their departure from Egypt, it is Joshua who leads the actual fighting. He continues to lead active battles when they enter Israel.

However, there is one curious exception. When Joshua conquers Jericho, the first city they encounter after crossing the Jordan, they conquer it exclusively by the sound of their voices and Shofar blasts. After a siege of seven days and an enforced silence upon the Israelite troops, Shofar blasts and the cries of the Israelite soldiers cause the walls of Jericho to come tumbling down, decisively ending the siege without one armed strike.

The Berdichever explains that the miraculous conquest of Jericho was in merit of the Sabbath. The “audio” attack of Jericho occurred on the Sabbath. He quotes the Kabbalist, Rabbi Isaac Luria (the ARI), who elaborates as follows: The elevated, superior “mind” of the master (in this case, Moses), is not generally within reach of the disciple (Joshua). Moses’ mind was so powerful, so refined, that he was able to affect the world just by the power of speech. Joshua was not at the same level as Moses (the classic comparison is that if Moses was the sun, then Joshua was the moon). Joshua affected this world as most mortals do – through action. However, the Sabbath has a special quality which allows the disciple to grasp the mind of the master. It allows the disciple to possess, even if for a limited time, some of the powers, some of the capabilities of the master.

Joshua uses his master’s powers of speech to supernatural effect by causing, just with sonic waves, the walls of Jericho to fall.

May we realize the underlying powers of both speech and action and always use them for good.

Shabbat Shalom,



To our daughter, Tiferet, on her graduation and moving on to high school! Mazal Tov!

The Posture of Prayer (Korach)

The Posture of Prayer (Korach)

In prayer it is better to have a heart without words than words without a heart. -John Bunyan

Jewish prayer is filled with a variety of different body positions and movements that to the uninitiated may seem confusing. We sit, we stand, we bow, we take steps forward, backwards, we lean on our arm, we stand with our legs together, and thanks to Chassidic influence many also “shuckle” (a back-and-forth shaking movement).

In the confrontation at the start of Korach’s rebellion against the leadership of Moses, Moses and Aaron are described as “falling on their faces.” Rabbeinu Bechaye on Number 16:22 (Korach) claims that this is the source of our own leaning on our arms during a particularly contrite portion of the daily prayer.

He explains that when Moses and Aaron fell on their faces, it demonstrates three things:

  1. It demonstrates fear and awe of the Almighty;
  2. It demonstrates anguish and submission;
  3. It demonstrates the “imprisonment” of one’s faculties and annulment of one’s senses.

He further delves into how each of these aspects is demonstrated:

By covering our face with our arm, we show humility and shame in front of God. It also shows anguish and submission, prerequisites for repentance. God, seeing our anguish is more likely to accept our prayers. And by covering our eyes and closing our mouth, we show our blindness and our inability to accomplish anything for ourselves without God’s approval.

He observes that the nations of the world have the custom of putting their hands together in prayer from this very same concept of demonstrating that their hands are bound and that they are submitting themselves to the one to whom they are praying, though they themselves no longer realize the biblical origin of their custom.

The Jewish custom of keeping our legs together and unmoving during the silent prayer is a stronger demonstration of this principle, as the movements of the legs are greater than those of the hands to reach ones’ goals and to distance oneself from harm.

However, while many of the positions and movements during prayer are filled with symbolism and significance, without meaningful intent, it is little more than light calisthenics.

May we understand, mean and feel our prayers, no matter how much or little we move.

Shabbat Shalom,



To the residents of Netiv Ha’avot who were forcefully evicted from their homes. May they be resettled quickly, with greater strength and numbers.

The Authority of Servitude

The Authority of Servitude

The first responsibility of a leader is to define reality. The last is to say thank you. In between, the leader is a servant. -Max De Pree

Some of the high and mighty of Israel contest the authority of Moses. Moses’ reaction is unusual. He falls on his face. He doesn’t debate with Korach and his followers. He doesn’t remind them that God chose him. He doesn’t mention that he consistently refused the job and repeatedly asked God to choose someone else. Moses, the unquestionable choice of God to lead the people of Israel, doesn’t do any of what we might expect him to do to buttress his position and exert his divinely-ordained authority.

Rabbi Hirsch on Numbers 16:4 explains the rationale for Moses’ submissive response of falling on his face, as opposed to the myriad of stronger responses he could have faced this rebellion with.

Korach and his followers weren’t being rationale. They had an agenda, with little connection to the reality or history of their miraculous exodus from Egypt and the direct divine revelations they encountered in the dessert. Moses understood that it would be folly to debate these people. Furthermore, since God had appointed Moses, it was God’s job to reaffirm His decision that Moses was his choice. The discussion was out of Moses’ hands.

Rabbi Hirsch explains further:

“The veracity of a messenger can be confirmed only by the one who sent him; so, too, the authenticity of Moses’ mission can be confirmed only by God Himself. For this reason Moses does not utter a word to counter Korach’s accusations. If God would not consider it proper to refute Korach’s words by reconfirming the authenticity of Moses’s mission, then his mission was indeed at an end, and so “he fell on his face.”

However, we know that God did indeed intervene in a most dramatic way which cost Korach and the rebels their lives. The authority of Moses and Aaron is clearly demonstrated by God, to the eventual satisfaction of the nation of Israel. God retained the men that demonstrated true service and violently and destructively removed the self-serving demagogues.

May our varied leaders understand the meaning of service.

Shabbat Shalom,



To the authoritative team at Farsight, for their incredible example of service.

Strength of our Fathers

Strength of our Fathers

My sword I give to him that shall succeed me in my pilgrimage, and my courage and skill to him that can get it. -John Bunyan


Korach leads a rebellion against Moses, Aaron and their leadership of Israel. They are accused of unlawfully ruling over the people. Moses seems to take the personal attack to heart and prays to God that the death of the rebels should be most unnatural, a change of the very laws of creation.

Not a moment later and the very earth opens up miraculously and swallows the rebels whole. The Sfat Emet in 5636 (1876) learns an unusual lesson from the episode and the subsequent good stature of Korach’s sons and the eventual leadership of their descendent, the prophet Samuel.

The Sfat Emet explains that by the miraculous punishment of Korach and his companions, when they were sent alive to Sheol (apparently an unpleasant afterworld), they retained their own errors and sins and did not pass them on to their descendants. Had they died in a more conventional fashion, their sons would have inherited their characteristics, including the negative traits that would not have allowed their descendants to have reached the levels of prophecy which they did.

The Sfat Emet therefore states that when a person dies, their children inherit their characteristics, their strengths and their capabilities and continue to contribute positively to the wider community as their parents did before, so that in a sense the power of the parent is never lost, neither to the family nor to the entire community.

Shabbat Shalom,



In memory of Rabbi Miki Mark hy”d.


First posted on The Times of Israel at:

Baal Haturim Numbers: Korach


Remember, when the judgment’s weak, the prejudice is strong. -K. O’Hara


The theme of justice runs strongly throughout the Torah. We are advised to pursue justice diligently. One of the first organizational efforts of the nascent nation of Israel is to create a justice system. Judges were appointed to represent every ten individuals, with a system of additional judges to handle cases that may have been too difficult for the parochial judges.

This court system is likewise warned of the danger of bribes, with the famous line that “the bribe will blind the sharp ones, and will corrupt the words of the wise.”

The Baal Haturim on Numbers 18:19 explains that a judge’s corruptibility is directly dependent on his financial situation. If the judge is independently wealthy “like a king,” states the Baal Haturim, then his judgement and his rulings will be established and impervious to financial considerations. If, however, the judge is needy “like a Cohen,” (the Cohen in biblical times was completely dependent on the donations, handouts and charity of the Israelite landowners), then his judgements and rulings will only lead to ruin, as he may have other pressures or considerations in mind, besides those of absolute justice.

May we reach levels of success that will make us incorruptible.

Shabbat Shalom,



To my teacher from many years ago, Rabbi Kalman Ber, current Chief Rabbi of the city of Netanya. It was an incredible surprise and delight to have him in Montevideo.

Too Holy

First posted on The Times of Israel at:

Netziv Numbers: Korach

Too Holy 

“Fanatical religion driven to a certain point is almost as bad as none at all, but not quite.” -Will Rogers

My Talmud instructor (Rebbe) at Yeshiva University (YU), Rabbi Shimon Romm of blessed memory, had a lasting impact on me. Since his childhood he was considered a Torah prodigy. He was an alumnus of the famed Mir Yeshiva that escaped the Nazis and ended up for a time in Shanghai. After Shanghai, he spent a number of years in Israel and subsequently moved to New York. At YU he was one of the only Rabbis that gave his classes in Hebrew. He had a photographic memory and a sharp sense of humor.

A line I heard from him often was “don’t be too religious”. He was particularly acerbic against the growing movement of Jews who continually sought greater levels of strictures in the name of religion. In that sense, he mirrored the thoughts of the Netziv on the episode of Korach and his supporters.

In this week’s Torah reading, two hundred and fifty men of ostensibly high religious standing join Korach’s desert rebellion against the leadership of Moses and Aaron. Korach and his supporters are killed by very clear divine intervention, with the two hundred and fifty men being burned by divine fire when they bring incense as part of their effort to reach an even higher level than what they were at.

The Netziv warns in Numbers 16:1 that an attempt to reach too high in ones holiness can actually lead a person to go against basic commandments that God does demand we perform. It becomes ironic that a person seeking to become holier ends up failing in basic principles. The Netziv claims that though the person may get some credit for good intentions, they are nonetheless punished by God for their wrong-headed, holier-than-thou, anti-Torah acts.

As something else that Rabbi Romm would say: “Be a mentsch (well-behaved man) before trying to be a tzaddik (a holy man).”

May we aim for high levels of holiness, without forgetting the more fundamental commandments that are the basis of good, proper human relationships.

Shabbat Shalom,




To the safe and speedy return of Eyal, Gilad and Naftali.

Mazal Tov to our Akiva on his graduation from high school.

Destiny’s Name

[First posted on The Times of Israel:]

Ibn Ezra Numbers: Korach

Destiny’s Name

“The real test of a man is not how well he plays the role he has invented for himself, but how well he plays the role that destiny assigned to him.” -Jan Patocka

The age of prophecy has long passed us by, however, the sages claim that there still remains one small spark of prophecy in our lives. That is the moment we name our children. Somehow, in that instant, there is divine inspiration or accord. The child is meant to have the name given and it is much more than a tag to call the child by. It carries some import, some significance that somehow will color the rest of their lives.

In this week’s Torah reading, we have one personality that Ibn Ezra (on Numbers 18:2) explains lived up to his name. It is Levi, the forerunner of the Levite tribe. The word Levi in Hebrew has the same root as the word “to lend”. Ibn Ezra states that the Levites as a whole are basically “lent” by the rest of Israel to the Cohens, to the Temple, with the purpose of participating and assisting in the holy service.

Sometimes a person’s traits can be identified with their name immediately. Sometimes it takes an entire life to understand the connection. And sometimes we only understand generations later the impact that a person had and the connection to that tiny spark of prophecy that is their name.

May we live up to our good names.

Shabbat Shalom,



To the family of the Good Name and to the sixth grade girls of the Integral school and their parents on the celebration of their Bat-Mitzvah!

Bar-Mitzvah sermon for Yoel Epstein

Yoel, I want to give you only one piece of advice. This advice is based on the unique combination of your name and your parasha. Yoel Binyamin, reader of Parashat Korach; which you read so beautifully yesterday.

Who was the Yoel of Tanach? Yoel was an unusual Navi, with a small book, only four chapters long, nestled in the middle of Trei Asar. His full name was Yoel ben Petuel and I believe I’ve found a connection between this full name and your parasha.

There is only one significant midrash about this little-known Navi. I will read it and you might understand why he was a little different.

Yoel the Navi recounts a terrible famine that afflicts the land of Israel. A plague of locust covers the land and destroys all food. Eventually the people repent and are blessed with food again. The Gemara in Taanit, Daf Heh amud Alef tells that midrash about Yoel.

Now remember, it was a time of a horrible famine. People were dying from hunger. They would rather eat the few measly grains they might find than put it in the ground in the hopes of living to see a harvest.

The Gemara says as follows:

That year, Adar passed and no rain had fallen. The first rainfall came on the first of Nissan, and the Navi said to the Israelites, “Go forth and sow.”

They asked: “Should one who has a measure of wheat eat it and live, or sow it and die of hunger?”

He answered: “Go!”

A miracle was made for them. The grain hidden in the walls by mice and in the antholes was revealed to them. They went out and sowed on the second, third and fourth of Nissan. The second rainfall came on the fifth of Nissan, and they brought the Omer on the sixteenth of Nissan. Grain had grown for them in eleven days.

In short, an unusual prophet with a rare and unusual miracle. Yoel was not a prophet that went with the crowd.

Binyamin. Your second name. Binyamin is a much better known personality. He was also somewhat unusual amongst the sons of Yakov. The only one born in Israel. The only one not part of the sale of Yosef. The only one who could bring peace to the family by reuniting the brothers. The one who merited having the Mishkan and the Beit Hamikdash in his territory.

Now what is the connection of Yoel ben Petuel, the Navi, to parshat Korach, our Yoel’s parasha?

The midrash in parashat Korach tells us about one more personality who didn’t go with the crowd: Onn ben Pelet.

Onn is mentioned in the very first pasuk of the parasha as an ally of Korach, Datan and Aviram, but is never mentioned again.

The Gemara in Sanhedrin Kuf Tet amud Bet quotes the famous midrash that Onn, thanks in large measure to his sharp and even courageous wife, separates from the crowd he was in and is thereby spared.

Onn ben Pelet and Yoel ben Petuel share the same exact letters, except for one – a yud. If you add a yud to Onn ben Pelet the survivor in the midbar, you get Yoel ben Petuel the navi and savior in Israel.

Just like in the parasha before, parashat Shelach, Moshe adds a yud to turn Hoshea into Yehoshua, thereby affording Yehoshua protection against the catastrophe of the Meraglim and ultimately preparing him for the leadership of Israel and the conquering of the land. So too, the character of Onn, who in a moment of clarity stepped away from a dangerous crowd and thereby avoided falling to the abyss, is transformed from merely a lucky guy with a smart wife to Yoel, a navi, a man who communes with God and brings His word to others.

Onn of the Midbar is transformed into Yoel of Israel who leads his people back to God, by going against the crowd. Furthermore, I think that Yoel can only come from Onn a man who turned his back on Korach, Datan and Aviram, though he had been previously enmeshed in all their plans.

Yoel ben Petuel comes from the crowd, knows the crowd, turns from the crowd, rejects the crowd and eventually, ironically, leads the crowd back to God and to physical and spiritual salvation.

So Yoel, the advice for you from all of this is, marry a smart woman.

But until then, don’t be afraid to choose your own path – that way lies greatness.

Mazal Tov.