Elli Schwarcz – Korach, the Sun and the Moon


Our Torah portion contains the infamous rebellion by Korach against Moshe and Aharon. Let’s begin with the verse that quotes their (misguided) point of contention:

They assembled against Moshe and Aharon, and said to them, “You take too much upon yourselves, for the entire congregation are all holy, and Hashem is in their midst. So why do you raise yourselves above Hashem’s congregation?”
-Korach, 16:3

-With these words, Korach (along with the people he had gathered) publicly challenged Moshe’s leadership and decision- making, arguing that Moshe had unfairly favored his brother Aharon by choosing him as Kohen Gadol. Moreover, Korach claimed, Moshe should not either be in charge, because Bne Israel were holy and so did not need the brothers’ oversight.

Interestingly, Aharon’s appointment was not Korach’s original complaint. Rather, his campaign started because he felt that Moshe had passed him over for a position that should have been his: Nasi (leader) of the Kehat family:

He was jealous of the Nasi position of Elitzafan ben Uziel… Korach said: ‘My father was one of four brothers, as it says,

And the children of Kehat: Amram, Yitzhar, Chevron, and Uzziel. -Divre Hayamim

Amram was the firstborn, and so his two sons received greatness [-representing the double portion of the firstborn]; one (Moshe) is the king and one (Aharon) is the Kohen Gadol. Who deserves to take the second portion? Is it not I, since I am the son of Yitzhar, who was the second (born,) after Amram? Yet he (Moshe) appointed the son of the youngest brother! I will argue with him and invalidate his words!
-Rashi (from Midrash)

– Although Korach argued over the Kohen Gadol position, this (the Nasi position) was what had caused him to begin fighting in the first place.
-Sifsei Chachamim

-Perhaps this is what Rashi means, then: Korach’s arguments- the ones he made publicly, with the support of Datan, Aviram and 250 important men- were about Moshe and Aharon. He was able to rally some level of public support because these complaints were supposedly for the benefit of the people. However, his underlying motivation really came from a more personal agenda: his claim to the Nasi position.
If this is correct, we have arrived at a simple but powerful insight: all of Korach’s arguments were biased by his own self- interests. Korach saw the Nasi issue as just an example of a claim he believed in- that Moshe, though the greatest tzaddik and most worthy of leading the nation, was still human- and his decision-making could not be trusted. But in fact, Korach- until now himself a great man- had been misguided by his own biases, convincing himself in the process that he was acting for the sake of Heaven. In short, he was acting exactly like the spies!*

-And it goes even further. Not only did Korach’s self- interests affect his judgment, but it also caused him to characterize Moshe as biased- toward his brother Aharon- again, similar to the spies’ misjudging of Yehoshua. How careful must we ordinary people be with our own judgment!

Let’s shift our focus to an interesting Gemara concerning Moshe and Korach. Before we examine the following teachings, remember that many expressions here require explanations in their own right; Hashem is not found in only one particular place, the sun and moon don’t really talk, and Hashem is Perfect and does not do wrong. For now, we can still learn lessons from the simplified expressions our Rabbis use- if we are careful enough about it. (Questions about these specific points are always welcome.)

The sun and the moon went up to Hashem’s Heavenly place and told Him:
‘If You don’t do justice for the son of Amram (Moshe), we will stop shining!’
From that day on, Hashem shoots arrows at the sun and it goes out every day.
-Gemara Nedarim 39a

-This story needs a lot of work on our part; we’ll start our analysis this week, and hopefully finish it next week.
Here we go:

  • Why was it specifically the sun and moon that came to Moshe’s defense, more than the rest of Hashem’s creations?
  • How could they ‘threaten’ Hashem- and what is the meaning of their ‘threat’?
  • Why does Hashem shoot arrows at the sun, and why not the moon also?

The great Chasam Sofer offers the following explanation:
The concept of Idol worship evolved gradually over time. At first, people began honoring the sun, moon and similar things because they believed that Hashem was too great for them to connect with. Better, they reasoned, that they should honor His ‘representatives’- and this would ultimately honor Him. Eventually, people began to make images of the ‘representatives’ which they could worship always- giving them the convenience of a constant ability to remember and connect to these entities. Still later, people forgot about the connection to Hashem, and served these images as idols in their own right (see Rambam, Avodah Zarah 1:1).
Korach reminded Moshe of this piece of history and told him: ‘True, your face shines of holiness and you are compared to the sun, but there can be no go-betweens. Just as honoring the sun led to worshiping it, so will the honor Bne Israel gives you lead to terrible things.’ –Even though Moshe, more than anyone, had always taught that people are capable of ‘connecting’ to Hashem and that we must honor Him and nothing else, Korach twisted things, accusing Moshe of receiving honor at the expense of God. Because Korach sinned by using the sun and moon as a comparison, it was they who demanded he be punished.

A different Gemara concerning the sun and moon will help us further clarify their role in defending Moshe against Korach.

Said the moon to Hashem: ‘Two kings can’t have one crown.’ (itself and the sun could not both ‘rule the skies’.)
Hashem told it: ‘So go minimize yourself.’
The moon answered, ‘Master of the World: ‘Because I said something logical [that two equivalent lights cannot coexist], I should minimize myself?’…
Said Hashem: ‘The Tzaddikim (righteous people) will be called by your name [-they will be called ‘small’ just as you are being made smaller]: Yaakov the Small, Shmuel the Small, David the Small…’
-Gemara Chullin 60b (abridged)


-And it was at that point that the moon was appeased.

The Ma’or Veshemesh connects the two teachings: Korach’s claim was that everyone in Bne Israel should be treated as equal to each other, and so one Jew should not rule over another. Such a claim was very relevant to the sun and moon, as they told Hashem:
If You agree to Korach’s theory, You accept the idea that everyone should be treated as equals, regardless of status. If that’s true, then two kings should be able to share one crown after all– and so the moon’s original claim is really incorrect, because both of us could shine at the same time! -So then why should we shine differently from one another anymore?’

-Wow. And it gets more interesting. Here’s a verse discussing the sacrifice that we must bring in the Beit Hamikdash on Rosh Chodesh, the first day of the lunar month:

And one goat for a sin- offering, for Hashem…
-Pinchas, 28:15

[-Our Rabbis point out that this almost sounds like it’s Hashem Who needs to bring a sin- offering.]
Hashem says: ‘It’s incumbent upon Me’ to bring a sin- offering, because I minimized the moon.’
-Gemara Shavuot 9a

-Again, Hashem does not sin. As the Mesores Hashas puts it:  ‘Certainly, these are Kabbalistic secrets…’
– Rather, as the Rif (a great medieval Torah authority) explains, Hashem is telling us:
So that the moon will be consoled (for having been minimized), perform this sacrifice of forgiveness in its merit (i.e. ‘bring a special, communal version of the sin- offering at the beginning of each lunar month’).’ (See also Tosafot there)

The Ner David takes this Gemara, as well as the Ma’or Veshemesh’s connection between Korach’s claim and the sun and moon’s history- and explains yet another Talmudic teaching. The teaching concerns the fate of those who were punished along with Korach, and were swallowed into the ground:

Those swallowed along with Korach call out every month,
‘Moshe is true, and his Torah is true!’

-Gemara Bava Batra 74
Rashi: ‘every month’: each Rosh Chodesh.

-Why does Rashi say this monthly occurrence was specifically on Rosh Chodesh? Answers the Ner David: the special Rosh Chodesh sin-offering reminds us that the moon’s claim that two kings cannot share one crown was correct; Hashem ‘needs’ to appease it through this sacrifice because He had minimized the moon- based on this argument. –And so the sacrifice-and the day it is brought on- reveals that Moshe was also correct: every person or entity must be regarded by his/her own level and not as automatically equal to everyone or everything else!

-Incredible. There’s a lot to process so far; let’s try to go further on this topic next week.
Have a great Shabbat!

*Here’s a quote from the Korach edition of Torah Themes, 2013:
The problem: he was also demanding a higher position for himself while denying Aharon’s privilege of being the Kohen Gadol.- In other words, although there may have been truth in his argument, it was ruined by his own personal involvement and bias in the process. His wish could never be accepted because it was doomed from the start by self- interest; only an argument for the sake of Hashem can be accepted and have lasting influence.


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