Naomi Graetz

Is it time for a coup d’état? Parshat Korach

As usual, the weekly parsha and the haftara are very relevant to current events. What is timelier than almost every member of our society’s involvement in complaints and protest against injustice? Even the Haredim, the ultra-Orthodox, have joined the demonstrations against conscription into the army. Welcome to the club! Every Saturday night, all over the country, there are demonstrations against the government. There are coalitions among those who organize, giving time to all voices, left, center and right. The radical left is allowed to be part of the protesters, as long as they don’t utter certain forbidden words, like “war crimes”, and if they do, the public screams at them and tries to take them off the stage. This actually happened last week in Beersheba. [Since we are off the national grid, we live in the periphery after all, it was not picked up by the newspapers]. And what do we have in this week’s parsha? We have unity between some religious tribes (the Levites) and secular leaders (the tribe of Reuben) in the struggle for political power. It’s a regular soap opera: accusations and denial of corruption by both sides; collective drastic punishment (fire and earthquake) of the offenders by the “legitimate” rulers. And in the end, we should not forget that we will be stuck for a long time with a government not of our choosing, i.e. kingship (in the haftarah).


In this week’s parsha, Korah, who is Moses’s cousin (from the Levi family) rebels. Just like Miriam and Aaron in last week’s parsha, they ask why he and Aaron think they are better than the rest of the family: “why have you raised yourselves up over the rest of us?” (Numbers 16:3). Moses who is upset tells Korah and his followers that God will choose: “In the morning, the LORD will make known who is His, and whoever is holy He will bring close to Him” (vss 5-7). It’s interesting that Moses needs the time to answer them; perhaps he thinks they are not totally wrong in their demands. At any rate he puts off an immediate answer; he procrastinates. Unlike in the case of Miriam and Aaron, God doesn’t jump out and immediately chastise them and give Miriam a temporary case of leprosy. But then Moses adds the following:

“Listen, pray, sons of Levi. Isn’t it enough that the God of Israel separated you from the rest of the community of Israel to bring you close to Him to do God’s work and to serve the community? And He brought you close, and all your brothers the sons of Levi with you. And will you seek priesthood as well?” (vss 8-11)

It would seem that Moses’s Levite family reasonably resent that their branch was not chosen to be priests and that whatever work they were given as Levites was not enough to satisfy them. They want more power and authority. Moses is incensed; he protests, claims he is innocent of corruption when he turns to God and says: “Do not accept their offering. Not a donkey of theirs have I carried off, and I have done no harm to any one of them.” (vs 15) Moses says he has done nothing wrong to justify this rebellion and that they are all ingrates. And why does he have to declare his innocence, and point out that he is not corrupt? Doesn’t that sound a bit like today’s politicians both here and abroad? Is this merely a family (both personal and political) power struggle, similar perhaps to that which Moses had with his siblings a few chapters ago (Numbers 12)?


Midrash Tanhuma makes a connection between the prophet Samuel who faced a similar situation when the nation demanded a king. The midrash points to the similarities of Moses’s and Samuel’s statements. In the haftara of this week’s parsha there is a similar situation, though much later in the history of the people of Israel. The prophet Samuel is not happy about abrogating his own power to a king, but he has no choice and puts up a brave front. One of the reasons he has to give up his power is that his own sons, who were judges took bribes and perverted justice (1 Samuel 8:1–3). When the people demand a king, he reluctantly chooses Saul, partially based on his looking the part.

In the coronation speech, like Moses, Samuel says:

Whose ox have I taken and whose donkey have I taken, whom have I wronged and whom have I abused, and from whose hand have I taken a bribe to avert my eyes from him? I shall return it to you!” (vs 3).  And they said, “You have not wronged us and you have not abused us, and you have not taken a thing from any man.” He then goes on with the history of the Israelite community and how they always complained about their leaders and now “here is the king you have chosen, for whom you have asked, and here the LORD has put over you a king” (vs. 13). But the success of the monarchy is contingent on their being faithful to God and behaving themselves. He then performs a miracle, calling on God to send rain “and the LORD sent thunder and rain on that day, and all the people feared the LORD greatly, and they feared Samuel as well” (vs 18).

This of course scared the people and they were afraid for their lives in that they had “added to their offenses an evil thing to ask for a king” (vs. 19) Although the haftara ends by Samuel reassuring the people, it leaves out the ending of the chapter which is a warning to the people:

“fear the LORD and serve Him truly with all your heart, for see the great things He has done for you. And if indeed you do evil, both you and your king will be swept away.”

In this way as Robert Alter notes in his commentary to his translation:

Samuel upstages the king whom he has just helped the people to confirm in office. It is true, his argument runs, that you have made the sinful error of choosing yourself a king. (Samuel of course makes no allowance for God’s role in the choice, which might express grudging divine recognition of a new political necessity).That cannot be reversed, but never fear—I will still be here to act as the intercessor you will desperately continue to need.

The choice of our sages to connect the rebellion of Korah and his “edah” and Samuel’s warning about kingship is timely for us as well. When vox populi creates a king (even one not anointed by God and by democratic choice) we are opening ourselves up to all possible abuses. And when and if we change our minds, it is too late. All the protests in the world cannot change what we the people have expected of our leaders.  The question is of course, do we suffer in silence? Do we rebel? Or do we wait until the next election and hope that there will be some form of democracy left at the end of the road. Are we secretly praying that there will be an “earthquake” a coup d’état that will save us from our leaders and banish them to the underworld where they cannot harm us? And let us never forget one major difference between Samuel and Moses and our corrupt leaders today. Neither Moses nor Samuel put into their pockets any bribes: Samuel says:

“Whose ox have I taken and whose donkey have I taken, whom have I wronged and whom have I abused, and from whose hand have I taken a bribe to avert my eyes from him.”

And Moses makes it clear too that “Not a donkey of theirs have I carried off, and I have done no harm to any one of them.”  Unlike the former American president (who God forbid may win the election again in November) and our Prime Minister, they were never on trial for misdeeds. So perhaps Korah’s rebellion was misplaced.


In the biblical story Korah and his family were doomed. Yet in Psalms there are many references to the sons of Korah. It would seem that his family was not wiped out even though they were all swallowed by the earthquake. How did they survive? Apparently, according to the midrash, when they landed in Gehenna, they repented and rethought their rebellion and thus were able to climb out of hell when they understood that their father was wrong and repented. In the continuation of a very long midrash, we can understand the power of Korah and his rabble rousing and why it was important to shut him down. They basically accused Moses and Aaron of being corrupt. This could be the first instance of fake news; blaming those in power to confuse the people.

What did he do? He assembled the entire congregation, as it is said “And Korah gathered against them the entire congregation.” He began to speak disparagingly and said to them, “There was once a widow in my neighborhood with two orphaned daughters and she had one field. When she came to plow, Moses said to her ‘You shall not plow with an ox and a donkey together’ (Deuteronomy 22:10). When she came to sow, Moses said to her ‘Your field shall not be sown with two different kinds of seed’ (Leviticus 19:19).  When she came to reap and make a pile [of sheaves], Moses said to her ‘You shall leave [some stalks] for the poor and the stranger’ (Deuteronomy 24:19). When she came to make a threshing floor, he said to her, ‘You shall give tithes [of your crop] and [separate] terumah, tithes, first tithe, and second tithe.’ The righteous woman accepted [the ruling] and complied. What did she do? She sold the field and bought two lambs to clothe herself with their fleece and to enjoy their fruits. When Aaron’s firstborn son was born, he came to her and said, ‘Give me the firstborns, as the Holy One, Blessed be He, said to me “Every firstborn that is born in your cattle and your flock, the male [belongs to] Him”‘ (Deuteronomy 15:19). The righteous woman accepted [the ruling] and complied. When it came time to shear them, he said to her, ‘Give me the foreleg, cheeks, and stomach.’ She said to him, ‘Even though I slaughtered them, I did not escape from your hand. Behold, I am under a ban.’ He said to her, ‘Give [them to me], as the verse states (Numbers 18:14), “Every ban among the people of Israel shall be yours.”‘ He took [the portions] and went on his way. She left weeping, as did her two daughters. Such is the way of these [men], who taunt [others] and hang [their claims] on the Holy One, Blessed be He. [They have done] so much [harm], yet they still continue [to provoke] the Holy One, Blessed be He.


Korah’s claims are populist; he blames the elites for using their power and the halacha to take from the poor. There is some truth to his claims, and that is what makes his approach so dangerous. Despite his claim that he wanted the people to have power, it was he who wanted the power and was not willing to let go, but according to the midrash, he makes it look like he is doing it for their well-being and protecting them from the abuse of those who have the power. His attack on Moses is that not only did he take on the leadership role, but he engaged in nepotism, by giving the priesthood to Aaron (see Rashi on 16:3 and Ibn Ezra 16:3). On the other hand, since it is God who chose Aaron, anyone who rises up against him is rising against God. The ones who suffer are those who believe Korah’s interpretation of the law.

Today, we have many potential Korahs in Israel: The army; Ben Gvir, Smotrich and their ilk; the Haredim and many others.. From our Prime Minister’s perspective all of them are Korahs—and he is the besieged Moses whom they are all betraying. There are many conspiracy theories going around. In a recent headline, the PM’s wife Sara Netanyahu reportedly told hostage families that the IDF chiefs are planning a coup against her husband. The question is do we need more Korahs in the world?  Populism, grandstanding is the order of the day. Often the populist forgets him/herself as we constantly see when some minister forget that it is his or her job to be a responsible minister and engages in inflammatory rhetoric.  I believe we have reached an impasse; I believe that there are very few leaders we can turn to in these difficult times. The world is whirling out of control as W.B. Yeats famously wrote in the first stanza of his 1919 poem, “The Second Coming”.

Turning and turning in the widening gyre
The falcon cannot hear the falconer,
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.

It is up to us to choose how to handle this dangerous world.  The God of Deuteronomy gave us a choice:

See, I set before you this day life and prosperity, death and adversity. …But if your heart turns away and you give no heed, and are lured into the worship and service of other gods, I declare to you this day that you shall certainly perish; you shall not long endure on the soil that you are crossing the Jordan to enter and possess .I call heaven and earth to witness against you this day: I have put before you life and death, blessing and curse. Choose life—if you and your offspring would live… (Deuteronomy 30:15-19)

To me, “life” epitomizes the realization that life can be pretty awful and that there is a lot of arbitrariness in the world. However, we cannot give in to it. We have to make do with the cards we are dealt and then somehow move on.

May we all have a peaceful Shabbat and a better week.

About the Author
Naomi Graetz taught English at Ben Gurion University of the Negev for 35 years. She is the author of Unlocking the Garden: A Feminist Jewish Look at the Bible, Midrash and God; The Rabbi’s Wife Plays at Murder ; S/He Created Them: Feminist Retellings of Biblical Stories (Professional Press, 1993; second edition Gorgias Press, 2003), Silence is Deadly: Judaism Confronts Wifebeating and Forty Years of Being a Feminist Jew. Since Covid began, she has been teaching Bible and Modern Midrash from a feminist perspective on zoom. She began her weekly blog for TOI in June 2022. Her book on Wifebeating has been translated into Hebrew and is forthcoming with Carmel Press in 2025.
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