Parshat Korah: The unholy trinity of envy, greed and the pursuit of honor

רבי אלעזר הקפר אומר הקנאה והתאוה והכבוד מוציאים את האדם מן העולם
משנה אבות 4:28

Rabbi Elazar Hakapor says: Envy, Greed and the pursuit of Honor
remove a person from this world.
Pirkei Avot 4:28

In a previous column (which I will add at the end of this essay) I discussed why Korah coveted Aaron’s role rather than that of Moses. After all, if one wants to be numero uno one seeks to unseat Hertz not Avis.

But first let us try to understand what might have prompted Korah to be covetous of anything that Moses or Aaron possessed in the first place. After all, neither was materially well to do, and their jobs were onerous to say the least.

Legend has it that Korah was by far the richest Israelite. Materially, he wanted for nothing. And, as a Levite, he had hereditary status as well, the same as Moses and certainly leagues above that of the vast majority of ordinary Israelites.

As well, it is puzzling that he would collude with the likes of Datan and Aviram, two lowlifes whose rap sheets were legendary. What would an august Levite, the son of Kehat, and a billionaire to boot, be doing in the company of riffraff like Datan and Aviram?

Rashi attributes this odd collaboration to the fact that Korah and Datan and Aviram were neighbors. “Woe to the wicked person and woe to his neighbor” Rashi warns.

I can speak form personal experience that it is inadvisable to live next to an evil person. However, this is not because one might be tempted to follow in that individual’s footsteps. Rather, it’s because having a bastard for a neighbor is hardly a salubrious situation. Indeed one would hardly expect a Korah to view the likes of Datan and Aviram as role models.

I would suggest that the bonds of fellowship between the august Korah and his nasty neighbors may have had more to do with shared business interests. We can infer from the text that Dotan and Aviram were wealthy men in their own right. And being the sort of characters they were, no doubt their wealth was ill-gotten.

How can we make such an inference? Because the Torah slips in the fact that those two did not reside in mere tents, like everyone else. Rather, they, like Korah’s family, lived in actual houses. Such structures must have been extremely rare considering the Bedouin lifestyle that prevailed for the Children of Israel during their 40 year sojourn in the desert. The Torah always refers to the domiciles of the itinerant Israelites as אהלים tents. This use here of the word בתיהם is, to the best of my knowledge, a singular exception.

ותפתח הארץ את פיה ותבלע אתם ואת בתיהם
And the earth opened its mouth and swallowed them and their houses.
(Numbers 26:32)

Korah’s mistake was not that he was Dotan and Aviram’ physical neighbor. Over this he had no control. Instead, the common denominator was wealth and the tendency of the wealthy to do business with one another. For, as we never cease hearing, ‘money has no smell’. Rare is the sacred institution that does any due diligence regarding the source of a donor’s largesse. And even people with otherwise peerless reputations often do business with rogues. Because, after all, business is business.

Such mergers and acquisitions often lead to opportunistic marriages between the families’ respective offspring, whose daughters in turn marry the sons of rosh yeshivas and famous rabbis (exceptions notwithstanding) Unless, of course, their homes get swallowed up by the earth – a rarity.

And so Rabbi Elazar Hakapar, one of the less referenced Tannaim of the Fifth Century has enriched us immeasurably by his pithy quote which sums up everything that was wrong with Korah – he was jealous of Araon, he was greedy to the degree that too much was never enough, and he lusted for kavod; to be not merely a kohen but the Kohen Gadol. Any one of these three distasteful attributes can doom a person. As an unholy trinity the results can be catastrophic not only for the guilty party but for 14,700 otherwise blameless Israelites. For so besotted were they by the status of Korah that they continued to lionize him even after his demise:

וילנו כל עדת בני ישראל ממחרת על משה ועל אהרן לאמר המתם את עם ה״
And on the following day the entire congregation of Israel complained to Moses and to Aaron saying; “ You have killed the people of the Lord:
(Numbers 17:6)
ויהיו המתים במגפה ארבעה עשר אלף ושבע מאות מלבד המתים על דבר קרח
And those dead from the plague numbered 14,700 aside from those who died for the matter (deed) of Korah (Numbers 17:14)

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Why did Korah lust for Aaron’s role rather than that of Moses?

(originally published June 29, 2016)

Much has been written about Korah, most of it speculative, conjectural, fantastic. But the one question which is not asked is why did Korah want to replace Aaron rather than Moses. After all, if he felt he was the right man for leadership why settle for vice president if the presidential chair was begging for a more suitable candidate?

As well, the job of the High Priest would appear much more mundane and demanding than that of an all-purpose leader. A High Priest must remain pure at all times. His conjugal options are limited. His presence in the Tabernacle is mandatory, and his sacral obligations are time consuming, time sensitive, and not always pleasant.

By contrast, Moses’ job description is far more fluid. He could come and go as he pleases. He could speak his mind. He has no defined office hours. And he doesn’t have to slaughter animals, sprinkle their blood and turn ashes as part of his job description.

What we do know about Korah is that we was very rich, perhaps the wealthiest Israelite in the desert. The Talmud regales us with descriptions, perhaps fanciful, of his thousands of pure white donkeys laden with treasure locked in impregnable bags with special leather keys. Surely a man like this had enough. Why would he want more? What could he possibly want with the burdens of the priesthood?

The same question might be asked of the Borgias, the rapacious family of Spanish oligarchs who usurped the papacy in the 15th and 16th Centuries. Of what possible interest could the high priesthood of Roman Catholicism have for men who already had it all?

The key to understanding Korah’s challenge lays in the very fact of his preference for Aaron’s job rather than that of Moses.

To a mogul like Korah, the fundamental difference between Moses and Aaron was that Moses’ title was not hereditary while Aaron’s was. Moses could not bequeath his title to his progeny. Aaron could. Ultimately there is much greater power in a hereditary fiefdom than in a closed-ended term of office.

For Korah this meant that the Kehuna, the priesthood, like personal wealth, could be passed on to future generations. And the combination of money and priestly prestige would make it virtually impossible – so he thought – to undo his dynasty. The concentration of material power on the one hand and spiritual power on the other seemed unbeatable — and only he had both the pedigree and the means to pull it off.

The Borgias did exactly the same during the Renaissance. They used their money, influence and utter lack of morals to seize control of the Vatican. They violated every vow of celibacy, poverty, and obedience in order to enjoy both temporal and spiritual power, including having children who would fill key ecclesiastical, military and commercial positions.

Had Korah succeeded in his quest, he would have been the Pope Alexander VI of his time — a corrupt high priest with unlimited funds, answerable to no one and free, if it suited him, to indulge in adultery, simonytheftrapebriberyincest, and murder, as he saw fit.

Wealth and the power of wealth can lead some to a life of noblesse oblige and a sense of responsibility for the greater welfare of society. Sadly, this is the exception. More often, wealth leads to excess, especially an excessive sense of entitlement. More is never enough: More money. More things. More power.

Above all, unbridled wealth leads to a desire for immortality, which can only be achieved through dynastic continuity.

Money alone is no guaranty of such continuity. Economies shift. Mistakes are made. Generational fertility can dilute the loot. But the priesthood, well that is something else entirely. Because the Jewish priesthood is genetic. The children of Aaron would be priests forever. And priests have power. For Korah, like for the Borgias, claiming the priesthood was the only way to consolidate power in a manner that would guaranty immortality, by giving his children and grandchildren for all generations – regardless of their intellectual or spiritual gifts – power over the entire nation of Israel.

This might explain why he challenged Moses and Aaron to begin with, and why it was Aaron’s portfolio that he coveted specifically.

About the Author
J.J Gross is a veteran creative director and copywriter, who made aliyah in 2007 from New York. He is a graduate of the Hebrew University in Jerusalem and a lifelong student of Bible and Talmud. He is also the son of Holocaust survivors from Hungary and Slovakia.
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