Parshat Korach 5780: What’s Really Behind Shevet Reuven’s Beef Causing Them to Join With Korach?

Shalom Friends;

This week, our Parshat HaShevua Korach is being sponsored by Dr. Eliyahu and Shuli Gherman of Ramat Beit Shemesh and dedicated in honor of the recent Bar Mitzvah of their son Shimon Aryeh.. To the Gherman family, many thanks for your sponsorship and continued kindness.

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Moshe Burt
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Parshat Korach 5780: What’s Really Behind Shevet Reuven’s Beef Causing Them to Join With Korach?

by Moshe Burt

Rav Shmuel Goldin, in his sefer “Unlocking The Torah Text,” Sefer Bamidbar (page 155) renders the opening posuk of our Parsha which spells out the groupings which made up Korach’s assembly, each with their respective “axe to grind”:

“Va’yikach Korach ben Yitzhar ben Kehat ben Levi…” “And Korach the son of Yitzhar the son of Kehat the son of Levi took [separated himself — as rendered to English in The Sapirstein Edition, Torah With Rashi Commentary], as did Datan and Aviram the sons of Eliav and On the son of Pelet, the offspring of Reuven…” (Sefer Bamidbar, Perek 16, posuk 1)

The Torah, Rashi explains, informs us that Korach, through his actions, “took himself out of” (separated himself from) the community. (Rav Goldin citing Rashi on Sefer Bamidbar, Perek 16, posuk 1)

According to most transcripts of his commentary, Rashi quotes a second possibility based on Midrashic sources. (Rav Goldin citing Midrash Rabbah Bamidbar, Korach 1; Midrash Tanchuma Bamidbar, Korach 1) Korach “took” others with him. Through the persuasive power of his words and the strength of his personality, he convinced the legal leaders of the community to join in his insurrection. (Rav Goldin again citing Rashi on Sefer Bamidbar, Perek 16, posuk 1)

There was, of course Korach, a first-born of the Kehat family of Shevet (Tribe of) Levi with his jealous, political lust for power framed in portraying Moshe Rabbeinu and Aaron HaKohen as nepotists because of Aaron’s appointment as Kohen Godol, a position Korach coveted. Then he (Korach) felt passed over in favor of his cousin Elizaphan ben Ammihud who was appointed the Nasi of Kehat, making him (Korach) subordinate. (Note: Torah Vort by Rabbi Scott Ressler of the Jeff Seidel Student Center)

Sefer Shem Mishmuel says of Korach that he seemed to resent that Moshe was the leader of B’nei Yisrael, that Aaron was the Kohen Gadol and that he was not the one appointed head of the Children of Kehath, his branch of the priestly family. Korach’s motivations were complex, the layers of discontent behind his abortive challenge to the leadership numerous as is discussed by the great commentators. (Sefer Shem Mishmuel on Parsha Korach, page 335)

There was Shevet Reuven, Datan, Aviram and On in particular, who still carried resentment over Yaakov’s transfer of firstborn inheritance privileges to Yosef over Reuven’s defilement of his father’s bed.

Aside from Shevet Reuven’s resentment over firstborn inheritance privileges, another deeper issue bothered them, as well as all firstborn of B’nei Yisrael. Again, Rav Shmuel Goldin, in his sefer “Unlocking The Torah Text”, Volume 4 on our Parsha explains (page 146):

Central to the uprising is the deep discontent rising out of an event rooted at Sinai: the transfer of ritual privileges [priestly service] from the firstborn Israelites to the Levi’im as a result of the firstborns’ participation in the sin of the golden calf.

The premise below was always accepted by this author at face value:

Yaakov Aveinu, in his Brachot to his sons, withdrew the rights of the first-born from Reuven due to the incident regarding the bed; giving Yosef the birthright, the kingship to Yehuda and seemingly withdrawing the merit of the Priesthood from Reuven and giving it to Levi.

However, both The Midrash Says (Sefer Sh’mot, Parsha Tetzaveh, page 277) and Yehuda Nachshoni’s Studies in the Weekly Parashah indicate that the first-borns retained the Kehunah up until the sin of the eigel when, as Nachshoni puts it (Sefer Breish’t, Parsha Vayechi, page 312):

…The tribe of Levi… came to the defense of Hashem’s glory with [after the sin of — MB] the Golden Calf.

But now, an internet search indicates that there were reasons behind the transference of the Kehunah to Shevet Levi after the eigel zahav (golden calf).

Rabbi Ari Kahn* writes in a piece online entitled: Aharon, the First Borns, and the Sin of the Golden Calf based on “The Selection of Aharon” by R. Ari Kahn*, citing Keter Yonatan, and Shem MiShmuel on Sefer Bamidbar:

And he sent the first-born of the People of Israel, for up to that time the ritual service was in the hands of the firstborn, for up to that time there was no Tent of Meeting and up to that point the Kehuna had not been given to Aharon. And they [the first borns] brought burnt offerings and peace offerings before Hashem. [Source: Keter Yonatan]

The Shem Mishmuel notes that the sinners here are …the firstborn [citing Rashi on Sefer Shemos, Perek 24, posuk 5]. It is they who turn this sanctified and critical moment [Har Sinai] into a celebration of the senses, eating and drinking in the face of Hashem’s Presence. Their brazen behavior may account for the shift in language: while at first they are sent by Moshe as na’arei, young men, somehow innocent and not fully mature, they are all too soon referred to as “nobles”, or perhaps ‘aristocrats’. This second title is unique in the Torah; as a descriptive title, it reflects their own feelings of superiority which may have led to their tragic error in judgment:

During this ecstatic religious experience they were looking at Hashem while eating and drinking. When we realize that the next time we find such “eating and drinking” is in the context of the sin of the Golden Calf, the implication becomes painfully clear: Those who led the way, who were privileged to behold Hashem, as it were, developed an insatiable desire — to look at Hashem.

They became intoxicated with this experience, and hungered for a continued audience with Hashem. The one-time scene at Sinai was not to be replicated, but for these firstborn it became addictive, and this addiction was deadly. At this point their punishment was left in abeyance, and they were not struck down for their transgression, despite having been previously warned against such behavior. [A similar explanation is found in the Artscroll Stone Chumash, Sefer Shemos, Perek 24, posuk 5 and commentary on pages 441-442]

When this same transgression was repeated at the foot of the mountain, complete with food drink, and exacerbated by the addition of a “replacement” image of … [the Divine] — a pathetic calf of gold — it was the firstborn who led the people in this ecstatic experience. It was then that they were replaced.

Their unique position [that of the firstborn] at the foot of Mount Sinai presented them with an opportunity to grow into the role of spiritual leadership to which they were born. Instead, they displayed haughtiness, and their sense of “nobility”, of entitlement, steered them astray. They mistook their own stature and status, believing they could forcibly re-create the vision which they were granted. Like Nadav and Avihu [by the inauguration of the Mishkan], they sought intimate contact with the Divine, on their own terms.

It would seem then that the lesson of Shevet Reuven and the first-borns for our times, and for all sectors of Am Yisrael, is not to see ourselves as superior to our brethren, to the other groupings within B’nei Yisrael. That just as Hashem is One, our emulation of Hashem necessitates the we are one.

May we, the B’nei Yisrael be zocha that our brethren — the refugee families from Gush Katif be permanently settled and be made totally whole — be totally restituted for all that was stolen from them and that the thrice expelled families of Amona be restored to their rebuilt homes, at government expense; both due to alt-leftist-agendized, supreme court legalized Yassamnik gunpoint. May our dear brother Jonathan Pollard be liberated and truly free, as Naama Issachar is now free and home — which can only occur when Jonathan is home in Israel and carrying for his ill wife Esther Yocheved bat Rayzl Bracha, and that the MIAs be liberated alive and returned to us in ways befitting Al Kiddush Hashem — as with the return in April, 2019, via Russia, of the remains of Zachariah Baumel, as should the remains of the two chayalim from the Gaza War of five and a half years ago. May we have the courage and strength to stand up and physically prevent the possibility of Chas V’Challila any future eviction of Jews from their homes and prevent Chas V’Challila the handing of Jewish land over to anyone, let alone to enemies sworn to Israel’s and Judaism’s destruction and eradication. May we fulfill Hashem’s blueprint of B’nai Yisrael as a Unique people — an Am Segula, not to be reckoned with as with “the nations” and may we be zocha to see the Moshiach, the Ge’ula Shlaima, as Dov Shurin sings; “Ki Karov Yom Hashem Al’Kol HaGoyim”, the Ultimate Redemption, bimhayrah b’yamainu — speedily, in our time”, — Achshav, Chik Chuk, Miyad, Etmol!!!

Good Shabbos!

*Rabbi Ari Kahn received his rabbinic ordination from Yeshiva University’s Rabbi Isaac Elchanan Theological Seminary where he studied with Rabbi Yosef Dov Soloveitchik. He graduated Yeshiva University with a BA in psychology and an MS degree in Talmud. He is Director of Foreign Student Programs at Bar-Ilan University in Israel, where he also is a senior lecturer in Jewish studies, he is also a senior lecturer at MATAN.
Moshe Burt, an Oleh, is a commentator on news and events in Israel and Founder and Director of The Sefer Torah Recycling Network. He lives in Ramat Beit Shemesh.