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Parshat Korach                                                   
By: Sheila Feirstein

Tamuz 2, 5776 | July 8, 2016

This Torah Byte is in honor of Sheila’s father’s 83’rd birthday, and is inspired by an article by Rabbi Jonathan Sacks


The number 83 has significance in various contexts. In science, it is the atomic number of Bismuth; in math, it is known as a safe prime number; and in music, it is the title of a John Mayer song. In Judaism, when a man turns 83 he may celebrate his second Bar Mitzvah, since it marks 13 years above a man’s average lifespan of 70 years as referenced in Psalms (90:10)


This week’s parsha, Parshat Korach, found in the Book of Numbers, depicts an all too familiar story of frustrated ambition and petty jealousy. Korach who is a Levite is angry and jealous of his cousin Aaron who has been given the supreme position of the High Priest. Korach argues that this is unfair, and that “the whole community is holy, every one of them, and the Lord is with them.” (Numbers 15:3)


There are so many lessons to be learned from this conflict, but the most striking lesson can be learned from Moses’ reaction to Korach’s rebellion. It is the only time Moses asks G-d for a miracle to prove the authenticity of his mission as it is written:


“Then Moses said: ‘This is how you will know that the Lord has sent me to do all these things and that it was not my idea. If the men die a natural death and experience only what usually happens to men then the Lord has not sent me, but if the Lord brings about something totally new and the earth opens its mouth and swallows them with everything that belongs to them and they go down alive to the grave then you will know that these men have treated the Lord with contempt.’”

(Numbers 16:28-30)


Moses used force to eliminate the opposition of Korach and his followers, who threatened his leadership. In contrast, a few chapters earlier, Moses reacted in a completely different manner when it seemed like there might be a threat to his leadership from Eldad and Medad. They were prophesying in the camp away from Moses and the seventy elders. Joshua perceived the two men to be a threat and implored Moses to stop them, but Moses rejected the idea that they threatened his leadership and answered Joshua:


“Are you jealous for my sake? Would that all the Lord’s people were prophets and that the Lord would put his spirit on them...”

(Numbers 11:29)


Why did Moses react differently to the two challenges to his leadership? Why is Korach considered a threat to Moses’ leadership, while Eldad and Meidad are not considered a threat?


In order to answer this question, we must understand there are two different forms of leadership: One is power, the other is influence. Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks gives a simple thought experiment to illustrate the two. Imagine that you have total power and now you decide to share it with nine others. You now have one tenth of the power you started with. In contrast imagine that you have a certain amount of influence and you share it with nine others. Your influence has spread to encompass ten people. With power- the more we share, the less we have. With influence- the more we share, the more we have.


According to the Torah Jewish leadership is divided into two roles: The king and the prophet. Kings had power- they could levy taxes, draft men into the military, and decide when and against whom to wage war. Prophets had no power- they did not impose taxes, or command armies. They spoke the word of G-d, but they had no way of enforcing it. All they had was influence, but as we can see for ourselves when a king dies, his power ends, but when a prophet dies his influence lives on. Moses served both leadership roles. He functioned as the equivalent of a king even though monarchy had not been established yet and he was the prophet with the greatest amount of influence. Eldad and Meidad did not seek power, or gain power from their actions of prophesying. They were sharing Moses’ influence on people. This is described by the sages to be like lighting a candle with another candle. The light of the first candle is not diminished by lighting the second. Korach and his followers did seek power. Their rivalry for power was a clear threat to Moses’ authority. The sages explain the transfer of power to be like pouring from one vessel to another. The more we pour into the second, the less remains in the first. So while the prophecy could be shared, the kingship could not. Moses requested from G-d that Korach and his followers be swallowed up by the ground, since this was necessary to preserve his leadership.


Throughout our Jewish history we see recurring examples of Jews having little power, but large influence. Judaism teaches us that while not all of us have power we are all capable of being an influence for good in the world.


In conclusion, I want to recognize and thank my dad for his leadership in our family, and especially for all the positive influence he has shared with all of us.


Happy Birthday and Mazel Tov on your Bar Mitzvah!


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Fri, December 1 2023 18 Kislev 5784