Saturday, June 19, 2021

In reading Parshat Korach, let us imagine Moshe Rabbeinu as an educator and the Israelites as a group of disruptive yet motivated students. The manner in which Moshe Rabbeinu engages with these students, and the learning opportunities he facilitates in order to unpack their questions, model the kind of educational environment we should strive to create for our students.

In the parsha’s opening scene, Korach and his band of rebels approach Moshe with a probing question. They are experiencing—and vocally expressing—doubts about the spiritual and political institutions of the day. They’ve lost faith in Moshe’s leadership, Aharon’s high priesthood, perhaps even in the very concept of divine chosenness. Regrettably, there is nothing refined about how they bring forth these issues. They don’t politely raise their hand or preface their words with niceties and disclaimers. They are brash, angry and rude.

Moshe Rabbeinu, as a dedicated educator, is able to identify the potential that lies within the political crisis, the authentic need veiled by the rebels’ aggressive language. He embraces the rebellion as a teachable moment, an opportunity to explore the uncertainties that trouble his students. Moshe’s commitment to engaging and teaching—rather than disciplining and suppressing—is on full display when Hashem threatens to punish the Israelites on account of the rebels. Rather than accept the easy way out, Moshe advocates and prays for his flock, eager to turn crisis into growth.

Let us now turn our imaginary lens from Moshe Rabbeinu’s general educational approach to the details of his practice. How does Moshe approach the teachable moment at hand? What teaching methods does he employ?

Moshe’s learning objective is, simply put, to reestablish the Israelites’ faith in the divine institutions of the kehunah (priesthood) and leviyah (the holy service of the Levites). Curiously, to achieve this objective, Moshe facilitates not one but two learning opportunities.

In the first learning opportunity, which we will call the ketoret lesson, Moshe invites the 250 Israelite leaders in Korach’s camp to participate in a competition, a “trial by fire” of sorts. The rules are simple. Each member of Team Korach is to bring forth a ketoret (incense) offering. Moshe and Aharon will do the same. The winner will be the team whose ketoret offerings are accepted. The second learning opportunity, which we will refer to as the matot lesson, is also a “gamified” learning experience. Moshe instructs the 12 nesiim (tribal chieftains) of Israel to place their matot (staffs) in the Ohel Moed (Tent of Meeting). The winner this time will be the person whose staff blooms overnight. Both learning opportunities end with Aharon as the clear victor. In the ketoret lesson, Aharon’s offering is accepted, while the rest of the challengers are consumed by a heavenly fire. In the matot lesson, only Aharon’s staff blooms and bears fruit.

What did Moshe gain by facilitating two similar learning experiences with seemingly identical outcomes? Why was the first lesson not enough?

The medieval commentators offer a number of compelling explanations for this duplicity. Ibn Ezra suggests that the ketoret lesson alone had proven inconclusive. According to Ibn Ezra, the Israelites did not view the burning of the 250 men as a definite affirmation of Aharon’s chosenness. They explained it away as a punishment for the sin of ketoret zarah (the offering of “foreign” incense). Ramban, by contrast, argues that the ketoret lesson was more than just inconclusive, it was incomplete. According to Ramban, Adat Korach brought forth a dual challenge: They contested both the elevated role of the leviim and, seperately, the rarefied status of the kohanim. Each argument merited its own refutation, and Moshe aptly responded with a two-part lesson plan: Part one, the ketoret lesson, refuted Adat Korach’s challenge to the kehunah by showing that only Aharon’s ketoret was accepted. Part two, the matot lesson, rebutted the challenge to the levites’ role by showing that only the levite staff bloomed.

When observing the lessons side by side, another key distinction comes to focus, one that emphasizes not the different content being taught but rather the methods being employed in order to teach the same content. Arguably, the ketoret and matot lessons taught the same thing but, critically, created two distinct learning environments within which the Israelites could internalize the material.

The ketoret lesson engaged the Israelites in a real-life learning environment. It involved an authentic, hands-on encounter with the ketoret offering, a ceremony that was performed daily regardless of the Korach uprising. The stakes at hand were very much real-world too, with participation bearing the risk of committing a severe transgression and even death itself.

The matot lesson, by contrast, was a controlled classroom-like learning environment. It was an experiment conjured specifically for the purpose of refuting Adat Korach’s claims, and took place strictly within the confines of the Ohel Moed. And while technically there were winners and losers, the energy level of the matot lesson resembled that of a methodical lab experiment when compared to the high-adrenaline atmosphere of the ketoret lesson.

The stark difference between the learning environments of the ketoret and matot lessons is reflected in the manner in which they were memorialized for future generations. In both cases, Moshe is instructed to preserve a physical artifact related to the lesson. Yet the mode of preservation and its purpose differ significantly. After the ketoret lesson, Moshe is told to repurpose the sacrificial pans to serve as plating for the Copper Altar. This practical and highly visible use is aligned with the real world learning of the ketoret lesson. Indeed, the stated purpose is “zikaron l’vnei Yisrael, a reminder to the Israelites” (Bamidbar 17, 5), a device for conjuring the visceral memories created by the real-world environment of the ketoret lesson. Then in the aftermath of the matot lesson, Moshe is instructed to keep Aharon’s staff in the Ohel Moed “l’mishmeret, for safekeeping” (Bamidbar 17, 25). The staff is stowed away in a holy yet inaccessible archive, available only as a reference resource. Once again, the artifact’s treatment echoes the learning environment of the original lesson.

Moshe Rabbeinu’s two-part lesson plan teaches us that a complete educational experience must provide both types of learning environments. A real-world learning environment is authentic and engaging but is also, as the commentators highlighted, susceptible to the unpredictability and incompleteness of the world. A controlled learning environment, on the other hand, guarantees thoroughness but lacks the excitement and energy of a real-world experience. Moshe’s dual methodology teaches us of the importance of nourishing our students with a balanced mix of learning environments. The controlled blooming of a classroom environment should always be infused with the exhilarating fire of the real world beyond.

Ben Zion Ferziger is a Hebrew teacher at The Idea School.

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