Korach: Do we still need priests?


© 2017 by Rabbi Zvi Aviner
Torah Weekly Classes for the Children of Noah/
Parshat korach (Leviticus 24: 10-23)): Do We Still Need Priests?

1: A tough Challenge

At the beginning of the parshah we read:

• And Korah, the son of Yizhar, the son of Kehat, the son of Levi
• Took, and Datan, and Aviram and On the son of Pelet
• the children of Reuben, And they stood up before Moses
• And people from the Children of Israel, two hundred and fifty
• princes of the congregation, those summoned to meetings

• And they gathered against Moses and Aaron
• And they told them: It is too much for you!
• For the entire Congregation are holy and YHVH is inside them
• So why do you exalt yourselves over the congregation? (Numbers 16: 1-4)

You know the story: Korach, Moses’ first cousin from his older brother, stirred up a rebellion against Moses and against priesthood. The sages said that his was the toughest challenge that Moses ever confronted. In short, Korach assembled a large coalition of people who held a grudge against Moses of felt overlooked and humiliated by his reign; among them members of the tribe of Reuben, the firstborn son of Jacob, and 250 princes and Torah scholars.
What made Korach’s rebellion tough to overcome was his good logic. The Midrash brings forth many examples of his logical arguments against Moses. But the central point of his challenge was:

“For the entire Congregation are holy and YHVH is inside them
So why do you exalt yourselves over the congregation?” (Numbers 16: 1-4)

There are two main interpretations to his words:

2: Is holiness a springboard?

Korah said that the entire congregation is holy. In fact, at the end of the previous parsha, it is said about the four fringes: “you shall see it, and remember all the Commandments of YHVH and you shall do them…and you shall be holy to your ELKM “(Numbers 15: 29-40.) Hence, there is a prescribed path to become holy: do all the Commandments. Holiness can be acquired. So why do we need Aaron’s sons to be our priests?

Moreover, every Torah sage has YHVH in his heart. At CREATION, as told in Genesis Chapter one, Adam was made to invite the Merciful YHVH into his heart, where She would be “united” with ELKM. Well, Korach said, these 250 sages have YHVH IN them, in their heart. Why can’t they serve as priests? In fact, each can be his own High Priest. Why then do we need a separate class of priests? (Sfat Emeth.)
So why do you, Moses and Aaron, exalt yourself over the holy congregation?

Korach’s error
The sages noticed that Korach’s real motive was that he wished himself to be the high priest instead of Aaron. Yet his arguments had tooth. Moses had to answer them.
Prof. Y. Leibovitz, my mentor, writes that Korach’s error was that he saw his acquired holiness as a springboard for achieving a higher position. He thought that becoming holy has made him eligible for serving as a priest.

He failed to realize that: Holiness is a goal for itself, not to be used as a claim for anything else. (b) That priesthood is not holiness. The priest serves in the Temple as a “hand of HaSheM.” He is NOT our messenger. His position is not elected by the people.

In fact, the Torah instituted the Temple and its priests only as a concession to Israel after the Golden Calf. HaSheM saw that people of Israel at that time longed for tangible holiness, for temple and sacrifices no different than the entire world. He therefore allowed them to build a Temple, but only one. He allowed them to bring offerings, but only of few kinds, on one altar and done by one family: Aaron’s descendants.

It is as if HaSheM did not wish to make High priesthood a public post. The authority of the High Priest is limited; confined to the Temple’ premises. The High Priest has no legal authority or political power beyond the Temple’s walls. Had the Torah made the High Priest a public position, it would be sought after by politicians and readily corrupted.

In fact for a thousand years there was a prohibition to mix priesthood with kingship. The Judean king Uziah wished to serve as a High Priest, against the advice of his scholars, and was inflicted by leprosy.

The Maccabeus, a family of High Priests who toppled the Greek ruler of Judea (200BC) , were careful NOT to be named as kings. Only several generations later they corrupted and united Priesthood with Kingship. This unlawful act incited rebellion by the rabbis, with much bloodshed.

3: Holiness acquired and endowed
Another, Hassidic approach says the opposite. Korach’s error was his failure to realize that there are two sorts of holiness: (1) acquired (2) endowed from above. And they should not be confused.
It is true that every person may become holy, by following the path that Moses set up. By abiding with all the Commandments and by uniting YHVH with ELKM a person, any one, may achieve holiness.

But there is another type of holiness that is endowed from above. It is as if YHVH has entered the persons’ essence, his DNA, and endowed it by Her Holiness. This type of holiness is an expression of Her Love to this particular person.

When it comes to love, logic plays no rule. A young girl can face a room full of potential grooms, and they are all fine and eligible to become her husband. But she would prefer one of them over all others. Why? She can’t tell. There are no words to describe her feelings. And vice versa: a boy can face many beautiful girls, but he would select one as his soul match.

YHVH elected Aaron and his seeds to serve as Her hand. Throughout the story of Korach, YHVH does NOT explain why She preferred Aaron. Yes, She defends Moses authority, and even punishes Korach and his congregation, but She does not address his challenge about why Aaron? Moses falls speechless, and YHVH is speechless too. What could a girls say about her selection of her groom?

Korach felt that he DESERVED to be a priest. He came from the side of ELKM (Sefat Emeth.) But he failed to understand that priesthood comes from the side of YHVH. And YHVH opts by Love.

4: why do we need priests today?

If the Temple and its priesthood are a concession to Israel, a temporary solution to the generations’ spiritual level, than what about the role of priest in our time, when there is no Temple standing and operating?

Let’s remember that the priest’s task is not only to slaughter animals. The priests were in charge of teaching Torah, at least through the first Temple time. He priest had to listen to sinner’s confession, and think about it at the time he threw the offering over the altar. The Mishnah lists six mental ‘services’ that the priests had to perfume in his mind, without which the sacrifice is deemed an abomination (pigul.) he had to remember the name of the sinner, the name of the sin, the name of the offering, the pledge for the future, the name of HaShm and so on.

After the temple’ destruction, the rabbis declared that we can address our repentance (confession and pledge) directly to Hashem< without any need for intermediary. We do not need priests anymore to hear our confessions. We actually revert to the original goal of the Torah: to establish and sanctified a direct relationship between Man and his CREATOR.
If so, why do we still need priests?
Was Korah right?

We need priests for blessing
The answer is: we still need the priests for our BLESSING.
At the Temple, the priests also blessed the people once a day saying:

• May YHVH bless you and safeguard you (3 words)
• “May YHVH illuminate his countenance for you, and be gracious to you (5 words)
• “may YHVH lift his countenance to you and establish peace for you” (7 words)

YHVH Blessing to the people, and to the entire world, goes through the priests.
We do not have a Temple today,
we do not have animal offering today,
and we do need a human to listen to our confessions and deliver them to God,
but we still have our priests who bless us daily (in the Land of Israel) in the name of YHVH
They can do this, since they are the hands of YHVH,

Do Noahies need priests?
This has implication to the relationship between Noahides and Israel.
Israel is a Kingdom of Priests and a Holy Nation, serving the congregation of the Children of Noah.
Our priesthood is not a public office, a political post open for election.
our post is sanctioned by YHVH, who would BLESS ALL NATIONS THROUGH ISRAEL.
That is why Israel needs our priests,
And the nations need Israel as a priest.
And be sure: there is no better blessing to you, to the entire world, than the blessing of Israel.