"The Death of Korah, Dathan and Abiram" by Gustave Doré, 1865
"The Death of Korah, Dathan and Abiram" by Gustave Doré, 1865

Bad apples come from bad barrels

The Torah column is supported by a generous donation from Eve Gordon-Ramek in memory of Kenneth Gordon.


Numbers 16:1–18:32

We find the Rabbi of Chelm upside down. His feet are waving in the air and from the waist up (down?) as he is deep into a barrel of apples.

“What are you doing?” we asked.

He replied, muffled: “These apples have been in this barrel too long and I can smell rot. If I don’t remove the rotten apple, the rot will spread. It’s what Rabbi Huna (Sanhedrin 7a) taught: ‘Strife is like a crack in a water pipe that keeps getting wider.’ If you don’t fix it, it keeps getting worse. This barrel has been neglected and this is what happens. I need to fix it.”

“Can we talk about this week’s Torah portion while you are apple hunting? It’s our appointment.”

“Sure,” came the voice from the barrel. “Now Korach, son of Izhar son of Kohath son of Levi, betook himself, along with Dathan and Abiram sons of Eliab, and On son of Peleth — descendants of Reuben — to rise up against Moses, together with 250 Israelites, chieftains of the community, chosen in the assembly, men of repute.

“They combined against Moses and Aaron and said to them, ‘You have gone too far! For all the community are holy, all of them, and the Lord is in their midst. Why then do you raise yourselves above the Lord’s congregation?’ When Moses heard this, he fell on his face.”

“Rabbi, is this the notorious and infamous uprising against Moses?”

From deep in the barrel: “Yes. And speaking of fruit, do you all remember the teaching from Pirkei Avot and correct and incorrect argumentations?”

“Indeed, we do. It’s Avot 5:17: ‘Every controversy that is for the sake of heaven will bear fruit. Every controversy that is not for the sake of heaven will not bear fruit. What is a controversy for the sake of Heaven? That of Hillel and Shammai. One not for the sake of Heaven? That of Korach and his followers.’”

The Rabbi of Chelm emerges victorious from the barrel, holding several apples in different stages of decay.

“Right. But these days we need to continue reading on, to the next teaching, or rather, a continuation, Avot 5:18: ‘One who leads the people to virtue will never be the cause of wrongdoing. One who leads the people to wrongdoing will never be allowed forgiveness. Moses was himself virtuous and led the people to virtue, so the people’s virtue was credited to him, it is said (Deuteronomy 33:21): He carried out the justice of the Eternal, and his judgments are with Israel. Jeroboam went wrong and let the people astray, so the people’s wrongdoing was blamed on him, as it said (First Kings 15:30): For the wrongs that Jeroboam committed and that he caused Israel to commit.’”

“Who is Jeroboam? Isn’t that a big bottle of wine?”

“Yes, but that is not the point. This is: Jeroboam was the first king of the northern Kingdom of Israel, following a revolt of the 10 northern Israelite tribes ended Solomon’s legacy, pitching the north against the south and reintroducing idolatry. He led the people astray. The beginning of the end.”

“What does this have to do with Korach?”

Putting the rotten apples in the compost, the Rabbi of Chelm opened to Numbers 17:6:

“Next day the whole Israelite community railed against Moses and Aaron, saying, You two have brought death upon the Lord’s People!

“Now the Israelites are rotting. Following the failure of leadership in last week’s portion (The 12 “Spies,” 13:1-15:41) and rise of and fall of Korach and his band of rebels, there is more resentment and malcontent. Even though these Israelites escaped from Egypt, saw the Red Sea, witnessed Sinai, following Korach, they will not enter The Land.

“You see, there are no ‘rotten apples,’ there are only bad barrels. The apples are like the Israelites. At first, some were bystanders, far from the rot, some were witnesses, closer but unaffected, some were collaborators, spreading the rot, and a few, at first, were perpetrators. Unchecked, the whole thing rots.”

“Wow. Then what happens?”

The Rabbi of Chelm smiled. “Here, we need a new barrel. There, in next week’s Torah portion, a new generation rises up.

Rabbi Peretz Wolf-Prusan
Rabbi Peretz Wolf-Prusan

Rabbi Peretz Wolf-Prusan lives and works in Berkeley, California. He can be reached at [email protected].