FIRST ALIYAH– Israel’s growing despondency resulting from G-d’s declaration that the people of that nation will die in the desert rather than enter the Promised Land encourages an insurrection led by Korah, a cousin of Moshe and Aaron, and joined by Moshe’s foes, Datan and Aviram as well as 250 community leaders from the tribe of Reuven. Korah challenges the rights of Aaron and Moshe to their positions of leadership in the community, charging nepotism, and a lack of recognition of the rights of ordinary Israelites to positions of importance.
It is interesting to note that though Korah figures prominently in this parsha named after him, the verbal challenges to Moshe and Aaron are carried out by Datan and Aviram. Rashi alludes to Korah’s enticing the people of Israel to side with him against Moshe and Aaron by engaging in a personal campaign to garner support in his revolt against them. Rashi refers to Korah’s perspicacity and wisdom in anticipating that his descendants shall indeed figure prominently in the Jewish community in the future, thereby setting the page for Korah’s desire to allow that prominence to be visited on him personally.
Rashi cites numerous Talmudic sources in demonstrating Korah’s disdain for his cousins by citing examples designed to show the alleged preposterous direction of certain laws such as mezuzah and tzitzit, and challenging Moshe to respond to these claims of derision. Moshe, according to the text of the parasha, declares that those in Korah’s group should bring offerings of incense, and Aaron as well, to see which offerings are accepted by G-d. Despite entreaties to Datan and Aviram by Moshe to cease and desist from their nefarious attachment to Korah’s insurrection, they refuse to budge from their positions.
SECOND ALIYAH-The second Aliyah continues with the description of the conflict between the followers of Korah with Moshe and Aaron. Datan and Aviram sarcastically point to the desert as their ‘land flowing with milk and honey’ The Ibn Ezra comments that had indeed Moshe taken the people of Israel immediately into a rich and fertile land, there would never have been a revolution.
Moshe’s reaction to the complaints of the Korah group is personal, and he is unforgiving. His anger is further kindled as Korah proceeds to lobby disparate groups within the Israelite community to side with him against Moshe and Aaron. The last sentence of this Aliyah points to the success of his demagoguery.
THIRD ALIYAH- Moshe intercedes on behalf of the people of Israel when Hashem announces He will destroy this ‘evil congregation.’ Moshe pleads that only those who are primarily involved in this insurrection should be punished, and that the overwhelming majority of Israelites are unwitting accomplices. Moshe then prefaces the impending doom awaiting Korah and his group, by stating that a punishment unseen before will be proof that Hashem has decided on the rightful leaders of the people of Israel. The earth opens up and swallows Korah’s group, and the 250 Reuvenite followers are consumed by fire.
FOURTH ALIYAH– As a result of this supernatural event, the people of Israel panic and fear that G-d has intentions of destroying all of the people, and pin their anger on Moshe. A plague breaks out, killing many thousands. Moshe urges Aaron to use incense as a means of warding off of the plague. It is interesting to point out that incense was used in the beginning of the parasha to determine who truly were the leaders of the people of Israel Moshe had urged the complainants to offer incense, as Aaron would, and Hashem would determine whose incense was acceptable before Him, or not. Aaron’s incense offering was accepted.
As a result of the use of incense in relation to the outbreak of the plague that afflicted many thousands of Israelites, the tradition has arisen that in the days of Covid-19, one should read carefully the paragraphs in the opening pages of the Shacharit and Mincha prayers the Pitum Haketoret, the Mishnaic account of the use of the eleven spices needed for the production of incense.
FIFTH ALIYAH- Despite the occurrences cited above demonstrating Hashem’s selection of Moshe and Aaron to lead the people of Israel, there is still a very large amount of dissension among the population against the two brothers. Moshe declares that each of the heads of the tribes of Israel should take a staff and inscribe his name on it. Aaron shall do the same. The one staff that sprouts forth buds shall indicate that its owner is the deserved leader of the people of Israel. Aaron’s staff sprouts forth almonds.
The almond is rabbinically understood as cited by Rashi and others sprouts very quickly to indicate that Hashem’s punishment of those who challenge the authority of Moshe and Aaron is swift. Aaron’s staff is preserved for posterity.
SIXTH AND SEVENTH ALIYAH– The Torah provides a list of the 24 priestly gifts, and those that belong to the Levites. Included in these Torah sections is an account of the description of the Pidyon Haben of first born baby boys on the thirty first day after natural birth. We read as well about the various mitzvot concerning the guarding of the Mishkan and later the Temple. The Chinuch points out that the concept of the guarding of the Mishkan is not a mechanism to ward off invading armies, but is a symbol of respect and honour accorded to the sanctuary. We are further told that the Kohen shall not perform the functions of the Levite, and the Levite shall not perform the functions of the Kohen. The gifts given are in exchange for the fact that the Kohanim and Leviim do not receive ancestral land in the land of Israel