Why didn’t the Israelites rise up against the rebels who dared defy Moses, the selfless man of God who gave up a luxurious and carefree life as Prince of Egypt in order to liberate a slave people from tyranny?
Reading between the lines of this amazing story, we discern two distinct ideological positions and political platforms, which between them represented the majority of Hebrews. Both these positions were antithetical to everything that Moses stood for and the adumbrations of the Korach Wars are still to be heard today, thousands of years later, festering at the very heart of Israeli society.
Before we analyze the exact nature of Korach’s rebellion, two factors should be kept in mind. First, the commandment to wear ritual fringes on four-cornered garments (tzitzit), which closed last week’s portion of Shelah, serves as an excellent introduction to and eventual rebuttal of the movements that Korach, and Datan and Aviram, represent.
Secondly, Moses’ announcement that the entire generation, with the exceptions of Joshua and Caleb, was condemned to die in the desert (Numbers 14:26-39) made the Hebrews ripe for rebellion.
Moses attempts to deal with Korach, and then with Datan and Aviram separately. This is not only to “divide and conquer”, but rather the Torah’s way to emphasize how they represent different approaches in their opposition, different “political parties” as it were.
Korach, called by the Kotzker Rebbe “the holy grandfather”, uses the democratic argument of “equality in holiness” against Moses and Aaron: “It has been enough leadership for you, all the people in the witness-community are holy with the Lord in their midst. Why must you set yourselves up to be on a higher plane than the congregation of the Lord?” (Numbers 16:3).
And if Korach sees no differences in holiness between different people, and rejects the unique status of Aaron and his sons as Kohanim, it stands to reason that he would also deny any distinction in holiness between different lands, refusing to recognize the special sanctity of the Land of Israel. After all, the Revelation at Sinai took place in the desert, outside the geographic boundaries of the land of Israel. If God is within all of us and the entire nation heard the Revelation – then the Lord of the cosmos is certainly within the desert, the very place where that Revelation took place.
Korach’s position rejects the Aaronic priesthood as well as the idea that the entire “desert-generation” must be punished for their refusal to conquer the Land of Israel. From Korach’s point of view, these are false claims instituted by Moses rather than reflections of the true will and word of God (see Moses’ defense of himself: 16:28). Moreover, Korach justifies the Israelites’ desire to remain in the desert precisely because of the desert’s holiness, an ideal and idyllic setting for living their lives. For Korach and his sympathizers, the desert is not the place of punishment, but a perfect and perennial Kollel institute of higher learning. God is their Rosh Yeshiva, communicating the “shiur” material to Moses. God also provides the daily portions of manna sufficient for their nutritional needs, He determines when the camp will travel and protects the people from the physical elements with His special “clouds of glory”.
Why leave this ethereal, spiritual haven for the wars, political arguments, economic crises and social challenges necessary to establish a nation state? For reasons of “frumkeit” (religiosity) alone, Korach argues that the Israelites are better off remaining in the desert-Kollel, freed from all decision-making and responsibility.
Moses is willing to call Korach’s bluff. He instructs him to take his entire party of 250 men the next day and to provide each of them with a fire-pan and incense for a special “priestly” offering to see whose offering would be acceptable to God. The Divine decision was not long in coming: “A fire came down from God and it consumed the 250 men who were offering the incense” including Korach himself! (16:25, Ibn Ezra ad loc)
Even if Korach’s quest for “desert- Kollel sanctity” had been sincere, it did not reflect God’s mission for Israel. God wants us to establish a nation-state and to take responsibility to perfect an imperfect world, with all of the challenges that entails. This is the message of the ritual fringes: the white strings represent the white wool of the sheep, the animalistic aspect of our lives and our world. These must be sanctified by the sky-blue color of t’chelet, the symbol of the Divine seen by the elders at the time of the Revelation at Sinai (Exodus 24:10). When we gaze upon the ritual fringes, we must remember our true mission: to enter history, to risk impurity by taking up the challenges of the real world, and to assume our responsibility to become a “sacred nation and kingdom of Priest-Teachers” to the world (Exodus 19:6 S’forno ad loc).
Datan and Aviram had a different political agenda. They refused to attend a meeting with the greatest prophet and the most successful liberator in history, claiming: “Isn’t it enough that you brought us out of Egypt, a land flowing with milk and honey only to kill us off in the desert? With what right do you rule, yes rule, over us?!” (Numbers 16:13) The Midrash identifies them with the old enemies of Moses from the beginning of the Book of Exodus, the “fighting Israelites” who questioned Moses’ right to kill the Egyptian taskmaster. They never wanted to leave Egypt in the first place, but unlike Korach, the last thing they want is to remain behind in the desert. They hanker after the “flesh pots” of Egypt. They would love to assimilate into the “Big Apple.” They remember the “… fish, cucumbers, melons, leeks, onions and garlic” of Egypt and they believe that this desert fiasco justifies their earlier opposition. They are certain that if they could only return to Egypt and forget their Biblical traditions and values; they would be accepted as Egyptians and benefit from the material advantages of the most powerful country in the world.
They too are punished by God, who causes the earth for which their materialistic spirits yearned so mightily, to swallow them up alive (Numbers 16:35 Ibn Ezra ad loc). Because of their passion for physical pleasures, they never learn to look properly upon the t’chelet of the ritual fringes. They saw neither the royal blue of their majestic ancestry – Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, passionate followers of God and lovers of the Land of Israel- nor the sapphire blue of the Divine presence in the world summoning us to His service.
A leading voice in the Modern Orthodox world, Rabbi Shlomo Riskin is an educator, social activist and author who serves as Founder and Chancellor of the Ohr Torah Stone network of pioneering men’s and women’s institutions. He is also Chief Rabbi of Efrat, Israel, and the founding rabbi of Lincoln Square Synagogue in New York City. He earned semicha from Rabbi Soloveitchik at Yeshiva University, and a PhD from NYU.