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Parashat Korach 5772 – 06/20/2012

Parashat Korach

Submitted by Robert Rabinoff

To a refuah sh’leimah for Sheer-el Cohen.

Hashem said to Moshe: Bring back the staff of Aharon before the Testimony as a safekeeping, as a sign for rebellious ones [b’nei meri].  (17:25)

The most sound interpretation is that the staff shall be … a sign regarding the tribe of Levi, the substitutes of the firstborn.  (Ramban ad loc).

The rebellion of Korach has been squelched.  Korach, Datan and Aviram have been swallowed up by the earth, and the 250 pretenders to the priesthood have been consumed by Divine fire.  The shocked people have confronted Moshe and Aharon, accusing them of causing all these deaths.  Gd responds with a plague, which Aharon stops with an incense offering.  Gd decides to put an end to the complaining by mandating a test of His own.  All 12 tribal leaders (including Levi and treating Yosef = Ephraim + Menashe as one tribe instead of two) are instructed to leave their staffs overnight in the Tent of Meeting, and the staff of the prince of the chosen tribe would blossom.  The next morning Moshe brings out the 12 staffs; Aharon’s has blossomed, indicating that the tribe of Levi has been chosen to minister in the Mishkan, and later in the Temple in Jerusalem.  Gd tells Moshe to keep the blossomed staff in the Mishkan, so anybody contemplating whether or not the election of the Levites was a Divine mandate can see and know the answer.

The phrase that Artscroll translates as “rebellious ones” is b’nei meri and, according to Radak (R. David Kimchi, 1160-1235, commentator and grammarian), the root of this word is m-r-h; this root has the basic meaning of “changing or substitution of the matter or command” (Sefer haShorashim, cited in Artscroll’s Ramban commentary).  Thus Ramban gives a novel interpretation of the passage: rather than being a sign “for rebellious ones” he interprets as a sign “about those who are substituted (m’mirei).”  And “those who are substituted” are the Levites, who are now assigned to serve in the Mishkan / Temple instead of the firstborn of all the tribes, who had that privilege previously.

There is another instance in which Torah discusses substitution in the realm of the holy, in this case substitution of sacrificial offerings:

If he offers an animal that is fit for an offering to Hashem, all that he gives to Hashem will be holy.  He shall not exchange it nor shall he substitute it, neither good for bad nor bad for good; and if he does go ahead and substitute an animal for an animal [offering], both it and its substitute shall be holy [and must be offered if possible or redeemed if not – see Tractate T’murah for all the details of this law].  (Vayikra 27:9-10)

The commentators ask the obvious question: we can understand why you can’t substitute an inferior (or blemished) animal for a superior (unblemished) one, but what is the problem with an upgrade?!  The answer generally given is that it is human nature to get “buyer’s remorse” over gifts and want to retract them.  If substitution of good in place of bad were allowed, it would be a slippery slope to substituting bad for good.  Since these are gifts to Gd, one needs to be quite cautious – the first murder, of Hevel by Kayin, came from an argument over offerings (see Bereishit Chapter 4).

Perhaps this question can give us a deeper insight into the mechanics of substitution, and why it can be so tricky.  If one has a “bad” offering, a blemished one that cannot be offered on the Altar, there is actually a way of making a switch for an unblemished animal.  First the blemished animal is redeemed for its value, and the money is used to purchase a new offering.  In the selection of the Levites as a substitute for the firstborn, Gd modeled this procedure for us: He instructed the Levites to be the redemption for the firstborn.  Since there were 273 firstborn over and above the number of Levites, it was necessary to redeem each of those “extra” firstborn for 5 shekels of silver – the same amount we use today to redeem our firstborn sons.  In this sense the Levites were actually not true “substitutes.”

What was Gd hinting at then by using the expression b’nei meri to describe the Levites (according to Ramban)?  We have discussed on a number of occasions that Hebrew words, far from being arbitrary symbols for their referents, actually contain the same impulses of creation as their referents.  Thus the structure of the sounds in the word kisei in some way are identical to the impulses that make up the archetypical chair.  If b’nei meri can be rendered as either rebellious ones or as substituted ones, there must be a deep connection between the two concepts.

Perhaps we can look at it this way.  There is one ultimate Good in creation, and that is Gd.  Gd is infinite and unchanging, and everything else is, in comparison “bad.”  It is our job as the only creatures with free will, to reunite our finite natures with Gd’s infinite nature, thereby consecrating ourselves, our thoughts and our actions to Gd.  When we go in the opposite direction, letting our finite nature, with its petty drives and desires, rule over our infinite nature, we are substituting “bad” (finite) for “good” (infinite).  This is rebellion against Gd, for it drives us away from Him.  Lest this seem terribly abstract, consider some very concrete examples: When we take a shortcut in our business to make a few extra dollars, but at the expense of our employees (or employers) or customers or suppliers, aren’t we trading the “good” (our personal and professional integrity) for the “bad” (ill-gotten material possessions)?  When we’re a little tired and we snap at our spouse or our kids, aren’t we substituting the “bad” (our own need to let off steam) for the “good” (a loving relationship with those dear to us)?  When we decide that that BLT is just too good to pass up, aren’t we choosing the “bad” (satisfying our stomach) over the “good” (satisfying our soul)?

Our Torah, as expounded by the Sages of our halachic tradition, is a comprehensive guide to holding onto the good and leaving the bad alone.  Following this path is our way towards union with Gd, the ultimate good.  Rebelling against it leads us away from Gd, and enmeshes us in the finite, material world, which by its limited nature can never be fulfilling.  It’s the classic bait-and-switch; the Serpent is its oldest practitioner.  Let’s all try to remember and visualize Aharon’s blossoming staff, and let it be an eternal sign for all of us b’nei meri.


Pirke Avot, Chapter 4

Mishnah 12

R. Meir says:

Minimize your business and make Torah your business, and be humble before all people. …

If you have toiled in Torah, Gd has great reward to give you.

R. Yisrael Meir Lau explains: The mishnah addresses [our] attitude toward time.  R. Meir urges t hat instead of feeling that one should learn Torah because he happens to have f ree time, one should make a conscious effort to minimize other activities to make time available for Torah study. … When a person minimizes his business in order to learn Torah, his business itself is considered Torah, for his entire day is focused on Torah learning. 

(Incidentally, R. Lau gives a brief, but very inspiring summary of R. Meir’s life on pp 592-4, in volume 2 of his 3-volume commentary on Pirke Avot.  It is well worth reading, as is the entire commentary of course.)

One of the greatest decisions we are faced with in life is what career or profession to go into.  Indeed it is a major mitzvah for a person to teach his children a trade so that they will be self-sufficient, and to engage in honest work to support oneself and one’s family.  Nevertheless, we have to “work to live, not live to work.”  Even someone who is 100% united with the infinite still has a body and must attend to its needs – hence he must act in the physical.  The difference between such a person and the rest of us, is that we are caught up in the finite and attribute lasting significance to the world of action.  The person who cleaves to Gd effortlessly lives infinity while the very surface values of mind and body are engaged with their mental and material counterparts on earth.  R. Meir is telling us to let go of the finite and dive into the infinite ocean of bliss – Gd’s reward for the righteous.