How Korach’s rebellion applies to today’s riots
The tale of Korach’s rebellion is so compelling, that we are usually distracted from either delving farther into its subsequent passages, or, more significantly, from questioning its outcome.
Never mind that there were at least two other rebellious figures – Datan and Abiram – challenging Moses’s leadership, or that Korach was actually more concerned with Aaron and his levitical/priestly privileges. How quickly we forget that Aaron, Miriam, and indeed the entire people were complaining about Moses not that long before [Parshat Beha’alotecha; Numbers 11-12]! The name Korach has become synonymous with that of a bitter complainant, whose subsequent punishment was richly deserved.
Briefly, the story-line commences with the verbal gauntlet thrown at Moses, and at Aaron: “You have too much [power]! The entire community is holy, all of them, and Adonay is in their midst. Why then do you raise yourselves above Adonay’s assemblage?” [Numbers 16:3]
The story’s climax – rather, a series of climaxes – comes after Moses tries unsuccessfully to placate the challengers.
Moses warned the people not to challenge him. He said if you do this you will die and then they did.
Many were swallowed up and buried in the earth by a supernatural force. Others were consumed by fire. The idea was that the people were supposed to get the idea that Moses did not order on his own, that Moses’s order came straight from G-d.
Instead, the broader community then picked up the rallying cry, saying to Moses and Aaron, “You have brought death upon Adonay’s people” [Numbers 17:6], in effect, now look what you two have done! Does this sound vaguely like you shot a criminal who was resisting arrest-LETS DEFUND THE POLICE!
To try to placate Adonay’s anger at the people, which descended in the form of a devastating plague that consumed over 14,000 before Aaron was able to mitigate the disaster.
The parsha blithely proceeds by examining priestly and levitical responsibilities, internally re-asserting – according to many rabbinic commentators – the correct order. Of twelve tribal staffs that had been placed in and then removed from the Tent of Meeting, Aaron’s, representing the Levites, burst forth with almond blossoms. The Divine response is as succinct as the initial challenge: “Put Aaron’s staff back in front of the gathering; let this be a lesson to the rebels, so that their grumblings come to an end, and that they not die.” [Numbers 17:25]
The rabbis, in trying to fill in some of the gaps in the story, notably the lack of explanation for Korach’s motives, imagine him challenging Moses to a halakhic duel, debating the laws of ritual fringes, or the declaration of a person to be ritually clean. In the context of this latter discussion, they have Korach declaring: “The Torah is not from Heaven; Moses is not His prophet nor Aaron his priest.”
This phrase is instantly evocative of another Talmudic passage, in which R. Eliezer ben Hyrcanus, who is prevailing in a halakhic debate, calls upon the heavens to prove that he is right. As in the Korach tale, supernatural manifestations occur. A carob tree is uprooted and flies about. A river flows backward. The very walls of the beit midrash are caused to slant dangerously. Even a bat Kol cries out, assailing those who would challenge R. Eliezer’s indisputable halakhic authority.
Here, one of the challengers, undaunted by the voice from heaven, stands up and quotes a similar sentiment to that attributed to Korach: “The Torah is not in heaven, and we pay no attention to a divine voice.” Yet R. Eliezer is punished with ex-communication, despite the rectitude of his assertions.
Yes, they concede, Korach was a man of great subtlety. He knew and used the Torah well to gain a foothold and challenge prevailing wisdom. He had also been passed over for leadership within his own family. [Num. R. 18:2]
The lesson we are supposed to learn from this Torah portion is that Moses was unique and his Torah is straight from G-d. Nothing more dramatic than predicting the earth would open up and then it did could be more dramatic to make the point. Unfortunately, the people didn’t get it and still don’t.
Here is another bright idea that didn’t work out so well:
The board at Congregation Beth Jacob decided that the stone which formed the step up to the front door had become too worn by its years of use and would have to be replaced. As a sign of the significant foot traffic of the shul’s members over the years, the stone had a pronounced dip in the middle, well-worn by shul members coming and going.
Unfortunately, there were hardly any funds available for the replacement. Then someone came up with the idea that the replacement could be postponed for many years by simply turning the block of stone over.
Unfortunately, after they employed the bright idea, they discovered that their great-grandparents had beaten them to it.