Multifaceted Motivations

Hibadlu mi’toch ha’eidah ha’zos v’achaleh osam k’raga (Bamidbar 16:21)

In order to publicly say certain parts of the prayer service, a quorum must be gathered, as the Torah commands (Vayikra 22:32): “v’nikdashti b’soch Bnei Yisrael — I shall be sanctified amongst the Jewish people.” The Mishnah (Megillah 4:3) rules that the minimum quorum necessary is 10 adult Jewish males. The Gemara (Megillah 23b) presents a somewhat convoluted derivation for this requirement, connecting the word b’soch to the word mi’toch in our verse, in which Hashem commands Moshe and Aharon to separate themselves from the evildoers so that He can destroy them.

The Gemara then compares the word eidah in our verse to a verse in Parashas Shelach, in which the spies who slandered the Land of Israel are referred to (14:27) as an eidah ra’ah — wicked assembly. Since there were 10 spies who slandered Eretz Yisrael, this teaches us that the minimum prayer quorum required to constitute an assembly in which Hashem’s name may be sanctified is 10.

Harav Yissocher Frand points out the irony in deriving the concept of publicly sanctifying Hashem’s name from a combination of the spies and the supporters of Korach’s rebellion against Moshe and Aharon, all of whom were guilty of terrible sins and whose conduct seems like the diametric opposite of a public sanctification of Hashem’s name.

Additionally, after Korach challenged Moshe’s authority and leadership, Moshe suggested that the dispute be resolved by challenging Korach and his 250 followers to prepare incense offerings, which they would offer to Hashem. Aharon would do so as well, and the person Hashem selected to serve Him would survive, while all of the others would perish.

As Moshe had warned, Korach and all his followers were killed, while the offering of Aharon was accepted. At that point, Hashem told Moshe to instruct Elazar to take the fire-pans in which Korach’s supporters offered their incense and make them into hammered-out sheets to cover the Altar. This is also difficult to understand. Why would Hashem permit these fire-pans, which were used as part of an attempt to discredit the legitimacy of Moshe and Aharon, to be used for such a holy purpose?

Rabbi Yaakov Luban of Edison, New Jersey, explains that human nature is to view events as either black or white, with no middle ground. Therefore, we view the spies and Korach’s followers as completely evil, with no redeeming qualities. However, Hashem, in His infinite wisdom, is capable of handling two contradictory concepts simultaneously, and at the same time that He punishes evildoers, He also discerns the positive motivations behind their misguided actions.

Although the spies sinned grievously in delivering their scurrilous report, their motivations for doing so were multifaceted and quite complex. Although they were certainly guilty of a lack of proper trust in Hashem and a deficiency in their love for Eretz Yisrael, they were also motivated by a desire to remain in the idyllic spiritual existence that they enjoyed in the wilderness, and by a concern that the nation would not be able to maintain the lofty spiritual level required to thrive in the Land of Israel.

In the case of Korach, although his primary motivation was a jealous lust for power, there was also a component of his rebellion that emanated from a sincere desire for more opportunities to serve Hashem through greater participation in the Divine Service in the Mishkan. Although Korach and the spies were sorely misguided in their execution, Hashem nevertheless recognized that their underlying yearning for closeness to Hashem was indeed holy, and they therefore play a central role in deriving the laws for a prayer quorum to publicly sanctify Hashem.

Similarly, Korach’s followers were killed for supporting his heretical insurrection against Moshe and Aharon. Nevertheless, in risking their lives for a 1-in-250 chance to become even closer to Hashem, they demonstrated a tremendous craving for kedushah (holiness). Although we would be inclined to reject their pans as invalid and impure, Hashem saw the desire for spirituality latent within them and instructed Moshe to utilize their pans to fashion a covering for the Altar.

Q:   The Gemara in Sanhedrin (109b) teaches that although On ben Peles was originally one of the leaders of Korach’s rebellion, his sagacious wife convinced him to withdraw from the dispute. She pointed out that he had nothing to gain from the fight, as even if Korach won, he would be just as subservient to Korach as he currently was to Moshe and Aharon. In what way was her argument considered wise and eye-opening, as it seems to be simply telling him things that were self-evident and that he knew already?

Q:    After the leader of each tribe gave a staff with his name written on it to Moshe, Moshe placed them in the Mishkan. The next day, only Aharon’s staff had blossomed, sprouting ripe almonds, thereby proving his legitimacy as Kohen Gadol (17:21–24). What other miracle did Aharon’s staff perform during that time that ensured that the other staffs wouldn’t sprout?

A:   Harav Chaim Shmulevitz explains that when a person is involved in the heat of an intense conflict, his emotions are so strong that they overpower his rational thinking process. Under such circumstances, insights that would normally be considered straightforward and self-evident must often be provided by an objective and uninvolved party, in this case On’s wife.

A:    The Baal HaTurim notes that the verse states that Aharon’s staff was placed among matosam — their staffs. This word is also used in Shemos 7:12, where the Torah records that after Pharaoh’s sorcerers turned their staffs into snakes, Aharon’s staff swallowed matosam. The word is used in our verse to teach that just as Aharon’s staff swallowed the other staffs in Egypt, so too did his staff swallow the staffs of the other tribes, and for this reason, only his staff blossomed.

When Moshe removed his staff, it expelled all of the others, and for this reason, the word mattos is written chaser (without the letter vav) to hint that at the time that Moshe removed them, there was only one staff to take out.

Originally from Kansas City, Rabbi Ozer Alport graduated from Harvard, learned in Mir Yerushalayim for five years, and now lives in Brooklyn, where he learns in Yeshivas Beis Yosef, is the author of the recently-published sefer Parsha Potpourri, and gives weekly shiurim. To send comments to the author or to receive his Divrei Torah weekly, please email