Is Korach a rebel or a Rebbe?

“They gathered against Moshe and Aharon 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?’” (Bamidbar 16,3).

Are we really surprised when we read this week about a rebellion against Moshe and Aharon? The nation has been decreed to die in the desert, and though they are promised that their children will still enter the promised land, the sense of hope that has carried the Nation of Israel since their miraculous redemption from Egypt has suddenly disappeared. 

The time is truly ripe for rebellion, but who will dare stand up and challenge the leadership, and really God, even at this mournful moment? Is this to be an uprising of the people, or an attempted coup by the elites? And what is going to be their claim for usurping power? Will it be a vote of no-confidence in their leadership based on their failures, or will there be another claim?

“Now Korach, son of Yitzhar, son of Kahat, son of Levi, took, along with Datan and Aviram sons of Eliav, and On the son of Pelech — descendants of Reuven — to rise up against Moshe, together with two hundred and fifty Israelites, chieftains of the community, chosen in the assembly, men of repute” (Bamidbar 16,1-2).

Before we hear one word about Korach’s plans for a rebellion, we can learn quite a bit about him simply from his lineage. Moshe and Aharon are sons of Amram, who is the firstborn of Kahat; Korach is the son of Yitzhar, the second born. And the third son of Kahat is Uziel, who happens to be the nasi, or the family leader. So Korach is actually Moshe and Aharaon’s first cousin, and his uncle is the nasi. Yet Korah himself seems to have slipped through the cracks, never receiving any familial or national leadership role.

The passage then reads that Korach took three descendants of the tribe of Reuven. What does it mean that he took them? He didn’t physically take them, but rather he persuaded them to join him. But based on what?

Think back to Bereishit and the sons of Yaakov. Who was Yaakov’s first-born? It was Reuven, born to him by Leah. But Reuven did not enjoy a special status based on his birthright. Yosef, the firstborn of Rachel, was given the status of the firstborn. Yehuda was given kingship, and Levi was given priesthood. Reuven was passed over not once but three times. 

And what of the third group mentioned: the chieftains and the men of repute? These were not the salt of the earth commoners. They were all leaders of the community who held positions of power. 

Some power, but seemingly not enough power. 

Though the text doesn’t tell us how Korach persuaded these men to join him in his attempt to overthrow the leadership, we see a common thread between them all, including Korah himself. They all held prestigious positions within the community; but in one way or another, they were all subordinate to the leaders above them. 

And so what was their claim against Moshe and Aharon? From what angle did they attempt to overthrow the leadership and usurp greater power for themselves?

“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?” (Bamidbar 16,3).

The criticism is not of failed leadership; it is of leadership in any form. Since we are all holy, and God rests in the camp, then no one can elevate himself over the other. 

The irony in their claim is striking. The very men who are attempting to unseat Moshe and Aharon from their roles and take these positions of greater power for themselves are claiming that hierarchy does not exist. Indeed, it’s a brilliant claim, one that would both allow them to take the power they have been longing for, as well as rally the masses to their cause. Which of the people will stand up and argue that they are not holy?

Moshe and Aharon’s response is heartbreaking: they simply fall on their faces in anguish. These rebels are not strangers; Moshe and Aharon know them intimately. And because Moshe has no words to respond to these claims, he turns to God.

And so God answered the next day with a jarring response: “and the earth opened its mouth and swallowed them up with their households, all Korach’s people and all their possessions” (Bamidbar 16:32).

The Maharal explains that Korach, Datan, Aviram, and On were swallowed by the earth and sent into oblivion because their claim held no truth; in the deepest sense, they had no ground to stand on. 

And for the rest of the 250 men, a fire went forth and consumed them. You could say that God used a scorched earth tactic against them, leaving nothing of their claim.

We could stop here, and have a very nice, neat tale to tell. Korach is the bad guy in the story, and Moshe and Aharon are the good guys, and good wins out over evil. But I think we would be remiss if we didn’t dig a little deeper. 

The Chassidic Masters refer to Korach as the Heiliger Zeide, Yiddish for the Holy Grandfather. Why would they honor the villain of the story with such a title?

It has to do with the way they looked at the Torah itself. They did not see the stories in Torah like a Hollywood action film with the hero and the evil criminal battling for supremacy. They saw the Torah as an expression of Divine truth with endless levels of meaning. And because every word of the Torah is holy, even the words from the mouth of the villain are precious, not only because they teach us what not to do, but because they hold something deeper within them if we only peel the layers away. 

In this light, let’s look anew at Korach’s claim. He claims that God dwells in the community equally, and that everyone is sacred. True, those statements were weaponized in order to usurp power. But if we take these words from their ill-intended context, we find a sacred truth from the mouth of Korach. We are all equal in the eyes of God. We are all holy; everyone has a spark of the Divine within them. 

True, Korach’s attempted rebellion had nothing to stand on; but his words, his holy words, resonate in our ears long after his demise: you are all holy. And the Chassidic masters were convinced that we not only learn the lesson of his mistakes, but also that we hear the deeper truth in his words. After all, is not Korah the great teacher that all of Am Yisrael is holy, and God dwells within all of us? Is that not what the Torah is teaching us as well?

It’s a different take on the famous maxim of the Rambam: Accept truth from whomever you hear it. And it’s something that we can apply to our own lives as well. Are we open to accepting truth when it comes from an unexpected or unreliable place? If Torah and truth can come from the mouth of a rebel, can we be open to accepting truth from wherever it may come? 

What do you think? Are you willing to accept truth from whomever you hear it, even if their other viewpoints are false or even twisted, or only from a true and trusted source?

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Brought to you by the RRG Beit Midrash Program, the spiritual home for Hebrew University students on campus.

About the Author
Rabbi Yonatan Udren is the Co-Director of the RRG Beit Midrash at the Hebrew University Hillel, which offers Jewish educational programming for overseas and Israeli Hebrew University students from all backgrounds and denominations.
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