D’Var Torah By: Cantor Josh Breitzer

This week, as the Israelites continue wandering in the wilderness, Moses faces the most significant threat to his leadership since leaving Egypt. His distant cousin, Korach, gathers more than 250 individuals to challenge Moses and Aaron. If God dwells within the entire community, why do these two men “raise themselves” above everyone else?

The rest of Parashat Korach paints in vivid, violent detail the ways both God and Moses respond to the uprising. In keeping with the musical theme of this series, we notice seven instances of a particularly dramatic trope, more than in any other Torah portion. Numbers 16:26 contains one [in bold below]:

Vay’dabeir el ha’eidah leimor

Suru na

Mei’al oholei ha’anashim har’sha’im ha’eileh

V’al tig’u b’chol asher lahem

Pen tisafu b’chol chatotam.

וַיְדַבֵּ֨ר אֶל־הָעֵדָ֜ה לֵאמֹ֗ר

ס֣וּרוּ נָ֡א

מֵעַל֩ אׇהֳלֵ֨י הָאֲנָשִׁ֤ים הָֽרְשָׁעִים֙ הָאֵ֔לֶּה וְאַֽל־תִּגְּע֖וּ בְּכׇל־אֲשֶׁ֣ר לָהֶ֑ם

פֶּן־תִּסָּפ֖וּ בְּכׇל־חַטֹּאתָֽם׃

[Moses] addressed the community, saying, “Move away [if you please] from the tents of these wicked fellows and touch nothing that belongs to them, lest you be wiped out for all their sins.”

This trope on the bolded word above, called pazer, ascends quickly up the major scale and descends slowly back down, landing on a tone a bit higher from where it started. The word pazer is connected to the Hebrew root meaning “to scatter.” The verses themselves seem to be scattered across different references: Numbers 16:7 (“fire”), 14 (“even if”), and 26 (“if you please”); 17:3 (“those fire pans”), 17 (“from them [the Israelites]”), and 21 (“all their chieftains”); and, finally, 18:17 (“firstborn cattle”). But perhaps there is some pattern to be found in these places?

Since Moses is usually the speaker when the pazer trope occurs, perhaps this trope conveys the tone of Moses’s voice. The rapid rise and insistent fall of the melody demands our attention, sticking out from the rest of the Torah tropes in the portion. Might Moses be straining to make himself heard above what he and God both call the “rabble” of Israelites? Is this one of his coping mechanisms to maintain authority in the face of such harsh dissension in the ranks?

Another possibility is that the pazer expresses the mindset of the Masoretes (those who instituted the Torah trope system a millennium ago). Their decision to assign the pazer to several words throughout this parashah may be a midrash on the “scattering” of the community that takes place when people break into factions. The reiteration of the pazer might be meant to remind us how close the Israelites came to falling apart because of Korach’s uprising.

One more explanation for the preponderance of the pazer in Parashat Korach is rooted in the mind-body connection. Rabbi Myriam Klotz teaches of the Chassidic concept of pizzur hanefesh, “a scattered mind-state that is not grounded in the body.” Pizzurand pazer share the same Hebrew root. In the whirlwind of political one-upmanship and verbal jousting, I wonder how easily Moses got distracted from other tasks at hand. Could the pazer be an indication of Moses’s mental state during an incredibly contentious time?

As I wrote this commentary, I could certainly feel my own mind-state scattering at times. My to-do list was long and my attention was constantly diverted to other matters. But noticing the rise and fall of my breath, like the rise and fall of the pazer, helped me return to the task at hand. I remembered that, throughout the Torah, the pazer trope only ever occurs in verses which are longer than the norm; chanting its elongated melody physiologically requires more breath. Whether it was Moses’s pizzur haNefesh, his strident tone, or the Masorites’ warning against breaking into factions, the preponderance of the pazer trope in Parashat Korach surely carries with it a special significance. For now, I suggest it means that whenever we are feeling scattered, as a community or as individuals, we can always take a moment to breathe deeply, acknowledge our emotions, and bring ourselves back to the present moment. After doing this, what once felt scattered might feel a little more whole.