Korach & the destruction of society

Parashat Korach addresses issues of national crisis and leadership. Korach, a charismatic personality, captures the imagination of other influential men holding positions of authority. He cultivates a base of support from the tribe of Reuven on the southside of Mishkan. As Rashi wrote: “The tribe of Reuven encamped in the South of the Mishkan, thus being neighbors of Kohat and his sons, who also encamped in the South (cf. Numbers 3:29). The tribe of Reuven, then, joined Korah in his rebellion. “(Bemidbar 16:1)

The coalition of rebels were energized by a perverse, nostalgic vision of the past. Datan and Aviram confronted Moshe: “We will not go up to the Land of Canaan. You have brought us to this wilderness to die. You took us from the promised land, flowing with milk and honey, (Egypt), only to die.” (16:13-14). Datan and Aviram claimed that Moshe was killing them. Their bleak view of the present held no future for them. 

Korach must have been watching and listening carefully since Egypt. He must have sensed the deep undercurrents of anxiety and confusion many felt since embarking on Hashem’s journey towards freedom. Korach did not cause a crisis. He capitalized on deep feelings and beliefs that he knew were smoldering beneath the surface of the nation. Bene Yisrael had previously, on several occasions, expressed their lack of faith in God’s vision for them as a people. They complained during their oppression in Egypt. They complained at Mei Merivah after traveling for only three days in the wilderness. They complained at Kivrot haTa’avah when they felt unsustained by the Manna and demanded meat. But there was never an organized movement that manipulated these myoptic yearnings to return to some romantic past in Egypt. 

Korach rose to prominence precisely when he intuited the opportunity to sow seeds of divisiveness and fear. Rashi, quoting the Aramaic interpretation of the Torah text by Onkelos, emphasizes this quality of Korach’s character:

The Torah says, Korach took, [without specifying what or whom he took.] Korach took himself to one side for the purpose of separating himself from the community so that he might protest Moshe’s appointment of Aharon to the Kehuna, the priesthood. This is what Onkelos means when he interprets [the Verb, he took] by the word, ואתפלג — “he separated himself.” [In other words,] Korach separated himself from the rest of the community in order to maintain dissension.” (Rashi, Bemidbar 16:1)

The people were emotionally vulnerable out of fear. Leaving Egypt and traveling through an unfamiliar wilderness were daunting. The road to freedom with responsibilities required a vision of the future. It required faith and trust in the integrity of leaders to interpret that vision. It required feeling responsible for each other. But the people were used to enslavement only, and idolatry. Idolatry is the worship of an ossified image of life, where change is to be resisted, and leaps of imagination are dangerous. Idolaters cling only to what they think they see in front of them–even though what they believe as truth is falsehood.  Expectations for mutual responsibility feel threatening. Bene Yisrael must have asked themselves, understandably, “Where will my meals come from? What will the quality of my life be like? How will I live? At least in Egypt everything was familiar and known. We yearn for those “good ole days….”

Sensing these deep vulnerabilities, Korach builds his base. Interestingly, Rashi also quotes the Midrash Tanchuma, explaining that another implication of the phrase, Korach took, suggests that Korach infiltrated the judiciary: “Another explanation of ויקח קרח, Korach took, is: he seduced the judges of the Sanhedrin by fine words. The word, took, is used here in a figurative sense just as in  (Vayikra 8:2) “Take (קח) Aharon”; (Hosea 14:3) “Take (קחו) words with you” (Midrash Tanchuma, Korach 1).”(Rashi, Bemidbar 16:1)

Of all national institutions, the judiciary needs to remain disengaged from the political aspirations to power and control. Courts and judges need to protect the people’s ability to believe in the rule of law. Korach, according to the rabbis in this midrash, understood that.

Finally, Korach built his coalition through the perversion of language. His lies were so bold that they captivated the imaginations and hearts of his followers. Strategically, he simultaneously portrayed Moshe as corrupt, self-serving, and intellectually incompetent. The following confrontation illustrates these aspects of Korach’s rise to power: “What did Korach do? He arose and assembled 250 men, heads of the Sanhedrin, most of them of the tribe of Reuven who were his  neighbors…and his colleagues, and others with leadership positions…and he dressed them in robes of pure purple wool. They then came and stood before Moshe and said to him, “Is a garment that is all purple subject to the law of tzitzit or is it exempt”? Moshe replied to them: “It requires tzitziot.  Whereupon they began to laugh derisively at him: “Is this possible? A single purple thread exempts a garment of any other color. How can a garment that is all purple require that thread?!” (Rashi, Bemidbar 16:1, Midrash Tanchuma, Korach 2).

Korach employed drama, choreography, costume, color, and sarcasm, to deride Moshe, to delegitimize him and his capacity to interpret the Torah fairly and coherently. He claimed injustice. He claimed that Moshe had instituted an oligarchy: “Were we all not at Mt. Sinai?” asked Korach rhetorically. “Is not the entire nation holy?” But of course, Korach was not at all interested in the people. He was interested only in himself, his own power, his own popularity, and his own self-proclaimed greatness. The rabbis identify his ulterior motive clearly:

“And what motivated Korah to confront Moshe? He was envious of the princely dignity held by Elzaphan the son of Uziel (Midrash Tanchuma, Korach 1) whom Moshe had appointed Nasi over the sons of Kohath although this was by the express command of God (Bemidbar 3:30). Korah argued: “My father and his brothers were four in number — as it is said, (Exodus 6:18) “and the sons of Kohath were [Amram and Izhar and Hevron and Uziel]”. — “As to Amram, the eldest, his two sons have themselves assumed high positions, one as king and the other as High Priest. Shouldn’t I have been named Kohen Gadol? since I am the son of Izhar, who was the second to Amram amongst the brothers! And then, Elzaphan, the son of the youngest of the four brothers, was appointed as Nasi! [I have been completely skipped over!] I hereby protest against Moshe and will undo his decision.” (Rashi, Bemidbar 16:1)

Korach was manipulative. He was a liar. He professed injustice but was motivated by self-interest. He built a base of leaders and judges yearning for a romantic past that was built on enslavement and oppression. The future of the nation was held in the balance. Moshe’s leadership was weakened by this rebellion, as we will see in subsequent narratives.

Significantly, the very vision and future of the nation were threatened, not because of what Korach said, but because of feelings, beliefs and behaviors that were always there and which the people had not been able to confront themselves. They never freed themselves of their slave mentality. They never released themselves from a view of the past that was based on victims and oppressors. They were not able to look at their past and demand change. Korach knew that about the people. He knew that they did not have the strength, the convictions and the courage to embrace change. He capitalized on that weakness of spirit and failure of imagination and faith. Moshe saw this as well. That is why Moshe said to Hashem, “What we need is a new Beriah, a new creation! This nation needs to experience a social and political re-creation, parallel to the power and creativity of the creation of the natural world.” God opens the ground and swallows Korach’s base alive. The natural world, the Torah is teaching us, cannot allow humanity to perpetuate lies, oppression, manipulation, and idolatry. Ramban notes that this was not the first time that Bene Yisrael complained about their situation. However, this moment was different:

When Korach’s coalition said to Moshe, “Who put you in charge?” they violated two foundational values: they impugned the dignity of Moshe’s office and source of authority, and they implicitly rejected the authority of the Torah itself, the divine constitution of the Jewish people.“(Ramban, Bemidar 16:29)

Ramban recognized that the very soul and vision of the people, the identity of the Jewish people, was at risk. Korach’s duplicitous, self-serving, manipulative and self-aggrandizing reach for power would have undermined the covenant, the sacred relationship, between God and the Jewish people. 

Not only did the earth open its mouth, but Heaven also sent down a fire to immolate the 250 corrupt leaders. In addition, that fire also “annealed” the copper fire pans. (Annealing is a heat treatment process which alters the microstructure of a material to change its mechanical…properties. In copper, annealing is used to reduce hardness, increase ductility and help eliminate internal stresses.) Moshe directs Elazar the Kohen to take those softened fire pans, the very tool of insurrection, and hammer them around the altar. Now the mizbeach was laminated with the same material used to undermine the sacred values of the nation.  As the Bechor Shor noted, when the people would see that copper covering, they should realize the consequences of undermining the authority of the priesthood.

They do not. Instead, they accuse Moshe of murder. Their inability to see the impact of their behavior on the world brings a plague. We might say, “pandemic.” Here the Torah teaches us that political, societal, and natural, epidemiological disasters are all inter-related. Moshe directs Aharon to immediately run to the site of the outbreak with ketoret, incense, as a spiritual antibody. Only Aharon as high priest, the equivalent of today’s medical experts, could halt the infection. 

The people should have seen the copper covering and realized that they have a larger purpose in the world. They should have become aware of the importance of seeing beyond their immediate needs and returning to the foundations of society. Assaults on the truth, on the sacred vision and purpose of the nation, on the dedication to human freedom, compassion and justice, would result in burying everybody. True leadership, symbolized by the flowering staff of Aharon, supports life, safety, compassion, justice and equity for everyone. Aharon’s staff is not a statue, a monument depicting a romantic and distorted image of the past. That past was one filled with suffering and slavery. Aharon’s staff is a living symbol. It bears fruit. It flowers–just as true leadership must.

About the Author
Rabbi Dov Lerea is currently the Head of Judaic Studies at the Shefa School in NYC. He has served as the Dean and Mashgiach Ruchani at Yeshivat Chovevei Torah Rabbinical School, as the Director of Kivunim in Jerusalem, as the Dean of Judaic Studies of the Abraham Joshua Heschel School in New York, and as the Director of Education at Camp Yavneh in Northwood, New Hampshire. Rabbi Dov has semicha from both JTS and YU. He is married and is blessed with sons, daughters-in-law, and wonderful grandchildren. He loves cooking, biking, and trying to fix things by puttering around with tools.
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