Category Archives: Korach

Bar-Mitzvah sermon for Yoel Epstein

Yoel, I want to give you only one piece of advice. This advice is based on the unique combination of your name and your parasha. Yoel Binyamin, reader of Parashat Korach; which you read so beautifully yesterday.

Who was the Yoel of Tanach? Yoel was an unusual Navi, with a small book, only four chapters long, nestled in the middle of Trei Asar. His full name was Yoel ben Petuel and I believe I’ve found a connection between this full name and your parasha.

There is only one significant midrash about this little-known Navi. I will read it and you might understand why he was a little different.

Yoel the Navi recounts a terrible famine that afflicts the land of Israel. A plague of locust covers the land and destroys all food. Eventually the people repent and are blessed with food again. The Gemara in Taanit, Daf Heh amud Alef tells that midrash about Yoel.

Now remember, it was a time of a horrible famine. People were dying from hunger. They would rather eat the few measly grains they might find than put it in the ground in the hopes of living to see a harvest.

The Gemara says as follows:

That year, Adar passed and no rain had fallen. The first rainfall came on the first of Nissan, and the Navi said to the Israelites, “Go forth and sow.”

They asked: “Should one who has a measure of wheat eat it and live, or sow it and die of hunger?”

He answered: “Go!”

A miracle was made for them. The grain hidden in the walls by mice and in the antholes was revealed to them. They went out and sowed on the second, third and fourth of Nissan. The second rainfall came on the fifth of Nissan, and they brought the Omer on the sixteenth of Nissan. Grain had grown for them in eleven days.

In short, an unusual prophet with a rare and unusual miracle. Yoel was not a prophet that went with the crowd.

Binyamin. Your second name. Binyamin is a much better known personality. He was also somewhat unusual amongst the sons of Yakov. The only one born in Israel. The only one not part of the sale of Yosef. The only one who could bring peace to the family by reuniting the brothers. The one who merited having the Mishkan and the Beit Hamikdash in his territory.

Now what is the connection of Yoel ben Petuel, the Navi, to parshat Korach, our Yoel’s parasha?

The midrash in parashat Korach tells us about one more personality who didn’t go with the crowd: Onn ben Pelet.

Onn is mentioned in the very first pasuk of the parasha as an ally of Korach, Datan and Aviram, but is never mentioned again.

The Gemara in Sanhedrin Kuf Tet amud Bet quotes the famous midrash that Onn, thanks in large measure to his sharp and even courageous wife, separates from the crowd he was in and is thereby spared.

Onn ben Pelet and Yoel ben Petuel share the same exact letters, except for one – a yud. If you add a yud to Onn ben Pelet the survivor in the midbar, you get Yoel ben Petuel the navi and savior in Israel.

Just like in the parasha before, parashat Shelach, Moshe adds a yud to turn Hoshea into Yehoshua, thereby affording Yehoshua protection against the catastrophe of the Meraglim and ultimately preparing him for the leadership of Israel and the conquering of the land. So too, the character of Onn, who in a moment of clarity stepped away from a dangerous crowd and thereby avoided falling to the abyss, is transformed from merely a lucky guy with a smart wife to Yoel, a navi, a man who communes with God and brings His word to others.

Onn of the Midbar is transformed into Yoel of Israel who leads his people back to God, by going against the crowd. Furthermore, I think that Yoel can only come from Onn a man who turned his back on Korach, Datan and Aviram, though he had been previously enmeshed in all their plans.

Yoel ben Petuel comes from the crowd, knows the crowd, turns from the crowd, rejects the crowd and eventually, ironically, leads the crowd back to God and to physical and spiritual salvation.

So Yoel, the advice for you from all of this is, marry a smart woman.

But until then, don’t be afraid to choose your own path – that way lies greatness.

Mazal Tov.

Adulterous Power

Kli Yakar Numbers: Korach

Adulterous Power 

According to the Kli Yakar (Numbers 16:4), the great, holy Moses, the deliverer of the Torah, the Prophet of Prophets, the mortal to reach the highest levels of divine contact is accused of adultery. The Kli Yakar further explains that the antagonist of this week’s Torah reading, Korach, is the accuser and accuses Moses publicly. Though the basic text of the Torah makes no mention of such an event, the Kli Yakar teases out the meaning from in-between the lines, and states that Korach, while not having any evidence to base such a wild accusation, had a good understanding of human nature and that men in power do succumb to such temptation (hence the primacy of the 7th commandment “Do not commit adultery”, nestled between murder (6th) and theft (8th)).

It is therefore no coincidence that men of power are frequently accused and found guilty of inappropriate behavior in this department. The Kli Yakar says that one is a result of the other. The Talmud has at least two different references (Tractate Sotah 4b):  

“One who raises himself above others, in the end commits adultery,”

The second one is that:  

“One who raises himself above others, is as if he commits adultery.”

The reason for this, he explains, is that a man of power can’t abide to see others exerting authority. For a man of power even the normal authority of a man over a wife is one that he would seek to override. The man of power, ever hungry for more control, will seek to rule and conquer even the most intimate and sacred relationships of others. 

May we beware of those who exert power.

Shabbat Shalom, 



To all those accused of such misconduct. May the innocent ones be proven as such and may the guilty ones get their divine comeuppance.


Losing Gracefully

Numbers Hizkuni: Korach

Losing Gracefully

A child loses while playing a board game. In a fit of fury he flips over the board, sending the pieces flying in different directions. If such reactions repeat themselves, other children learn not to play with the petulant child. The child grows to be lonely, avoided, socially inadequate and ruled by his passions and anger.

In the power play between Korach’s followers and Moses a similar struggle unfolds. Rabbi Hizkiyahu ben Manoach (Hizkuni) explains that Korach’s group were nothing more than sore losers.

Hizkuni wonders as to the identity of the rest of Korach’s esteemed assembly. He answers that they were none other than Firstborns who had lost the honor and responsibility of serving in the Tabernacle. These Firstborns wanted to flip the board, scatter the pieces and reclaiming the role they had lost. Their inability to lose gracefully led them to an unnecessary and damning confrontation.

Winning rarely comes easy, but a clear prerequisite to winning at all is to know how to lose first.

May we be on the winning side of things, but when not, may we take it well.

Shabbat Shalom,



To pitcher Armando Galarraga of the Detroit Tigers. As reported, he threw a ‘perfect game’ but his amazing achievement was ruined by an erroneous call by the umpire. He nevertheless kept his cool. That’s the making of a real winner.

Polonius vs. Nachmanides

Polonius vs. Nachmanides

As my 14-year old son goes out for the first time to the broader world for the summer without parental supervision, I sought some worthwhile advice to impart to him.

One tidbit comes from Rabbi Ovadia Sforno.

In the rebellion of Korach, Datan and Aviram (Number Chapter 16), Moses warns the bystanders to stand aside and move away from the rebels. Sforno explains that even though the bystanders were innocent of any rebellion, this innocence would not protect them if they remained in close proximity to evildoing.

There are two more famous words of fatherly advice that literature has produced. One is the parting words of Shakespeare’s Polonius to his son Laertes in Hamlet, Act 1, Scene 3:

“The wind sits in the shoulder of your sail,
And you are stay’d for. There- my blessing with thee!
And these few precepts in thy memory
Look thou character. Give thy thoughts no tongue,
Nor any unproportion’d thought his act.
Be thou familiar, but by no means vulgar:
Those friends thou hast, and their adoption tried,
Grapple them unto thy soul with hoops of steel;
But do not dull thy palm with entertainment
Of each new-hatch’d, unfledg’d comrade. Beware
Of entrance to a quarrel; but being in,
Bear’t that th’ opposed may beware of thee.
Give every man thine ear, but few thy voice;
Take each man’s censure, but reserve thy judgment.
Costly thy habit as thy purse can buy,
But not express’d in fancy; rich, not gaudy;
For the apparel oft proclaims the man,
And they in France of the best rank and station
Are most select and generous, chief in that.
Neither a borrower nor a lender be;
For loan oft loses both itself and friend,
And borrowing dulls the edge of husbandry.
This above all- to thine own self be true,
And it must follow, as the night the day,
Thou canst not then be false to any man.
Farewell. My blessing season this in thee!”

The second stream of advice that I think is more comprehensive and interesting to compare is that of the non-fictional Ramban (Nachmanides) to his son Nachman. It is believed that the letter was written in Israel around 1267 in Acre (Akko), Israel and sent to Nachman in Catalina, Spain. The full letter is found in the back of many older siddurim. There are a number of books that give a more detailed analysis of this treasure that generations of Jewish father’s have passed on to their children. In contrast, Judaism has issues with some of Polonius’ philosophy, most notably on lending to the needy.

For those with limited patience for the Ramban’s medium-length but beautiful letter, I’ve summarized it below:

Listen my son, to the discipline of your father, and do not forsake the guidance of your mother:

–          Speak gently

–          Don’t get angry

–          Be humble

–          Fear God

–          Contemplate the above

–          Be in Awe of God

–          Guard against sin

–          Be happy with your lot

–          Let God’s spirit rest on you

–          Don’t be prideful

–          Remember, all are equal before God

–          Imagine you are always standing in front of God

–          Speak with reverence

–          Act with restraint

–          Respond gently to all

–          Study Torah diligently

–          Put learning into practice

–          Review your actions morning and evening

–          Purify your thoughts before prayer

–          Think before you speak

Review weekly

If you do so, heaven will answer your heart’s desires.

May our children be familiar with good advice, if not listen to it (and be able to tell the difference), and may we follow it ourselves for their sake, if not our own.

Shabbat Shalom,



To our son Eitan. A young man going to explore the world. God is with us. We just need to remember to be with Him.

For the full version of the Ramban’s letter, click here.